Colonial America, 1607-1783
History and Culture
by Mark Canada, professor, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
America actually began in two different places for two different reasons. In 1607, some 100 men and boys sailing from England landed in present-day Virginia and founded Jamestown. Inspired by the success of Spanish explorers who had found gold in South America, these adventurers hoped to get rich. Instead of gold, however, they found a hostile environment that probably would have destroyed the colony, but for the resourcefulness of Captain John Smith, who managed to organize and motivate the settlers and save them from starvation. In 1620, a group of English men and women came to America with a different mission. Having given up on the Church of England, which they thought had become too much like the Catholic Church, these Separatist Puritans sought to establish an ideal church in America. Led by William Bradford, these Pilgrims arrived in present-day Massachusetts on a ship called the Mayflower. Ten years later, John Winthrop led a different group of Puritans to the same general area, only this time with the plan of setting an example for the church back in England. Over the next century or so, Virginia and the Massachusetts Bay Colony were joined by other colonies, including Pennsylvania, settled largely by Quakers fleeing persecution in England; Connecticut, established by a man fleeing persecution by the Puritans in Massachusetts; Maryland, which the English king granted to an English Catholic named Lord Baltimore; and Georgia, which had been established for English debtors. By the 1760s, England and its 13 American colonies were quarreling over settlement, government, and taxes, especially those imposed by the Stamp Act of 1765. Finally, in 1775, skirmishes broke out in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. In 1776, Thomas Paine rallied colonists with a pamphlet called Common Sense, and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. Over the next five years, General George Washington led the Americans against the British. In 1781, a surrender of some 8,000 British troops at Yorktown, Virginia--coupled with growing resentment against the war in England--led the British to give up the colonies. England officially recognized American independence in the Treaty of Paris, negotiated by Benjamin Franklin and others in 1783.
From the establishment of Jamestown to the Treaty of Paris and to some extent even afterward, American culture strongly resembled British culture. As literary critic David Shields has noted, American taste in both commerical goods such as wigs and snuffboxes and in literature closely paralleled British taste. It would be a mistake, however, to think of America as merely a transplanted England. Immigration from a variety of places not only caused the population in the colonies to grow from 250,000 in 1700 to 2.5 million in 1775, but resulted in a diverse populace. Records from 1790 show that 50 percent of the colonists could trace their heritage back to England, 19 percent to Africa, 15 percent to Scotland or Ireland, 7 percent to Germany, 9 percent to Wales, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Spain, or Portugal. Many of these men and women were farmers or tradespeople. A select few attended America's early colleges--such as Harvard, established in 1639, and William & Mary, established in 1693--and worked as lawyers or politicians. All of the colonists had to settle for far fewer high-brow cultural diversions than their counterparts in London, Paris, or Vienna. Plays, concerts, and museums were all rare in the colonies, even in the major cities--Philadelphia, Boston, and Charleston. Still, Americans found entertainment in folk music, conversation, a handful of books, and newspapers. By 1750, every major city had a newspaper, and by the first half of the 18th century some colonists could even borrow books from America's first subscription library, established by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia.
1607: Jamestown settled
Return to All American: Literature, History, and Culture