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Useful Notes / The Thirteen American Colonies

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"...most dismal wretches, who said their prayers before daylight, and then wrought in the forest or the cornfield till evening made it prayer time again."

The period in America from around 1607–1763, during which just about everyone was a Puritan or Pilgrim and had to attend church services that were approximately eleven days long. Everyone wore black all the time; the men all carried blunderbusses and wore tall hats with big buckles around them,note  while the women all wore bonnets and square linen collars with optional large red A's. note 

The women were all called "Goody Somethingorother" note  and were frequently burned at the stake as witches (especially in Salem, Massachusetts). Occupations among the men, besides the aforementioned prayer and witch-burning, included persecuting Quakers, oppressing Native Americans, being scalped, and hunting turkeys for the first Thanksgiving Day dinner.

People came here expecting to get rich quick, and it almost never happened. Most of them remained poor or indentured servants all their lives. In not a few cases, people also left the colonies for "the old continent" after having failed to strike it rich there. In the southern colonies, everyone was more concerned with digging for gold that didn't exist than with growing food, at least until they began growing tobacco and made loads and loads of money. They also brought in some slaves during this time, which would lead to some rather heated disagreements years down the line.

The colonies were mostly self-governing since it was pretty much impossible for Parliament to heavily govern settlements months away. They also began practicing primitive forms of democracy during this time, especially in New England and Pennsylvania. Still, the monarchy had some level of control; royal colonies were the ones where the king appointed the governor himself, and the list grew larger over the years. Hey, maybe slowly having their self-governing institutions come under the direct authority of a monarch living months away would lead them to protest this or something. Almost all of the colonies had established churches supported with taxpayer money.

This era is coincidental with The Cavalier Years across the pond. Travel south of Georgia to New Spain or on the west coast and New France for colonies in the middle.

Here is some information on the founding and history of each colony (founding date in parentheses):

  • Virginia (1607): The first successful English colony in the future United States, the first unsuccessful one having been The Lost Colony of Roanoke. Named by Sir Walter Raleigh in honor of Queen Elizabeth I, famously known as the Virgin Queen. The first settlement that lasted was named Jamestown, after King James I.

    Virginia was founded on purely capitalist and imperialist motives; namely, the belief that gold would be discovered and everyone would become wealthy, and England's worries that Spain and Portugal had too many colonies and England was falling behind in the balance of power. Things initially went really badly until John Smith, a Navy captain, whipped the settlers into shape, relations with the natives improved thanks to Pocahontas and her English husband John Rolfe started to cultivate tobacco and economically saved the infant colony.

    In 1619, two very important events happened. First, Dutch ships brought black "indentured servants" and sold them to the colonists, the beginning of slavery in American history. The second, the House of Burgesses was created by the colonists, the first case of self-government in the future United States. They were made into a royal colony in 1624, having previously been governed by the Virginia Company; yes, it is troublingly prophetic that the first English settlement in the future United States was governed directly by a business.

    The cultivation of tobacco made Virginia the most desirable destination for colonial immigrants, and a lot of indentured servants came here hoping to strike it rich in the New World. Usually things didn't turn out this way, and at one point things go so bad that a group of disgruntled indentured servants, led by Nathaniel Bacon, had a rebellion and burned down Jamestown. Following this rebellion, wealthy landowners didn't trust indentured servants anymore and slavery really started to skyrocket. The established church in Virginia colony was the Anglican church. A lot of the most important Founding Fathers, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Patrick Henry, were wealthy plantation owners from Virginia.
  • Plymouth (1620): The colony around the region that is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Founded by a group of Separatists (now known as the Pilgrims; they were given their name by their leader William Bradford as a metaphor for their religious journey and the name stuck) who wanted to escape religious persecution in Europe. Sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower. Initially planned to settle in the north part of the Chesapeake Bay, but they somehow sailed to New England instead. Since this was not part of the Virginia colony's original charter, which originally stretched into what is now New Jersey, they wrote and signed a document to set up an official government there. Now known as the Mayflower Compact, it is often called the first constitution in American history.

