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The Middle Colonies

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The Middle Colonies

Consisting of the colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, the Middle Colonies offered a level of adequate religious and cultural tolerance compared to many of the other English colonies. This, along with a moderate climate drew farmers, merchants, and artisans of many different faiths and cultures from Europe.

What was life like in these colonies, what was the nature of their discovery, and when were they founded?

Map of the Middle Colonies

The Middle Colonies Map of the Middle Colonies StudySmarter This map shows, in light red, the territories of the Middle Colonies in relation to the other English colonies in North America. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Richard Zietz CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Founding the Middle Colonies: Summary

The Middle Colonies were founded in the seventeenth century, though not always under English influence. How did the English gain control of these areas?

New Netherland

This map shows, in green, the area controlled by the Dutch in 1660, Wikimedia Commons.

New Netherland was founded in 1614 as the first Dutch colony in North America. As we can see on the map, it extended from Delaware into New York, covering much of the territory that would become under English control. Nevertheless, it was relatively small compared to English colonies in the North and South, such as the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Colony of Virginia.

In 1621, the Dutch government founded the Dutch West India Company in an attempt to stimulate economic growth in the region. However, the company was much more focused on its conflicts with Spain and Portugal by attacking its colonies. The colony, therefore, did not receive significant investment and combined with sparse Dutch immigration, this limited the strength of New Netherland.

What exactly was the immigration issue?

  • Dutch migrants were not as affected by the cultural and religious turmoil that caused many English to migrate to North America.

  • Even a 1629 company policy promising a large land grant to anyone who would bring fifty settlers to the province failed to attract settlers.

  • By the 1660s, New Netherland still only had around 5,000 white and African inhabitants.

  • By that time, the population of Virginia had reached 40,000.

New Netherland and the Iroquois Confederacy

New Netherland's main export was furs, which settlers obtained from trading with Indigenous Peoples on the Hudson River. The Dutch traded with the local Iroquois tribes, but their trade created competition between the tribes in question. By 1629 the Mohawk Nation were the chief suppliers of furs to the Dutch traders.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy, was made up of five Nations at the time, of which the Mohawk Nation was the easternmost. The Nations were allied to defend their lands from the spreading influence of white settlers and other tribes.

In the 1640s, the Haudenosaunee went to war with the Wyandot people, also known as the Hurons. Using weapons they had obtained from trading with the Dutch, the Haudenosaunee defeated the Wyandot who fled far south. This allowed the Haudenosaunee to dominate the area from the Great Lakes to the Hudson River.

The relationship between the Dutch and the Indigenous tribes was generally peaceful as both groups benefited from the trade arrangements. However, farmers of New Amsterdam, the settlement at the mouth of the Hudson River, clashed many times with the local tribes as they expanded their territory. In 1655, the Indigenous people attacked New Amsterdam itself but failed to push back the Dutch.

The English take control of New Netherland

As early as the 1640s, English Puritans had begun to settle on Long Island. Then in March of 1664, ignoring all Dutch claims to the area, the English King Charles II gave the entire region between the Connecticut and Delaware rivers to his brother James, Duke of York. When the English brought an invasion fleet to New Amsterdam, the Dutch gave up the territory without a fight.

The agreement made gave James (who would become King of England in 1685) complete control over the territory. The English and Dutch settlers accounted for most of the population of the new colony, now called New York.

It also included sizeable populations of Germans, French, Scandinavians, and Africans. Recognizing the diversity of the population, the Duke of York's officials were cautious in their efforts to enforce English authority. The English maintained Dutch forms of local government, and Dutch land titles were upheld.

The English guaranteed religious tolerance by allowing each town to decide their religious or church affiliation with their taxes. The Dutch were also allowed to keep their legal practices and laws.

The colony was governed by a single governor until, in 1683, the Duke allowed for an elected legislature. This approach meant the English takeover had minimal effect on the colony. Its population grew slowly, reaching 18,000 by 1698.

In 1664, when the Duke of York gained control of New Netherland, he also regranted a large portion of land between the Hudson and Delaware rivers to Sir George Carteret and John Lord Berkeley, who founded the colony of New Jersey.

New Jersey

Sir Carteret and Berkeley acted quickly to increase their colony’s population and profit. Having been given the very fertile land between the Hudson and Delaware rivers, they promised large land grants, freedom of religion, and representative legislation. In response, many Puritans from New England migrated to New Jersey as well as some Dutch people from New York. Within twenty years, New Jersey grew substantially. Carteret and Berkeley ended up selling their interest in the colony to other investors. Nevertheless, by 1726 New Jersey had 32,500 inhabitants.


Sir Carteret’s shares in the New Jersey colony were all purchased by Quakers seeking refuge from persecution in England. Who were the Quakers and what did they believe?

  • Quakers are members of a Christian movement called the Religious Society of Friends, which was founded around 1650.

