The Growth of the Colonies

A Diverse Population

Immigration and migration patterns in the early colonies were diverse and varied greatly from one region to the next.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the demography of early 18th-century New England and Pennsylvania

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • New England was settled by a highly educated, agricultural demographic, and its population grew rapidly due to favorable weather conditions that kept disease low.
  • The middle colonies were founded by many different ethnic and religious groups, aided by policies of tolerance.
  • Many of the frontier provinces saw influxes of immigrants due to the availability of cheap land.
  • Southern colonies were made up of a mix of indentured servants, wealthy elite, and slaves from Africa.

Key Terms

  • Philadelphia: Largest city in Pennsylvania, located in the southeastern part of the state along the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.
  • New England: Collectively, the six states of the United States colonized by the English in the 17th century, namely Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
  • frontier: A political and geographical term referring to areas near or beyond a boundary.

The Colonial Population

The population of the American colonies through the 18th century was primarily a mixture of immigrants from different countries in Europe and slaves from Africa. By 1776, about 85% of the white population in the British colonies was of English, Irish, Scottish, or Welsh descent, with 9% of German origin and 4% Dutch. These populations continued to grow at a rapid rate throughout the 18th century primarily because of high birth rates and relatively low death rates. Over 90% were farmers, with several small cities that were also seaports linking the colonial economy to the larger British Empire. As time went on, many new immigrants ended up on the frontiers because of the cheaper availability of land. By 1780, about 287,000 slaves had been imported into the 13 colonies, most into the southern colonies.

New England

In New England, the Puritans created self-governing communities of religious congregations of yeoman farmers and their families. High-level politicians gave out plots of land to male settlers, or proprietors, who then divided the land amongst themselves. Large portions were usually given to men of higher social standing, but every white man—who wasn't indentured or criminally bonded—had enough land to support a family.

The New England colonists largely originated from England, Ireland, and Scotland. They tended to include more educated men as well as many skilled farmers, tradesmen, and craftsmen. They settled in small villages, many for common religious activities, and Puritans initially dominated the region. The eastern and northern frontier around the initial New England settlements was mainly settled by the Yankee descendants of the original New Englanders. Between 1742 and 1753, roughly 1,000 Germans settled in Broad Bay, Massachusetts (now Waldoboro, Maine). Many of these colonists later moved to Boston, Nova Scotia, and North Carolina.

Shipbuilding, commerce, and fisheries were important in coastal towns. New England's healthy climate (the cold winters killed the mosquitoes and other disease-bearing insects) and abundant food supply resulted in the lowest death rate and highest birth rate of any of the colonies. Education was widespread in the northern colonies, which had established colleges led by Harvard College, College of New Jersey (Princeton), and Yale College, while the College of William and Mary trained the elite in Virginia. Public schooling was rare outside New England.

Middle Colonies and the Western Frontier

Unlike New England, the mid-Atlantic region gained much of its population from new immigration. By 1750, the combined populations of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania had reached nearly 300,000 people after an influx of German, Swiss, and Irish immigrants. Meanwhile, William Penn, who founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682, attracted many British Quakers with his policies of religious liberty and freehold ownership.

The middle colonies' settlements were scattered west of New York City and Philadelphia. The former Dutch colony of New York had the most eclectic collection of residents from many different nations and prospered as a major trading and commercial center after about 1700. The Pennsylvanian colonial center was dominated by the Quakers for decades after their initial immigration, from about 1680 to 1725. Many more settlers arrived during this time as well, especially Protestant sects seeking freedom of religion. The main commercial center of Philadelphia was run mostly by prosperous Quakers, supplemented by many small farming and trading communities with strong German contingents located in the Delaware River Valley.

Portrait of William Penn

William Penn at age 22, possibly by Sir Peter Lely: William Penn advocated religious tolerance in the New World and strengthened the Quaker movement in North America.

A tide of German immigration to Pennsylvania swelled between 1725 and 1775, with immigrants arriving as redemptioners or indentured servants. By 1775, Germans constituted about one-third of the population of the state. German farmers were renowned for their highly productive animal husbandry and agricultural practices. Politically, they were generally inactive until 1740, when they joined a Quaker-led coalition that took control of the legislature. The Germans, comprising Lutherans, Reformed, Mennonites, Amish, and other sects, developed a rich religious life with a strong musical culture; collectively, they came to be known as the Pennsylvania Dutch.

