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Life in Colonial America

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Life in Colonial America

A dangerous voyage followed by harsh living conditions made the trip to America a risky one. Those setting sail for America often had few possessions and little experience in building up a settlement. But if it was so dangerous, why did people leave the comfort of their own homes for an unknown land thousands of miles away? And how did they manage to survive the dangers? Continue reading to learn about the objectives of American Colonial Life, the importance, and more!

Objectives of American Colonial Life

Spain's successful voyages in the Americas brought gold and silver to the Spanish monarchy. Businessmen and explorers in England wanted to replicate this success. Once they arrived, however, it became clear that gold and silver were not available in North America.

Instead, colonists sought to farm fertile lands to build up their wealth. Other colonists like the Pilgrims fled to America to escape religious persecution in England. As colonies grew, even those with few funds began to travel to the Americas in search of a better life. Many wished to escape the poverty and warfare of seventeenth-century England.

Life in Colonial America, Painting of the Pilgrims called "Embarkation of the Pilgrims", StudySmarterPainting of the Pilgrims called "Embarkation of the Pilgrims" by Robert Walter Weir, 1857, Wikimedia Commons.

Once they reached America it became clear to colonists that they had to set up rules and laws to ensure their survival. The first English colony in North America was set up by the Virginia Company.

American Colonial Life Overview

The Virginia Company in London was the first English voyage to America. The company got royal approval, or a charter, from King James I in 1606. Their first settlement was Jamestown in what they named Virginia.

Life in Colonial America: Family

Most of the first settlers in Jamestown were men. Women followed a few years later. However, the lifespan in early colonial Jamestown was short and multiple marriages became the custom. Families encountered a host of problems, as outlined in this 1622 letter from colonist Sebastian Brandt:

God be thanked I am now in good health, but my brother and my wife are dead about a year passed. And touching the busynesse that I came hither is nothing yett performed, by reason of my sickness & weaknesses I was not able to travel up and down the hills…

Brandt writes of the death of his wife and brother and the frequent illnesses that ran through the colony. Despite these issues, the family was the unit of colonial life. Families were necessary to increase the population and reproduce the labor force.

Life in Colonial America: Education

In the seventeenth century, few children went to school. This was true in England as well as America. If children did attend school, it was only for a short time before they went and took up their family trades. For example, Benjamin Franklin learned how to read and write at home and began school at age 8. When he was ten years old, Franklin left school and learned his father’s candle and soap-making trade.

Importance of American Colonial Life

Living in early colonial America was not easy and colonists had little of the required knowledge to thrive. Harsh winters, summer droughts, death, and disease hindered progress for earlier settlers. Jamestown in Virginia sat in a swamp that hosted unfamiliar diseases. The Tsenacomoco tribe used the nearby fertile lands for farming and hunting. They resisted English attempts to take their land in the Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–14).

Did you know?

The Anglo-Powhatan War was only resolved when the chief's daughter, Pocahontas, was married to tobacco planter John Rolfe. The story became the (romanticized) basis for the Disney film Pocahontas.

Life in Colonial America: Clothing and Food

Clothing and feeding the family was a challenge for early colonists. Settlers were responsible for either buying or making their clothing. While settlements close to seaports could import clothing from England, others made their own. In New England, for example, people often made their own cloth. Most colonists did not wear delicate fabrics like wool and silk; these were reserved for the wealthy.

Life in Colonial America, Captain John Smith, StudySmarterIllustration of Captain John Smith, Wikimedia Commons.

Early settlers struggled to feed themselves as they adapted to the new landscape. Keeping an abundant food supply was difficult. Captain John Smith enacted a "no work, no eat" policy to force all new settlers to work in Jamestown. However, later on, colonists would find little trouble in staying fed. While no refrigeration was available, the abundant natural resources and wildlife became integral to the colonists' food supply.

Life in Colonial America: Life Expectancy

Life expectancy for settlers was not high. Soaring mortality rates dominated early settlements like Jamestown. Jamestown saw fifty percent of its inhabitants die in their first few months. While adult mortality was volatile, infant mortality was even more fragile. In Massachusetts, colonist Cotton Mather saw nine of his children perish before they turned two. In colonial America, disease was one of the leading causes of death in infants.

Life in Colonial America: Success or Disaster?

You might be asked to consider whether the English colonies were successful or not. When answering, you need to consider the different definitions of success and how success to some people might mean disaster to others.

For example, early successes in trade with Native Americans turned hostile as colonists sought to expand their wealth by taking over fertile lands. Their colonization was undoubtedly an economic and territorial success but came at the heavy price of Native American lives and land.

Here are some successes and disasters to think about.

SuccessesDisasters
  • Despite the early losses, colonies began to prosper. They traded surplus goods such as weapons, tools, and utensils with Native Americans for food.
  • Tobacco and cotton farming became profitable. It put colonies in contact with European markets to trade with.
  • Mortality rates and living conditions improved.
  • Early settlements had high mortality rates, especially for children.
  • Wars with the English settlers decimated the Tsenacomoco tribe which ceased to exist by 1646.
  • The Tsenacomoco tribe was displaced from lands they had lived on for centuries.
  • Deforestation and plantation farming destroyed traditional Native American lifestyles.

Women’s Life in Colonial America

Women's experiences varied based on location and ethnicity. Wives from Puritan New England rarely worked with their husbands in farming or other hard labor. But in Pennsylvania, German women often worked in fields and farms. Women were generally responsible for caring for the household, raising children, sewing, and creating household goods. Women often knew how to read the Bible but were not taught to write.

