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The Thirteen Colonies

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The Thirteen Colonies

Small, vulnerable, and prone to high death rates, the thirteen colonies hardly resembled the America we know today. Luck, goodwill from native Americans, and a stream of resources from England turned these failing settlements into successful colonies. Who exactly were the early settlers? And why are the Thirteen Colonies still important today? Read on to learn more!

The Thirteen Colonies Members

The Thirteen Colonies were located on the east coast of America. In chronological order, they were founded in:

  1. Virginia - 1607

  2. Massachusetts - 1620

  3. New Hampshire - 1622

  4. New York - 1622

  5. Maryland - 1632

  6. Connecticut - 1633

  7. Delaware - 1638

  8. Rhode Island - 1647

  9. New Jersey - 1664

  10. Pennsylvania - 1681

  11. North Carolina - 1710

  12. South Carolina - 1710

  13. Georgia - 1732

Map of thirteen colonies showing colonial borders Thirteen Colonies Map labeled. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Thirteen Colonies Flag

The Grand Union flag was the American colonies' first official flag. The flag contained the British 'Union Jack' in the corner, while the thirteen red and white stripes represented the thirteen colonies.

Grand Union Jack Flag The Grand Union Jack flag was flown throughout the thirteen colonies in the American Revolution. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The presence of the British flag might seem strange given that the Thirteen Colonies would famously wage war to become independent from Britain. However, the historian Cumberland states:

“The retention of the Union Jack in the new flag was intended to signify that the colonies retained their allegiance to Great Britain, although they were contesting the methods of government.”

- Historian Barlow Cumberland1

The inclusion of the British flag made sense for the Thirteen Colonies, who saw themselves as part of England's empire. It was only in the late 1760s that tensions ran high enough to alienate the colonists from their motherland, Britain.

Building the Thirteen Colonies

The Thirteen Colonies were 150 years in the making. They can be divided by geographical location into the New England colonies, the Middle Colonies, and the South Colonies:

New England MiddleSouth
New HampshireNew YorkMaryland
MassachusettsNew JerseyVirginia
Rhode IslandPennsylvaniaNorth & South Carolina
ConnecticutDelawareGeorgia

Motivations for Building the Thirteen Colonies

We can characterize the colonists' reasons for expansion as gold, glory, and God.

Firstly, the Virginia Company in London wanted to bring wealth to the company's shareholders. Investors saw the New World as an opportunity for trade and an untapped market.

The New World

The early term for the Americas, which Europeans only came across in the 15th century. It was used to convey a sense of adventure, foreignness, and freedom.

The population boom in 17th century England led to overcrowding and poor living conditions. Farmers had little land to expand on. There was glory to be had in expanding Britain's colony in North America and 'discovering' new lands.

What was the first English settlement in the Thirteen Colonies?

The first English settlement was in Jamestown, Virginia, named after King James I. The site of the settlement gave the first settlers a range of problems. The colony sat on swampy land, making it a breeding ground for disease.

Due to the severe food and water shortage, Jamestown allied with the local Native Americans. The Powhatan tribe gave corn to the colony and ultimately saved the colony from starvation. A fragile alliance between the Jamestown colonists and the Powhatan tribe prevented conflict between the two for a time.

Others traveled to America to escape religious persecution in England, like the Puritans.

Building the Thirteen Colonies New England

The colonists who settled in the New England area were predominantly Puritan. The Puritans were radical Protestants who criticized Parliament for not being Protestant enough. They were frequently executed or exiled. They saw America as their chance to establish a religious community without interference from Parliament or the Crown.

Unlike other colonies, New England had poor, rocky soil that was not suitable for farming or agriculture. Luckily, the Atlantic Ocean bordered New England on two sides, making it ideal for trading. New England's economy specialized in fur trading, lumber, fishing, and shipbuilding. Its good position for trade helped build up the merchant class in New England.

Did you know?

New England became an important producer of rum which was made from molasses. Merchants in New England often protested attempts from England to tax or obstruct rum trade like the 1733 Molasses Act. This issue of excessive taxation would be an important factor for the American Revolution.

Building the Thirteen Colonies Middle Colonies

While the New England colonies were made up of primarily Puritans, the middle colonies had a diverse religious population. Colonists came from all over Europe and could be Catholic, Protestant, or follow other Christian branches.

The central location of the middle colonies made it an ideal distribution center for the other colonies. These colonies were a unique combination of both their northern and southern counterparts. Indentured servitude was exceptionally common in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

Indentured Servant

A person who works without a salary. This was to pay off a 'loan' whose terms were defined by the employer. These servants were heavily exploited and had poor working conditions.