The colonial western frontier was mainly settled from about 1717 to 1775, mostly by Presbyterian settlers who were feeling hard times and persecution in northern England border lands, Scotland, and the northern portion of Ireland. Many initially landed in family groups in Philadelphia or Baltimore but soon migrated to the western frontier, where land was cheaper and restrictions less onerous.

Southern Colonies

The Southern Colonies were economically dominated by the wealthy planters in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina even though much of the population of the south consisted of enslaved Africans. The Anglican Church of England was officially established in most of the South; however, there were no bishops, and the churches had only local roles. The colony of Maryland was originally created with the aim of being a haven for English Catholics, most of which were well-to-do nobles who could not worship in public. However, with extremely cheap land prices, many Protestants moved to Maryland and soon became a majority of the population.

Current and former indentured servants made up as much as 80% of the population in Virginia in the 17th century. In Carolina, English plantation owners from the tiny Caribbean island of Barbados, already a well-established English sugar colony fueled by slave labor, migrated to the southern part of the colony to settle there. Slavery developed quickly in the Carolinas, largely because so many of the early migrants came from Barbados, where slavery was well established. By the end of the 1600s, a very wealthy class of rice planters who relied on slaves had attained dominance in the southern part of the Carolinas, especially around Charles Town. By 1715, South Carolina had a black majority because of the number of slaves in the colony.

Georgia was envisioned by its founder, General Oglethorpe, as a colony which would serve as a haven for English subjects who had been imprisoned for debt–essentially a province for the resettlement of "the worthy poor." Oglethorpe banned alcohol, disagreed with slavery, and thought a system of smallholdings more appropriate than the large plantations common in the colonies to the north.

Evolution of Protestantism

The First Great Awakening illustrated the evolution of Protestantism in the British colonies.

Learning Objectives

Describe the varied religious landscape of the American colonies

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The First Great Awakening was a religious revival of Protestantism in which preachers emphasized the emotional, rather than the intellectual side of religion.
  • Deism, a broad religious system that stresses morality, gave rise to Unitarianism.
  • The Mennonites are a splinter religious group that emigrated mostly to Pennsylvania.
  • Methodists originally settled in New England but spread through the colonies, and Moravians also emigrated to Pennsylvania.

Key Terms

  • Deism: The religious philosophy and movement prominent in England, France, and the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries that rejects supernatural events (prophecy, miracles) and divine revelation; an attempt to reconcile science and religion.
  • Moravians: The modern West Slavic inhabitants of the historical easternmost part of the Czech Republic.

Protestantism in Colonial America

The 18th century saw a host of social, religious, and intellectual changes across the British Empire. In the colonies, this could be seen in the evolution of Protestantism over the centuries.

The First Great Awakening

During the 18th century, the British Atlantic experienced an outburst of Protestant revivalism known as the First Great Awakening. (A Second Great Awakening would take place in the 1800s.) During the First Great Awakening, evangelists came from the ranks of several Protestant denominations: Congregationalists, Anglicans (members of the Church of England), and Presbyterians. They rejected what appeared to be sterile, formal modes of worship in favor of a vigorous emotional religiosity. Whereas Martin Luther and John Calvin had preached a doctrine of predestination and close reading of scripture, new evangelical ministers spread a message of personal and experiential faith that rose above mere book learning. Individuals could bring about their own salvation by accepting Christ, an especially welcome message for those who had felt excluded by traditional Protestantism—women, the young, and people at the lower end of the social spectrum.

The Great Awakening saw the rise of several Protestant denominations, including Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists (who emphasized adult baptism of converted Christians rather than infant baptism). These new churches gained converts and competed with older Protestant groups like Anglicans (members of the Church of England), Congregationalists (the heirs of Puritanism in America), and Quakers. The influence of these older Protestant groups, such as the New England Congregationalists, declined because of the Great Awakening. Nonetheless, the Great Awakening touched the lives of thousands on both sides of the Atlantic and provided a shared experience in the 18th-century British Empire.


Drawing of Roger Williams statue, by Franklin Simmons, 1903: Roger Williams, president of the Colony of Rhode Island, was a religious reformer and early Baptist.