  • Quakers believe there is no need for an intermediary between the individual and God.

  • They have no formally trained clergy and allow both men and women to discuss God’s word openly.

  • These two facts made the Quakers, compared to most other religions in England at the time, religious radicals.

The Quakers obtained their colony in 1681 when King Charles II granted the region between Maryland and New York to William Penn, one of the group’s most influential members. William Penn held the colony as an individual proprietorship, meaning he had sole authority over the territory and profit of all land sales. The vast property holdings earned profits for his descendants until the American Revolution.

Penn offered land grants to all peoples, tolerance for all religions, guaranteed a right to bail, a right to a trial by jury, and pledged to establish a legislative assembly. His offer was attractive, and the population there boomed.

The city of Philadelphia drew merchants and artisans from all over Europe. Pennsylvania’s lands were plentiful and fertile, and the colony soon began exporting flour and other foodstuffs to the Caribbean and Europe.


The territory that would become the colony of Delaware was originally inhabited by the Indigenous people of the Leni Lenape, Nanticoke, and Assateague tribes.

The Dutch were the first Europeans to attempt to settle in the region in 1631 but were unsuccessful due to conflicts with the Indigenous tribes. By 1638, both the Dutch and the Swedes had successfully established settlements along the Delaware River and Bay. In 1655, the Dutch took control of the Swedish settlements in the southern areas of the territory. When the Dutch ceded control of New Netherland to the English in 1664, they also ceded control of the Delaware territory.

New Sweden: The colonial experiment that failed

In 1637, Sweden, seeing how fur trade and tobacco cultivation in the New World began to benefit England economically, formed the New Sweden Company. Its aim was to establish a settlement in the New World to make Sweden a dominant world power.

The New Sweden Company hired Peter Minuit, who had established New Netherland: he had the experience to navigate the territories on the east coast to establish a colony between New Netherland and the English claims in Virginia.

The Swedish settlers landed in the New World near the mouth of the Delaware River in the spring of 1638 and constructed Fort Christina. They were able to develop friendly relations with the local Algonquin Peoples and traded for corn, beans, wild game, and other commodities to assist them through their first year in the New World.

Early attempts to expand caused friction with the Dutch in the area, but neither settlement had enough soldiers to act. For a while in 1641, they even joined together to forcibly remove a small colony of English out of the area.

This map shows, in purple, the expanded territory of New Sweden and the main forts along the Delaware River. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Tony92, CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated.

There was close to a decade of stability under the Governorship of Johan Printz, but by 1651, Swedish control began to decline as the colony was not producing the revenue Sweden expected. Between 1648 and 1653, Sweden sent no supply ships to the territory due to a war between Sweden and the Netherlands in Europe.

In 1647, the Dutch sent a governor to the colony: Peter Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant and Printz clashed over control of the colony, and the Swedes eventually abandoned their northern claims to the colony and retreated to Fort Christina.

In 1655, Stuyvesant attacked the remaining Swedes with a force of more than three hundred soldiers and ships. This conquest ended New Sweden and Sweden did not attempt any new claims in the New World.

In 1682, the land was given to William Penn as a part of the land grant for the colony of Pennsylvania, and became known as the “three lower counties of Pennsylvania.” The counties did however have a separate colonial legislature than that of Pennsylvania, allowing them to send delegates to the First and Second Continental Congresses during the American Revolution.

The counties remained a part of Pennsylvania until 1776 when governmental control of Pennsylvania over the three counties was removed, and the colony of Delaware was established.

Life in the Middle Colonies: Facts

Now we know how the Middle Colonies were founded, let's have a look at what life was like!

The economy

Due to a growing season of 5 to 7 months and terrain that was barred by mountains and rivers, the economy of the middle colonies was diverse. The economy was mainly agricultural growing wheat and grain, but the access to waterways and timber also aided a logging industry, shipbuilding, textiles, and milling.

Living standards

The access to large port cities such as Philadelphia and New York created a strong social connection to England and its amenities. This proximity to the ports also lowered the cost of those amenities and allowed trends from England to have a greater influence and created a relatively high standard of living in the middle colonies. This was aided by the diversity in occupations that allowed for specialized labor and higher wages.1

Population growth

The population of the middle colonies grew steadily- especially as each colony established its own precedents for religious tolerance and economic policies, and became havens for religious and cultural groups.

Chattel Slavery in the middle colonies

Slavery in the middle colonies was prevalent because the Dutch West India Company actively imported enslaved people into the colony of New Netherland after its efforts to attract white settlers failed. Almost one-fifth of the inhabitants of the middle colonies were enslaved Africans. The need for enslaved Africans grew in New Netherland due to a lack of Dutch indentured servants.

Indentured servants were those whose travel to the colony was paid for by an existing colonist. They would work in return for their passage.