The middle colonies had fertile farming lands which led the colonies to become significant exporters of grain. From 1725 to 1840, Pennsylvania led food production in America. The middle colonies had extensive forests. Lumber and shipbuilding industries became dominant in the area. The middle colonies' industries flourished but could not rival the New England colonies in terms of profit.

Building the Thirteen Colonies Southern Colonies

Unlike the middle colonies, the southern colonies were settled by predominantly English settlers. The land of the South was a sharp contrast to that of the New England and middle colonies. The South's rural landscape gave way to large farms known as plantations. Due to the size and labor force required for the plantations, the South ultimately turned to the transatlantic slave trade to meet their labor needs.

Map of the Southern British coloniesMap of the Southern British colonies. Source: Romans, Bernard, CC-BY-2.0 Wikimedia Commons

Each colony found its unique agricultural staple. Rice and indigo were bountiful in South Carolina, while Virginia and Maryland specialized in tobacco. Most of the South’s population owned and worked on small farms. However, a wealthy planter class emerged with large plantations where indentured servants and enslaved people made up the majority of the labor force. With bountiful agricultural staples, the South exported many goods to England.

Importance of the Thirteen Colonies

The Thirteen Colonies can feel like a far-off distant community with little relevance to modern day society. But in fact, the Thirteen Colonies were influential in making America the superpower it is today.

Importance of the Thirteen Colonies Government

Colonies set up councils and assemblies that governed over the community. Issues such as tax and voting were decided internally rather than externally by Britain. Only propertied freedmen could vote and stand for election.

An early example was Virginia’s House of Burgesses, an assembly created in 1619 to represent Virginia's districts and decide on local matters. Another example was the Mayflower Compact signed by the Pilgrims before settling in New England. The early colonists knew that without agreed laws, their colonies would have little chance of surviving. The Compact promised:

“to enact... just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices... as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”

- Mayflower Compact, 16202

The Compact was an early attempt at a representative (at least for men) democracy and self-governing system. These laws and assemblies grew organically over the next century.

The colonial assemblies were key during the lead up to the American Revolution. The British Parliament argued that taxation without representation was justified because American colonists instead had “virtual representation”. Just like how most adults in England could not vote but were still ‘represented’ by Parliament, so too, they argued, were Americans. This “virtual representation” was less easily accepted by the Americans than Englishmen, however, because the colonists had gotten used to voting in their own colonial governments over the past hundred years.

American Revolution

The Thirteen Colonies' war of independence from Britain, from 1775 to 1783.

Colonial governors, who were appointed by England, were overthrown during the American Revolution. One example was the Massachusetts governor Thomas Gage. The shift in power from English-backed governors to homegrown colonial assemblies signaled the loss of England’s power during the American Revolution.

Importance of the Thirteen Colonies Economic Power

The thirteen colonies eventually saw unprecedented economic prosperity. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the colonies' economic growth exceeded England's growth rate.3

Triangular Trade. Source: Isaac Perez Bolado, CC-BY-SA-3.0 Wikimedia Commons.

The colonies' large and successful economy sustained the slave trade. The importance of slavery to the Thirteen Colonies' economic growth cannot be understated:

One crop, slave-grown cotton, provided over half of all US export earnings. By 1840, the South grew 60% of the world's cotton and provided some 70% of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry." - Historian Steven Mintz4

Slave grown cotton was key to the Southern colonies' success. It explains why slavery was not abolished even after the American Revolution which had proclaimed "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

The Thirteen Colonies' economic success inflamed England's tax policies. In 1765 the British Parliament enacted the Stamp Act which taxed most printed materials. Britain continued to apply heavy taxation policies until the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775.

Key takeaways

  • The Thirteen Colonies were settlements that would form the original United States of America.

  • The first permanent settlement in the colonies was Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.

  • Though the settlement was ravaged by disease and food shortages, their alliance with the native Americans allowed them time to recoup their losses.

  • Economic industries included:

    • New England Colonies - fur-trading, fishing, and shipbuilding.

    • Middle Colonies - agriculture, shipbuilding, and lumber.

    • Southern Colonies - agriculture, exporting agricultural goods to Europe.

  • The Thirteen Colonies set up independent councils and assemblies to govern themselves.

  • The growing rift between these councils and the British Parliament would help ignite the American Revolution in 1775.