Deism is a loosely used term that describes the views of certain English and continental thinkers. These views gained a small, unorganized, but influential number of adherents in America in the late 18th century. Deism stressed morality and rejected the orthodox Christian view of the divinity of Christ, often viewing him as a sublime, but entirely human, teacher of morality. Deism influenced the development of Unitarianism in America. By 1800, all but one Congregationalist church in Boston had Unitarian preachers teaching the strict unity of God, the subordinate nature of Christ, and salvation by character. Harvard University, founded by Congregationalists, became a source of Unitarian training.


The Mennonites are a religious group which immigrated to America from Europe. Some came in 1683 to settle in Pennsylvania. The Mennonites left Germany because they were persecuted for refusing to perform military service on the basis of religious objections. Later groups of Mennonites came to North America from Switzerland, Prussia, the Ukraine, and Russia. The Mennonites tended to be very conservative and had their own hymns and Psalters.


Methodism spread to America in the late 1760s. Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore were both preachers appointed as missionaries by John Wesley. They traveled to the new world in 1769 to start American Methodist societies; Pilmore in Philadelphia, and Boardman in New York. Pilmore was more effective in spreading the cause in Philadelphia and even traveled into the south to preach and promote the society. Methodism spread along the east coast during the years leading up to the American Revolution.


The Moravians, like John and Charles Wesley, arrived in America in 1735. The group left Moravia and Bohemia in response to harsh persecution for their religious beliefs and practices. The Moravians wished to serve as Christian missionaries for the different ethnic groups in America. They first settled in Georgia, then moved to Pennsylvania and North Carolina. The Moravians were deeply involved with the religious use of music. They practiced hymn singing daily, and some wrote instrumental music.

Colonial Society

Lifestyles among British colonists in North America varied dramatically by region.

Learning Objectives

Describe crucial demographic and economic differences between the New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Southern colonies

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the north, many colonists lived on small, self-sufficient farms and enjoyed a fairly high level of education and personal liberty.
  • Many in New England also based their lifestyle on the sea and became merchants or fishermen.
  • The mid-Atlantic region was also heavily agricultural, but its lifestyle practices differed depending on the ethnicity of immigrants to the region.
  • The Southern colonies built their society around the system of plantations; subsequently, many of the inhabitants of those colonies were enslaved Africans.

Key Terms

  • yeoman farmers: Free men owning their own land, especially from the Elizabethan era to the 17th century.

Social Structure

New England

In New England, high-level politicians gave out plots of land to male settlers, or proprietors, who then divided the land amongst themselves. Large portions were usually given to men of higher social standing, but every white man who wasn't indentured or criminally bonded had enough land to support a family. Every male citizen had a voice in the town meeting. The town meeting levied taxes, built roads, and elected officials who managed town affairs. The towns did not have courts—that was a function of a larger unit, the county, whose officials were appointed by the state government.

The Congregational Church, founded by the Puritans, was not automatically joined by all New England residents because of Puritan beliefs that God singled out only a few specific people for salvation. Instead, membership was limited to those who could convincingly test before members of the church that they had been saved. They were known as the elect or Saints.


Old Ship Church, Hingham, Massachusetts, ca. 1880: Religious meetinghouses were important centers of community life in the colonies.

The Middle Colonies

Unlike New England, the mid-Atlantic region gained much of its population from new immigration. Many of these mid-Atlantic immigrants were limited to occupations as small-scale farmers and artisans. Large farmers and merchants became wealthy, while farmers with smaller farms and artisans only made enough for subsistence. The mid-Atlantic region, by 1750, was divided by both ethnic background and wealth.

Southern Colonies

The Southern Colonies were economically dominated by the wealthy planters in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, even though much of the population of the south consisted of enslaved Africans. Slavery in colonial America was very oppressive, as it passed on from generation to generation and slaves had no legal rights. The colonies that were the most specialized in the production of goods, such as sugar and coffee, relied the most heavily on slaves. Consequentially, they had the highest per capita income in the New World. However, the slaves did not accrue wages or benefit from any of this profit.