    The Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, on which they wrote "1620" to commemorate surviving the voyage. They all nearly died off during the first winter due to harsh weather conditions, diseases, and a lack of food. Every American child learns about the story of them celebrating Thanksgiving Day in 1621 with local Native Americans to celebrate a good harvest, friendship between two separate cultures, and frankly not dying off already. They didn't actually have a turkey, though.

    The colony practiced a now-primitive but then-enlightened type of democracy involving local town hall meetings, elected officials to govern the entire colony, mostly universal male suffrage (though the list of qualifications grew over time), and trial by jury. The Pilgrims had surprisingly good views regarding women for the day; women could own property when unmarried, they could sign contracts, and could speak in court and serve on juries. Technically never officially chartered, it never flourished all that much and in 1691 it was merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
  • Maine (1622): Maine and New Hampshire (see below), unlike all of the other New England colonies, were not founded by religious denominations, but by fishermen. Originally encompassed the coasts of both present-day Maine and New Hampshire, but in 1629 they were split. It was previously just a loose collection of small plantations and fishing villages. Most of Maine's earliest settlements were failures, some disappearing mysteriously. By 1658, Massachusetts Bay Colony had essentially taken over Maine, but this wasn't made official until 1677. Maine became its own state in 1820 due to one of the numerous compromises over slavery that saw Missouri admitted as a slave state and Maine split off from Massachusetts to even out the Senate.
  • New Hampshire (1623): First settled in 1623 and originally part of Maine, this colony was formally created and given the name New Hampshire in 1629 (the "old" Hampshire is a county in southern England, for those who don't know). Massachusetts Bay Colony laid claim to the colony and, in 1641, they basically just took it. The people of New Hampshire never really got along well with their neighbors to the south, however, and in 1679 King Charles II separated them and made them a royal colony. Following the collapse of the Dominion of New England (see below), New Hampshire shared the same governor as Massachusetts until 1741. New Hampshire was involved in some border disputes for most of its colonial history, namely over the border with Massachusetts (settled in 1741 as part of the deal giving them a separate governor) and with New York. New Hampshire claimed they had the land all the way to Lake Champlain, while New York claimed they had the land all the way to the Connecticut River. This area eventually became Vermont. The established church in New Hampshire was the Congregational Church.
  • Massachusetts (1630): Whoo boy, Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was founded by Puritans who wanted to escape persecution at the hands of King Charles I. Chartering land just a bit north of Plymouth, the nearly one thousand Puritans on the first trip founded the city of Boston. By the 1640s, over 20,000 Puritans were already settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony, and their large population growth and need for more land is why they kept trying to integrate all of the previously established colonies in the region.

    Led by John Winthrop, the Puritans wanted to establish a "city upon the hill" of religiously faithful carrying out God's will. They took this concept notoriously seriously, to the point that they took rather authoritarian means to prevent any dissent. Their way was the only way in the colony, and only church (male) members could vote. Dissenters either fled, were banished, or killed, the most famous of the latter being the four Quaker "Boston martyrs" killed from 1659 to 1661. The execution of the peaceful Quakers was the last straw for many people and after that Massachusetts slowly became more tolerant. After that point, religious persecution in Massachusetts died down, except for the notorious Salem witch trials of 1692, which resulted in the deaths of twenty people accused of witchcraft.

    On the plus side, given the very religious nature of its founding, they did believe that all of the (male) Puritan faithful should be allowed to vote (this is why New England is historically famous for its town hall governments, which were as democratic as it got during the time period), which was an improvement on the land ownership qualification of Virginia, but eventually property qualifications were added. Also part of their religious nature, the colonists here were dedicated to the idea of education to help the young prepare for church service; towns above a certain size had to build elementary schools, and the first college in American history, Harvard, was founded in 1636 to train ministers. This education shows; the first book of poetry in the future United States, by Anne Bradstreet (a wealthy widow from Cambridge; her father and husband had both been governor), was published in 1650.