1. Barlow Cumberland, History of the Union Jack, 1926

2. Mayflower Compact, 1620. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/mayflower.asp

3. John H. McCusker, Measuring Colonial Gross Domestic Product: An Introduction, 1999

4. Steven Mintz. "Historical Context: Was Slavery the Engine of American Economic Growth?" The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Final The Thirteen Colonies Quiz

Question

The following states, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, make up which area of the American colonies?

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New England Colonies 

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The principal reason for Puritans' settlement in the New England colonies?

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Answer

Religious Freedom

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Jamestown, Virginia, was settled in what year? 


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1620 

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Early labor was supplied by individuals who were bound to a loan and worked to repay for a specific amount of time.


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Answer

Indentured Servants 

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What problems/issues were happening in Britain that pushed settlers to immigrate to the New World? 


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Overcrowding/population in large English cities 

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The triangular trade had what significant impact on colonial class structure?


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Quality of Life in poor settlers

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The large southern plantations coupled with exports to England created a labor shortage supplied by?


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African slavery

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What three ideas/concepts led Britain to expand and settle the thirteen colonies? 


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God, Gold, and Glory!

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What two systems laid the future foundation for the United States? 

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Government and economic structure

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The South found its economic power in what industry?


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Agriculture and Exports

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When were the New England colonies settled? 

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Answer

1630s

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List the states that comprised the New England colonies.

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Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire

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Name the two groups that emigrated to the New England colonies.


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Puritans and Pilgrims

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Who was the governor of Massachusetts that believed the settlement would be a “city upon a hill.”


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Answer

John Winthrop 

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List the three core reasons for Britain’s colonization of New England.


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Answer

God, Glory, and Gold 

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Puritans followed the religious teachings of which theologian? 


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Answer

John Calvin

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What was the primary industry in New England? 


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Answer

Maritime Industry

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When was the Massachusetts Bay Colony founded?


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1630

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Which group believed in the complete separation of church and state? 


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Pilgrims

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Who peacefully negotiated a land purchase from the Narragansett Native Americans?


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John Winthrop 

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

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Delaware

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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

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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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False

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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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Pennsylvania

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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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False 

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What year was the Headright system established?

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1617

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Who or What originally created the Headright system?

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The Virginia Company of London was a practice to incentivize Englishmen to come to the colony of Virginia.

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Describe what is offered through the Headright system.


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50 Acres and Up to 100 Acres for Englishmen who could afford their own passage to the Virginia Colony, and additional acreage for other people they could afford to bring with them.

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True or False: the Headright system was adopted in other Royal Colonies as a means of expanding the colony’s population and agricultural output. 

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True

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How did the use of the Headright system lead to the creation of Plantations?


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The headright system allowed for wealthy Englishmen to afford to pay the passage of a number of laborers, each laborer qualifying for a headright

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What best describes the influence of the headright system on the use of slave labor in the English colonies?


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The headright system rapidly increased the number of English willing to migrate to the colonies, increasing the number of farms and cultivated lands, which created a large demand for labor.

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Why did Georgia continue the Headright System after the American Revolution? 

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To entice soldiers to move to the state to serve a militia against any Spanish invasion from Florida

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Why did the headright system end in Georgia? 

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Eventually, there was not enough land to continue the system 

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What was the "Headright System" that was used by the Dutch in New New Netherlands? 

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Patroonship

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What was the social impact of the Headright System on southern colonial society? 

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Answer

The system allowed wealthier Englishmen the chance to pay for the passage of those who could not afford it, allowing them to accumulate headrights and large portions of land in Virginia - this created a clear division between the wealthy and less wealthy members of society.

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When was the Virginia Company established?

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1606

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Which British monarch granted the royal charter to the Virginia Company?

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King James I 

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Which American colony was the first to renounce its allegiance to the British monarchy in 1776?

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Rhode Island 

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Which religious denomination ruled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century?

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Puritans

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What type of colony did Virginia become after the Virginia Company was dissolved?

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Royal colony 

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Why did the British crown transform Virginia into a royal colony?

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The British crown transformed Virginia into a royal colony for a number of reasons, including the King’s disapproval of tobacco as an export product and of a popular local government.

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Why was the Rhode Island colony established?

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To flee religious persecution

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What is a charter colony?

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A charter colony is a British-run North American colony in the 16th-18th centuries which operated according to a royal charter granted to a group of people or a corporation.

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When did John Winthrop Jr. obtain a charter from the British crown for Connecticut?

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1662

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