English Colonies

The English set out to colonise the world both by accident and in competition with Spain and then France.[1] It soon became apparent that this was a good idea since trade with, and via, these new colonies brought opportunity add wealth. The first American colonies failed, but were attempted in 1579 on Vancouver Island, by Sir Francis Drake, although Nova Albion was never more than a concept.[2] England claimed much of the West coast in 1579 as a result of Sir Francis Drake's explorations. The next was in 1585, when Sir Walter Raleigh sent Sir Richard Grenville to establish Roanoke on North Carolina.[3] The first permanent English settlement was at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.[4] Jamestown was successfully established by Captains Christopher Newport and John Andrew Smith. Although Newfoundland was claimed in 1497 by John Cabot, it was unoccupied until 1609, but European fishermen exploited the cod fish from c1500.

English colonies were established from Newfoundland through the Eastern American seaboard to Florida and the Caribbean, and then down to South America.[5] The English established three types of colonies: charter colonies; proprietary colonies; and royal colonies. The eastern coastal colonies were all seen as part of Virginia. The first English colony to be part of New England was established by Captain John Smith for the Puritan religious settlers of Plymouth established in 1620 in the Massachusetts Bay colony.[6] The proprietorial colonies were established via English joint stock companies to create and manage settlements and most of their early settlers were farmers.

With the 1664 acquisition by war of New Netherlands (Nieuw Nederlands) and New Amsterdam (which included the former New Sweden), the substantive basis for the area of New England was created. In her wars with France, Britain took Acadia - largely maritime Canada - in 1713, and in 1763 New France itself, as well as Spanish Florida were also added by war. Several sugar-producing Caribbean islands also changed hands. The huge Hudson Bay drainage area, then named Rupert's Land, was claimed in 1670 and used for fur-trapping and shipping by the private fur-trading consortium now called the Hudson's Bay Company. Great Britain colonised the west coast of North America, notably the Oregon Country, jointly with the United States from 1818 to 1846. The colonies of Vancouver Island, founded in 1849, and New Caledonia, founded in 1846, were later combined and named British Columbia.

The largest English colonial population in America, however, was in the Thirteen American colonies. Those colonies grew out of early explorations and Captain John Smith's label 'New England'. Those colonies together rebelled in 1776 and successfully formed the United States of America in 1783.[7]

The Dominion of New England


13 Colonies


For sake of simplifying colonial government, the English decided to centralise control of a collection of colonies in eastern America. On 17 May 1686 the Colonies of Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, and Plymouth were united as the Dominion of New England. In 1687 Rhode Island was annexed to the dominion, in 1687 Connecticut was added, and in 1688 the Scottish settlement of East Jersey was annexed, as well as both the English West Jersey, and New York. The appointed President of the Provisional Government of New England was Joseph Dudley in 1689. A title of governor was created for Sir Edmund Andros who filled that position until dissolution of the Dominion on 18 Apr 1689.[8]

With the 1707 Act of Union (between England and Scotland), the English Colonies became British Colonies. This earlier period had begun in 1585 with an attempted settlement at Roanoke Island, south of Chesapeake Bay. To spite Spain. Queen Elizabeth I had given a patent to Sir Humphrey Gilbert to explore and colonise North America. The authority to colonise America was taken up by Humphrey's brother-in-law, Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh's colonial business ideas interested men like Sir Francis Drake and Richard Grenville and together they funded a 1584 expedition which resulted in the unsuccessful colony.[9]

The English resolved their funding problems by creating commercial limited stock companies to overcome Raleigh's personal limitation on expenses. A series of English companies was quickly created as Englishmen smelled money. These new companies included the Eastland Company formed in 1572 to trade with Muscovy (Russia), the Levant Company to trade into the Mediterranean in 1592, and the East India Company in 1600.[10] The East India Company ran India and made vast fortunes after the French, Dutch, Danish, and Portuguese were either pushed out, or limited.

Early colonial failure had shown that a different approach to colonising was required and Richard Hakluyt proposed this in 1589. He noted that the advantages to be gained by establishing colonial plantations included the native production of naval stores like hemp, the increased available pool of ships and seamen required to carry the trade, and the potential to develop new crops to limit foreign dependency. These attractions were stimulated by the growth in England's population and the simultaneous unemployment resulting from the growth of cities and the enclosure of traditional fields. Martin Luther and Calvin's ideals led to religious conflict in Europe which drove both the Pilgrims and the Puritans from England to America; and later the Huguenots from France. Additionally, in the decline of the feudal state, the Tudor and Stewart monarchs had to raise money directly from the people and a series of new taxes and regulations created an era of uncertainty. Peace with Spain in 1604 freed English attention and the successful Spanish colonisation provided Europe with a model. Finally, brutal English colonising in Ireland spurred Irishmen to leave home.