    The First Great Awakening, an intense wave of religious sermons which swept the colonies in the middle of the 18th century, began in Massachusetts. Massachusetts was combined with Plymouth and made a royal colony in 1691. The colony's economy was primarily built around small farms, crafts, and fishing. Since this colony was very highly educated, some of the most intelligent of the Founding Fathers (such as John Adams) were from here and some of the earliest supporters of independence lived in Boston, which is why it is known as the "Cradle of Liberty." The established church in Massachusetts was the Congregational Church.
  • Maryland (1634): Founded by Lord Baltimore, a Catholic, as a safe haven for English Catholics and also in the hopes of making money. He was granted the land on the northern half of Chesapeake Bay because post-Reformation England was all-too-happy to help the Catholics leave. The state's current largest city, Baltimore, is named for him.

    In 1649, the colony granted freedom of worship to non-Catholic Christians and also banned certain kinds of hate speech for Christian denominations, the first such law in all of world history. However, in one rather sad case of Irony, in 1689 the now-majority Protestants overthrew the Catholic colonial government and banned Catholicism, effectively ending the experiment with religious toleration. After that, the established church in Maryland colony was the Anglican church. Despite this change, Maryland remained the center of Catholicism in the colonies and early republic; Baltimore was home to the first diocese and then archdiocese in the country, and the country's oldest Catholic university, Georgetown, was in Maryland for the first 12 years of its existence (the college was incorporated in 1789; the town of Georgetown, Maryland wouldn't become part of the District of Columbia until the latter was established in 1801).

    Like Virginia, the economy was initially based on tobacco plantations, and also like Virginia, they were originally worked by indentured servants before slavery became more popular. Interestingly, in 1648 a woman named Margaret Brent demanded that she be given the right to vote after she inherited land and legal power from her dead brother, the first case of a woman demanding suffrage in American history.
  • Connecticut (1635-36): Connecticut was founded by Massachusetts Puritans who were dismayed by the increasingly-crowded area around the bay. They were primarily led by Thomas Hooker, a reverend, and started to grow from the initial settlement of Hartford. Hartford was founded in 1635, but Connecticut was only officially organized as a colony the following year. In 1639, the settlers got together and wrote the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, an early example of a constitution being written and approved by the people themselves; it also made the colony more democratic, and more than church members had the right to vote.

    In 1638, another nearby colony, New Haven, was established by Puritans so fanatically devoted to their church that they made the Puritans in Boston look like atheists; at one point they banned kissing in public. Always economically unstable and right next to the hostile Dutch colonies along the Hudson River, in 1662 New Haven was merged with Connecticut when that colony was officially charted. The established church in Connecticut was the Congregational church.
  • Rhode Island (1636): Rhode Island was founded by people who fled Boston after being convicted for spreading different religious views (the Boston clergy derided it as a "sewer"). The two most noted founders were Roger Williams, a minister from Salem who demanded complete separation from the Church of England, and Anne Hutchinson, who held a popular meeting in her home defending the idea of antinomianism. Both were tried and convicted and had to escape during harsh winters (Hutchinson while pregnant), Williams and followers founding Providence in 1636 and Hutchinson and followers founding Portsmouth two years later.