  • The Middle Colonies were different in their proprietorship of unfree labor as they purchased enslaved people from the Caribbean yet already had economic investments with the transatlantic slave trade system.
  • Another defining aspect of slavery in the middle colonies was the practice of slave apprenticeship. This was a practice in which a slave owner would hire out a slave to craftsmen or artists in return for payment for their labor. This allowed the owner to make money from enslaved labor when it was not the harvesting season.
  • This differed greatly from slavery in the southern colonies, which had codes limiting what enslaved people could learn. In the middle colonies, as long as the owner made a profit, the enslaved worker could learn a trade or a skill.

Religion in the middle colonies

The middle colonies became home to peoples of different origins, languages, and religions. Presbyterians, English, Welsh, Quakers, Germans, Lutherans, and Dutch Protestants formed ethnic and religious communities that coexisted, at times uneasily, with one another.However, the middle colonies were not a “melting pot.” Most European migrants held tightly to their traditions, creating a patchwork of diverse communities.The close proximity of diverse cultures and religions created some ethnic-based conflicts.
  • For example, in New York, it was common for Dutch settlers to ignore English law.
  • In Pennsylvania, the English looked down upon the influx of German migrants as bad-mannered and coarse.
  • By the 1750s, the German Lutherans, Baptists, and Scots-Irish Presbyterians attempted to join together as a political and social group to confront the Quakers who dominated Pennsylvania politics.
  • These conflicts in the middle colonies foreshadowed many of the cultural and religious issues that would permeate American society for centuries.

The Middle Colonies - Key Takeaways

  • The middle colonies consisted of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

  • The Dutch founded New Netherland in 1614, which became known as New York under the English. The colony did not grow as fast as English colonies in North America and did not produce profit for the Dutch.

  • In 1664, England took over the New Netherland colony and placed it under James, Duke of York. James kept many of the Dutch practices and policies in place to keep control of the colony during the transition.

  • The Dutch had brought enslaved Africans to the colonies before the English took over, and the English continued to import enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean as a means of labor.

  • William Penn founded Pennsylvania in 1681 and personally obtained a land grant from King Charles II for the land between New York and Maryland. His colony became a haven for many Quakers who were seeking refuge from persecution in England at the time. Along with Quakers, Pennsylvania saw a large influx of Welsh, Irish, Dutch, and Germans.


1. Carr, Lois Green, and Lorena S. Walsh. “The Standard of Living in the Colonial Chesapeake.” The William and Mary Quarterly 45, no. 1 (1988): 135–59.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Middle Colonies

The middle colonies consist of New York (New Netherland), Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.

The Dutch founded New Netherland in 1614 but lost control of it to England and James, Duke of York, in 1664. William Penn founded Pennsylvania through a land grant from King Charles II in 1681. New Jersey was founded by Sir George Carteret and John Lord Berkeley in 1664 after being granted land by James, Duke of York. 

Many who came to the middle colonies traveled to North America to escape religious persecution and practice their religions in a more tolerant society, taking advantage of generous land grants and fertile soil in the colonies.

The middle colonies were known for their religious tolerance compared to England and other established colonies such as Massachusetts. They were known for being more diverse than the other colonies, and for their extensive production of grain.

- The Middle Colonies consist of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. 
- The Middle colonies were considered the "Bread Basket" of the world at the time due to their large production of wheat and grain.
- Though the Middle Colonies ended up under English Control, not all of the colonies were founded by English settlers.

- New York was originally founded by the Dutch as New Netherland.
- Almost all the Middle Colonies practiced some form of established religious and cultural tolerance as compared to the New England colonies. 

Final The Middle Colonies Quiz


Which middle colony was not originally its own land-grant colony? 

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Why did New Netherlands struggle to grow financially and in population? 

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Dutch people were not as affected by the cultural and religious turmoil that caused many English to migrate to North America.

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How did England acquire the colony of New Netherland?

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England ignored the Dutch claim to the territory and used its naval force to leverage control of the colony

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What was the main source of profit in the early establishment of the colony of New Netherlands/New York?

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Trading for furs with the Iroquois in the Hudson River valley

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Which of the following best describes the relationship between the Iroquois and the European settlers of New York?

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The Iroquois used the fur trade to their advantage to gain European weapons to take control of their territory from other competing native American tribes.

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Which of the following was the main factor in the quick population growth of the colony of New Jersey?

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All the Following 

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True or False: The protections and tolerance of religious freedom in the middle colonies made it a haven for persecuted and fringe religious groups in Europe

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True or False: Due to the many different faiths, cultures, and nationalities, the middle colonies saw an increased mixing of cultures and ideas.

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Which of the following was not protection offered in the colony of Pennsylvania?

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Right to freedom of speech

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Which colony was Delaware originally the "Lower Three Counties" of? 

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True or False: Slave codes in the middle colonies forbade enslaved labor from learning a specialized skill or trade. 

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