Many Englishmen became persuaded that their destinies lay in New England and so future America was born with the seeds of independent thought, and distance from London led to independent action. Much of the early history and development in these English Colonies concerned the legal framework and responsibilities, and the authority to direct the colonists lives. The land did not necessarily meet the initial expectations for production and growth and the shareholders' profit was difficult to make. Since they were often absent in England the colonists wanted a voice in deciding their affairs. In 1619 slaves arrived and within twenty years a system of indenturing had been established. my ancestor, Catherine Weisenberg, arrived in America in 1738 as an indentured servant. By 1640 the production of tobacco had reached £1,000,000 and the population of Virginia had risen to 8,000. In 1639 Charles I codified a series of changes by authorising Governor Wyatt "to summon the burgesses" and local representation became accepted.[11]


In 1620 The Colony of New Plymouth was founded, and in 1630 the English Puritans established Boston and ten other settlements. A series of wrangles then began about company authority in the Massachusetts settlement charter. This was complicated by conservative religious views, notably later in Salem with the execution of Mary Dyer in 1660 for preaching Quaker ideas. Rhode Island was granted a charter by the English parliament in 1644 and settlements grew in both New Hampshire and Maine. Cecil Calvert, Baron of Baltimore abandoned colonisation in Newfoundland and established a Catholic colony of Maryland in 1635. The Dutch inadvertently helped the English colonies by fighting the Algonquin Indians from 1643 to 1655. Charters were issued for colonies in Rhode Island and Connecticut in 1662, a grant was made for the Carolinas. A 1664 Royal Commission investigated the management of New England at the same time that New Holland was captured to become New York.[12] Charles Town, was founded in 1670, and became nearby Charleston ten years later. In 1676 William Penn and the Quakers bought part of New Jersey and in 1680 New Hampshire became a Crown Colony. The Dominion of New England was created in 1685, despite widespread civil unrest. William Phipps failed in his colonial invasion of Canada, while the Salem witchcraft trials took place in Massachusetts, the French made peace with the Iroquois, and Delaware was chartered in 1701. The Indian wars continued to c1750s.

In 1700 Carlos II, the last Habsburg emperor, died and willed Spain to France. England, Austria and Holland declared war on France to separate the Bourbon crowns of France and Spain. While at the same time in North America local commanders often got it wrong The British commanders were forced to balance movement in appalling trackless forests, always at risk of Indian surprise attacks, with coordinated global hegemonic policies. This long-distance military control rarely worked. For Britain this lack of co-ordination would later lead to the American Revolution; for the French it was the loss of Empire and a drive for revenge. The Spanish were content in the South, albeit occupied with pirates attracted by Spanish treasure. (Captain Kidd was captured in 1700 and Blackbeard (Captain Teach), was killed in 1718, finally ending the piracy menace.)

Increasingly the colonies focused on economics. In 1690, Massachusetts issued paper money, but three years later the English Parliament banned the import of colonial wool to protect the domestic wool industries of people like the Boultons. In the early 1700s a series of English regulations were announced from London, while Pennsylvania also began issuing currency notes. Rice, wheat and indigo were all introduced into the colonies and both Virginia and Maryland passed acts to control tobacco inspection. To protect its own domestic steel production, Parliament passed the Iron Act prohibiting colonial mills. The New England Currency Act was passed in 1751 and in 1755 Virginia issued its first paper money. The effect of these developments matured the colonies economically and because of a three thousand-mile separation their political maturity had already been demonstrated. The English became very nervous about protecting their investments in both the colonies and at home. The South Sea Bubble scandal had caused financial panic in London in 1720 when stocks were oversold and investors were ruined.

Colonial plantations required people and in 1680 there were 3,000 slaves. The number of slaves in America grew and by 1715 there were 23,000 and by 1756 there were 120,000.[13] The earlier experiment with Indenturing had not provided a labour solution for colonial America. An indentured servant was contracted to repay an employer the cost of shipping from Europe in exchange for service. In theory the system was fair, but in fact it often resulted in unscrupulous charges against the servant resulting in de-facto slavery. The African slaves were less able to argue for their freedom and were widely exploited.

With the arrival of the French Huguenots to the Carolinas in 1685, the Palatine Germans in 1710 to New York and in 1720 to Pennsylvania, and in 1717 the Scots and Irish to Delaware and Boston, English colonial domination began to end. In 1752 Georgia became a Crown colony and by 1752 Philadelphia was the third largest city in the British Empire with a population of over 15,000. Colonial government began to develop an independent American character. Lord Cornbury the Governor of New York was recalled for his bad administration; but there were similar troubles in Virginia, Massachusetts, the Carolinas, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. The English had created an administrative monster but parliament was seemingly unaware of an increasing gulf with America.