    Understandably, since it was founded by people fleeing religious persecution who often had little in common themselves besides being forced out of Boston, Rhode Island allowed complete freedom of religion, even for then-loathed faiths such as Catholics, Quakers, and Jews. They were the only New England colony without an established church, one of the world's first examples of separation of church and state. The colony also had universal suffrage for all men regardless of how much property they owned or their church. Williams also bought land from the Native Americans before settling it, believing that doing otherwise was stealing. All of these settlements were combined and officially charted in 1644 into "The Province of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations," for reasons somewhat complicated and ultimately irrelevant. Unfortunately, these freedoms were rolled back over time, and the universal manhood suffrage eventually came to an end. The established church in Rhode Island was the Congregational church.
  • New York (1664): The colony the English took from other Europeans who were already living there. Specifically, the Dutch, who started exploring and colonizing the region in 1609 with the voyage of Henry Hudson (an Englishman hired by the Dutch). Hudson sailed into a river hoping it was the famed Northwest Passage through the Americas, but it turned out to be just any ordinary river; on the plus side, it was named after him. The Dutch were far more interested in trade in the Caribbean and Indonesia, but they founded a city named New Amsterdam on Manhattan island to take part in the fur trade. To defend the colonial capital against Indian attacks, they built a stone wall, and this is where Wall Street gets its name. Soon other settlements developed around the area, on Long Island, and further up the Hudson River; these territories the Dutch collectively named New Netherland.

    Like Virginia, New Netherland was founded to make money; it was governed and owned by the Dutch West India Company. The colony's leader after 1647 was the rather despotic Peter Stuyvesant, whose chief accomplishment was forcing the Swedish out of the Delaware River. He came into power when an increasingly large number of English colonists from New England settled on what was supposedly Dutch territory, and by 1664 half of the people living in New Netherland were English. That same year, King Charles II granted the area to his brother James, the Duke of York and future king, who captured the undefended city without any bloodshed. Thereafter, New Netherland became New York.

    Even after the conquest and name change, New Amsterdam/New York still remained pretty business-driven, and like before the wealthy held a very large amount of power. The Dutch mostly stayed in the area, and they brought to the English such cultural folkways like waffles, golf, sleighing, and Santa Claus. The colonial city was noted for its diverse mix of other European ethnic groups as well, a precedent for the many immigrants who settled in the city in the following centuries. New York was made a royal colony in 1685.

    New York colony is also famous for the Zenger trial, a court case in 1735 involving a newspaper publisher who was jailed for printing articles critical of the colony's governor. He was successfully defended by the famous lawyer Andrew Hamilton, who argued that freedom of the press, and freedom of speech in general, was an essential liberty. The Founding Fathers took note of this. The established church in New York was the Anglican church—not that anybody cared, since New York always allowed the vote and office-holding to members of other faiths (something of a necessity given the hodgepodge of peoples living there, and particularly the large number of Dutch Reformed), and New Yorkers tended to care about religion only to the extent that doing so did not interfere with business.
  • New Jersey (1664): Part of the lands conquered from the Dutch, in 1664 the Duke of York gave this land to two proprietors, Sir George Carteret and Lord John Berkeley. Most of its population came from people leaving other colonies as opposed to immigrants coming directly from Europe.

    From 1674 to 1702, New Jersey was split between West Jersey and East Jersey after Berkeley shared his half to Quakers. It remained like this until King William III combined the two again in 1702; that same year New Jersey was made a royal colony. However, the distinction between the New York-oriented eastern/northern part of the colony and the Philadelphia-oriented western/southern part remained important. For most of the colony's history after 1702, it had a split capital arrangement with the towns of Burlington (in Burlington County in the southwest, upstream from Philadelphia) and Perth Amboy (in Middlesex County in the northeast, across a narrow strait from Staten Island) alternating as the seat of government. Not for nothing did Ben Franklin call New Jersey "a barrel tapped at both ends."

    There was no established church in New Jersey; the religions were far too mixed for that (with Anglicans and Presbyterians coming from New York, Congregationalists from New England via New York, Quakers coming from Pennsylvania, and the Dutch Reformed already there).
  • Carolina (1670): Originally part of Virginia, this was created in the period after the English Revolution when King Charles II was desperate to build support for the monarchy. Charted to eight nobles in 1663 and named after the sitting king, Carolina wasn't formally colonized until 1670 (the first official Carolina settlement was Charlestown in present day South Carolina; guess who the town was named after). It was created to help manage trade with the British colonies in the Caribbean, and many of its early settlers were wealthy people from those colonies.