Life in Colonial America, Woman spinning in a colonial home, StudySmarterA woman spinning in a colonial home, Wikimedia Commons.

Once women were married, they would be considered subservient to their husbands. Large families were encouraged as children became additional workers for the family. However, many women did not survive childbirth, and if they did, infant mortality was high. Colonial life expectancy also took a toll on husbands, leaving many women widows.

Widows in colonial America had the right to make contracts and own property, giving them a degree of power. Overall, women’s rights in colonial America remained minimal, with their identity tied to their fathers or husbands. This was in line with attitudes towards women in Europe.

Subservient: Someone who was prepared to obey another without question or complaint. Women in colonial America were totally in the hands of their husbands.

Life in Colonial America - Key takeaways

  • Early colonial life was harsh, with colonists encountering harsh winters, summer droughts, and unfamiliar diseases.

  • The Virginia Company was the first English settlement in America. It was backed by King James I.

  • Early colonists struggled with self-sufficiency. Leaders like John Smith would enact labor and food rules to govern the colony.

  • Women's roles were often centered on household obligations: raising children, making household items, and sewing.

  • Over time the English colonies became successful. This was achieved through trading with Native Americans and eventually forcibly taking their lands.

Frequently Asked Questions about Life in Colonial America

Life in colonial America was all about family life and basic survival. Early colonists' main objective was to survive and establish a thriving settlement. Therefore, everyday decisions were made based on benefiting the family unit. 

American colonial life was important because it laid the foundation and influence for the Thirteen Colonies. It was also important because it defined colonists' mostly hostile relationship with Native Americans.

Colonial life shaped trade and economy. It was through plantation farming that the colonies became part of Europe's trade markets and were able to sustain themselves. Attitudes towards women and children shaped what education they could access.

The challenges in early colonial America were poor knowledge of natural resources, harsh weather, food shortages, disease, and land disputes.

Life in colonial America became more successful as time went on. Colonies like Jamestown overcame disease and food shortages to become economically thriving colonies. However, this was largely a disaster for Native Americans who were displaced from their lands and whose tribes were destroyed.

Final Life in Colonial America Quiz

Question

Early colonial education was the responsibility of who? 

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Answer

The family at home

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Question

Identify challenges that early settlers came in contact with.

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Answer

Harsh weather conditions (summer droughts/harsh winters) 

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Women’s social roles were almost completely restricted to household obligations such as:

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  1. Running businesses  

  2. Making most household items 

  3. Raising children 

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Question

What helped early settlers establish a consistent food supply chain?


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Answer

Strong Native American alliances and resources

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Question

Strong Native American alliances and resources


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Answer

13-14

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Question

One of the earliest established colleges in New England was?


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Answer

Harvard

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Question

Identify two objectives of American colonial life. 


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Answer

  1. Establishing a self-reliant settlement 

  2. Maintaining a strong alliance with Native Americans 

  3. Building economic prosperity 

  4. Creating social structure 

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Question

Name the labor policy enacted by Captain John Smith.


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Answer

He who won't work, will not eat. 

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Identify the impact colonial life had on the future of America.


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The structure of colonial life (government, economy, education, and social) established the foundation for life in the United States.

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What did the colonies' success depend on? 

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Answer

The acquisition of Native American lands. 

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Question

Who was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony? 

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Answer

John Winthrop 

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An English Protestant who disagreed with the Reformation of the Church of England is known as a?

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Puritan

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The Massachusetts Bay Colony was formed by a charter granted by who? 

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King James I

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The war that the Massachusetts Bay Colony and local Native Americans were involved in. 


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Answer

The Pequot War 

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The religious idea that states only some will be allowed into heaven 


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Predestination 

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The Old Deluder Satan Act established what critical system in the Massachusetts Bay Colony? 


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Religious Education

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What were the reasons for Puritans to settle in Massachusetts Bay?


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Religious Freedom

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Religious Dissenters left Massachusetts Bay to expand and settle different areas. List two of the religious dissenters and the colonies that they founded.


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Answer

Roger Williams- Rhode Island 

Thomas Hooker- Hartford, Connecticut 

Anne Hutchison-Portsmouth 

John Davenport- New Haven, Connecticut

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The Puritans followed the religious teachings of what theologian?


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Answer

John Calvin

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The elected board in Massachusetts that voted and acted on decisions in the best interest of the community. 


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Answer

The General Court 

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Question

One of the biggest problems during the first years of the Jamestown settlement was?

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Answer

The lack of skills the colonist had in growing food

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Captain John Smith helped Jamestown survive when he:

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Answer

Imposed work and order on the colonists

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The Englishman who first introduced tobacco in Virginia was:


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Answer

John Rolfe

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Question

In 1619, another important part of Virginia society was introduced:


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Answer

Enslaved Africans

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 English people came to the New World because of? 


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All of the Following

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Which of the following was the most important export from the colony of Virginia?


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Tobacco

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True or False, the Jamestown settlement failed to produce enough profit to be maintained by the Virginia Company, becoming a Royal Colony in 1624.


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True

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Which of the following was NOT an immediate issue encountered by the settlers of Jamestown?


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Conflicts with the Native Americans

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What caused the population of Jamestown to drop significantly over the winter of 1609 to 1610?


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Answer

The colony was struck with disease and starvation

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Question

What system was put in place by the Virginia Company in order to entice Englishmen to come to Virginia?


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Answer

The Headright System

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