Agriculture, Industry, and Trade

Charter companies played an important role in England's success at colonizing what would become the United States. Charter companies were made up of groups of stockholders, usually merchants and wealthy landowners, who sought personal economic gain and, in some cases, wanted to advance England's national goals. While the private sector financed the companies, the King provided each project with a charter or grant conferring economic rights and political and judicial authority. Most of the colonies were slow to make profits, however, and the English investors often turned over their colonial charters to the settlers. The political implications, although not realized at the time, were enormous. The colonists were left to build their own lives, their own communities, and their own economy.

By the mid-18th century, shipbuilding was a staple in New England. These shipyards were aided by cheap wood sold by merchants who exploited the vast amounts of timber along the coasts and rivers of northern New England. Other New England merchants took advantage of the rich fishing areas along the Atlantic coast. A variety of artisans, shopkeepers, and merchants also arose during this time to provide services to the growing farming population.

Before 1720, most colonists in the mid-Atlantic region worked with small-scale farming and paid for imported manufactures by supplying the West Indies with corn and flour. In New York, a fur pelt export trade to Europe flourished, adding wealth to the region. After 1720, mid-Atlantic farming was stimulated with the international demand for wheat. A massive population explosion in Europe brought wheat prices up, and by 1770, a bushel of wheat cost twice as much as it did in 1720. Farmers also expanded their production of flaxseed and corn due to the high demand of flax in the Irish linen industry and corn in the West Indies.

The plantations of the Southern colonies mainly grew tobacco, indigo, and rice for export and raised most of their own food supplies. In addition, many small subsistence farms were family owned and operated by yeoman farmers.

Colonial Cities

Most colonial cities were seaports. By 1750, the population of Philadelphia had reached 25,000; New York had reached 15,000; and the port of Baltimore had reached 7,000. Merchants dominated seaport society and about 40 merchants controlled half of Philadelphia's trade. Wealthy merchants in Philadelphia and New York, like their counterparts in New England, built elegant Georgian-style mansions.

Shopkeepers, artisans, shipwrights, butchers, coopers, seamstresses, cobblers, bakers, carpenters, masons, and many other specialized professions made up the middle class of seaport society. Wives and husbands often worked as a team and taught their children their crafts to pass on through the family. Many of these artisans and traders made enough money to create a modest life. Laborers stood at the bottom of seaport society. These people worked on the docks unloading inbound vessels and loading outbound vessels with wheat, corn, and flaxseed. Many of these were African American; some were free while others were enslaved.


Education in the colonial era was primarily the responsibility of families. However, numerous religious groups, especially the Puritans in New England, established tax-supported elementary schools so their children could learn to read the Bible. These religiously-affiliated schools may be reflective of the fact that New Englanders wrote journals, pamphlets, books, and especially sermons—more than all of the other colonies combined.

The Status of Women

The experiences of women during the colonial era varied greatly from colony to colony and among different ethnic groups. In New England, the Puritan settlers brought their strong religious values with them to the New World, which dictated that a woman be subordinate to her husband and dedicate herself to rearing "God-fearing" children to the best of her ability.

Among Puritan settlers in New England, wives almost never worked in the fields with their husbands. In German communities in Pennsylvania, however, many women worked in fields and stables. German and Dutch immigrants granted women more control over property, which was not permitted in the local English law. Unlike English colonial wives, German and Dutch wives owned their own clothes and other items and were also given the ability to write wills disposing of the property brought into the marriage. Much later during the colonial experience, as the values of the American Enlightenment were imported from Britain, the philosophies of such thinkers as John Locke weakened the view that husbands were natural "rulers" over their wives and replaced it with a (slightly) more liberal conception of marriage. However, women continued to have very few rights. They were not allowed to vote and lost most control of their property (if they had any to begin with) in marriage. They could not divorce, and even single women could not make contracts, or sue anyone or be sued, at least until the late 18th century.

The typical woman in colonial America was expected to run a household and attend to domestic duties such as spinning, sewing, preserving food, animal husbandry, cooking, and cleaning while raising children. Families tended to be large, and childbearing could be dangerous prior to advancements in medicine and health care. Death in childbirth was common enough that the term now-wife was coined to refer to a man's present wife as compared to those that he had previously lost.

Often, women were taught to read so that they could learn the Bible, but few were taught to write, as it was thought there was no reason a woman should know how to write. A colonial woman was expected to be subservient to her father until she married, at which point she became subservient to her husband. Ministers often told their congregations that women were inferior to men and more inclined to sin and err.

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