    The colony, spread over a large area of the coast, was already divided from the outset. Those in the northern half were mostly farmers who came from Virginia or were already there when the land suddenly became part of a different colony. Those in the south were mostly immigrants and wealthy plantation owners. Oh, and slaves. Lots and lots of slaves.

    Yes, the Caribbean planters brought their slaves. In fact, the southern part had more black slaves than white freemen from 1710 until 1865, when slavery ended in the country. They also exported thousands of Indian slaves as well, this only ending when frontier wars killed most of the remaining tribes. It's really no wonder why, in the years before The American Civil War, South Carolina was desperate to make sure its slavery-based economy would last forever. Unlike the slave colonies further north, rice was actually their main crop, not tobacco.

    The small-farm based northern half, meanwhile, was not nearly as slave-dependent and was also rather more democratic than the aristocratic southern half. Eventually these differences made the colony too difficult to govern together and they were split in 1712 between the originally named North Carolina and South Carolina. Seventeen years later, both were made into royal colonies. The established church in Carolina colony and both of its descendants was the Anglican church.
  • Pennsylvania (1681): Pennsylvania means "Penn's Forest." For this reason, most people assume it was named after William Penn, the colony's founder, but it was actually named after his father, Sir William Penn, a Royal Navy admiral. King Charles II owed a lot of money to Admiral Penn (who had spent a lot of effort and money helping the king win back his throne), and when the admiral died, his estranged son and namesake inherited the debt. The younger Penn made a deal to just give him land in the New World instead. William Penn actually objected to this name out of fear that people thought it was named after him (he preferred just "Sylvania", after the woods, or perhaps "New Wales", as a large number of Welsh people were interested in settling therenote ), but no one listened.

    Anyway, this colony was also founded to protect religious dissenters, in this case members of the Quaker denomination of which Penn was a leading member. Philadelphia ("The City of Brotherly Love"), the settlement they founded, was very well-planned for a colonial city, and Penn attracted a lot of skilled craftsmen to help populate his colony. They purchased the land from the Native Americans after landing, a commitment to principle most of the other colonial founders didn't have; relations with local tribes were so peaceful that many Indians actually moved into Pennsylvania after the colony was founded. Like Rhode Island, there was also toleration for Catholics and Jews.

    The colony was also rather democratic when it was founded (though still limited only to male property owners), and it had what was essentially a Bill of Rights. Quakers are known for being committed to pacifism, toleration, generosity, and equality, and the movement to emancipate America's slaves appropriately began in Pennsylvania. Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire thought colonial Pennsylvania was the closest thing to paradise on Earth.

    The colonial economy revolved around timber, iron works, and small farms producing cattle and grain. Even though he wasn't born here (he was actually born and raised in Boston), Benjamin Franklin ran away to Philadelphia as a teenager to make his fortune—which he did. Franklin is thus widely associated with colonial Philadelphia, and he's often called "The First American." Philadelphia attracted so many people that, by the time of independence, it was the most populous city in the Thirteen Colonies, which is why the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention met there. The Declaration of Independence was drafted and ratified in Philly. This colony had no established church.
  • Dominion of New England (1686-89): Unless you are a history buff, you most certainly have never heard of this. Until the years after the French-and-Indian War, this was the most blatant example of the homeland trying to tighten its grip on the colonies. Created by the unpopular (because of his Catholicism) King James II to prevent the colonies from trading with anyone but England, it originally only covered the New England colonies until it absorbed New York and both New Jerseys as well. It was led by Sir Edmund Andros, who made the grave mistake of favoring the Church of England despite ruling over Puritans. Eventually when it became clear that the colonists did not like him, he grew more than a bit authoritarian, most notably putting an end to the town hall meetings and revoking land titles. The colonists were especially loath to pay taxes to a man they did not elect. After news came over of the Glorious Revolution in England overthrowing James II, mobs in Boston revolted and overthrew Andros and shipped him back to England. Technically not a colony, but it needs to be mentioned partly for completeness, and partly because it created a bad taste in the colonists' mouths about schemes to unify the colonies under a single administration—an attitude that would create problems down the line.
  • Delaware (1701): Named after Lord De La Warr, a military governor during the early years of Virginia's Jamestown. Delaware has a bit of a complicated colonial history and there's no exact date it was founded; 1701 is basically just the easiest date to use. The first colonists were a group of Dutch who were all killed during an Indian attack. After that, a group of Swedes colonized the region around what is now Philadelphia, but in 1655 the Dutch in New Netherland conquered these settlements. After the English conquered them, this region was technically part of the Duke of York's New World properties until he sold it to William Penn when he founded Pennsylvania.

    From 1682 to 1701, Delaware was part of Pennsylvania, but like New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the older colony didn't appreciate being absorbed into a new one. Differences between the two were too large to ignore, and in 1701 they were granted their own assembly. However, until independence Delaware had the same colonial governor as Pennsylvania, arguably making this its own colony in-name-only. Like Pennsylvania, there was no established church in Delaware.
  • Georgia (1733): The last of the Thirteen Colonies founded. It was so new, in fact, that many of its first settlers were still around during The American Revolution. As such, it was the most intensely loyalist colony during the war. Georgia, named after King George II, was founded for two reasons. First, the English government was concerned about the number of border conflicts between Spanish Florida and the (wealthy) Carolinas and wanted to create a buffer zone between the two. And what was to fill this buffer zone? Poor people! The second reason was because a reform-minded statesman, James Oglethorpe (who was also still alive when America won independence and seemed to have accepted the fact rather well), wanted to create a colony with easy, cheap land available for London's poor and for those imprisoned for debt. A big fan of the Enlightenment, Oglethorpe placed limits on land grants to prevent widespread economic inequality and also banned slavery from the colony. However, the settlers quickly grew to resent these rules, believing that it prevented them from becoming economically prosperous. In the 1750s, Georgia became a royal colony, the rules on land ownership were removed, and slavery was legalized. Previously an exporter of wine and silk, large plantations producing rice started to take over. The established church in Georgia colony was the Anglican church.

P.S. Not to be confused with the United States' seldom-mentioned foray into colonialism, which properly began in the late 19th century with the defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War and the seizure of its then-colonies: the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam, as well as Hawaii.


Anime and Manga

Comic Books

  • Earlier issues of Tomahawk are set in the latter days of the 13 Colonies. Later ones take place during the Revolutionary War.

Film - Animated

  • Paranorman: the plot is centred around a witch trial in 1712 Massachusetts.
  • Pocahontas: a loose biopic about the historical figure of the same name, taking place in 1607.

Film - Live-Action


Live-Action Television

  • Ghosts (US): The flashbacks in “The Liquor License” are set in 1773. They reveal that Benjamin Franklin invited Isaac to a Freemason meeting but he turn him away as he only wanted him to do some tasks using his carriage.
  • New Amsterdam (2008) has flashbacks that takes place in New Amsterdam 1642. They show John becoming immortal after he saved the life of a Native girl from being massacred by his fellow soldiers.
  • Outlander: Series 4 onwards is set in the 13 colonies with season 6 taking place at the beginning of The American Revolution.
  • The Twilight Zone (1985): In "A Message from Charity", Charity Payne, a Puritan girl living in the colonial Massachusetts village of Annes Town in 1700, and Peter Wood, a teenage boy living in the Massachusetts town of Anniston in 1985, gain the ability to communicate with each other across time and see through each other's eyes after they both contract cholera.
  • In Roots (1977), after being captured in the Gambia, Kunta Kinte arrives in colonial Maryland on September 27, 1767. The colonies are already becoming discontent with British rule due to the recently passed Townshend Acts.
  • Thanks is a short-lived historical comedy about the Plymouth colony.


  • The Crucible, set during the infamous Witch Trials of Salem.

Video Games

Western Animation