Colonial Rivalry

Mutual colonial rivalry led the English to encourage their Mohawk allies to raid into New France. In August 1689, the Mohawks destroyed the village of Lachine, near Montréal, and slaughtered many of those local settlers. The French revenge was taken on Schenectady that following winter. The only serious challenge to British continental control was the French who had built key forts along the Ohio River routes into the Mississippi and down to the Gulf. The French had established a main road between Montréal and Québec and shipyards, tar factories and sawmills along the St Lawrence. A French heavy industrial forge produced stoves, pots and ploughs by 1738 at Trois Rivières. Strategically the British were surrounded, but by less than 70,000 Frenchmen against two million better supported New Englanders.[14] The surprise is that the French succeeded for as long as they did.

French colonial strategy was to keep their colonies dependent on French shipping to ensure the continued flow of furs. That worked, but the loss of 300 ships to the English in 1755 alone seriously prejudiced the survival of New France which became ripe for picking. The French strengthened fortifications at Montréal, Québec, Fort Louisbourg in Nova Scotia, and Fort Chambly in the Richelieu River valley, which guarded the route south to the American colonies. The English built Fort Necessity south of Fort Duquesne at Pittsburgh and the 22 year old Lieutenant Colonel George Washington and 150 Virginians attacked in May 1755 killing ten out of 31 Frenchmen. Montcalm arrived in 1756 and burned Fort Oswego that year and captured both Forts William Henry on Lake George and Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain.[15] Given the distances, the overwhelmingly critical requirement was the quality of the men who would make the key decisions. After years of fumbling, the British had a good set of people in place by 1758.[16]

The French had continual trouble with the Indians after Champlain attacked the Iroquois. In 1634 the French had a trading-post at Trois Rivières and after another eight years, at Montréal: both were exposed to constant Indian terror attacks and it was only the arrival of the 1,200 men of the Carignan-Salières Régiment in 1665 that prevented disaster. Three years later the Régiment had left a permanent mark on Canadian defence, an indelible impression on the Mohawk and an Iroquois peace. Governor Frontenac put a militia in place. He also began the Canadian tradition of the Governor General being commander in chief. The exceptions were Baron von Dieskau and the Marquis de Montcalm: both were Commanders in Chief in 1755 and 1756, respectively. Over confidence then led the French to challenge Britain's assumption of power in North America.

With the exception of Rupert's Land, occupied by the Hudson Bay Company as a fur-trading monopoly, British colonial effort was focused in eastern America, close to British trade and support. The French had sent their voyageurs, coureurs de bois, soldiers and missionaries across the continent, particularly north of the great lakes. Prior to the Revolution, the American colonies swelled enormously in population. In 1700, that population was 257,060, rose to 635,083 in 1730, and again to 1,593,625 by 1760.[17] In 1775, the white population of the American colonies is estimated to have been 2,100,000, one third being in New England; slaves were an additional 500,000. This dramatic growth led to cheap colonial imports and markets for British goods. Exports rose from 10% to 37% of the total volume of English exports. The resulting fortunes were made in Britain, largely England, and colonial exploitation began to harden attitudes.


1             See SE Morrison, The Oxford History of the American People.

2             Samuel Bawlf, The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, 1577-1580, p. 297.

3             Roanoke Colony, at

4             Jamestown Settlement, at

5             For a general overview see British colonization of the Americas, at After 1789, there were 16 colonies, or territories in British America, see British North America, at There were an additional 17 territories that constituted the British West Indies, see the British West Indies, at At various times all these colonial outposts were provided governors and imperial protection. For a full list of the 287 English, or British, colonies world-wide claimed by Britain after the Middle Ages see World Statesmen Colonies (Great Britain/England), at

6             Plymouth Colony, at

7             See the Houghton Mifflin map,

8             World Statesmen, Massachusetts, Dominion of New England, at Index of Colonies and Possessions, at

9             Richard Middleton, Colonial America, p. 9.

10          Ibid, p. 12. Middleton also cites Hakluyt's book The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation.

11          Richard Middleton, op. cit., p. 39.

12          c1650 America was actually thought of as New England, plus New and Ould Virginia; the latter became the Carolinas.

13          Richard Middleton, op. cit. p. 188.

14          George Stanley, Canada's Soldiers, p. 61 and Reader's Digest, Heritage of Canada, p. 105.

15          Reader's Digest, Heritage of Canada, p. 106.

16          Major Generals Braddock and Webb were earlier losers in the new style of American warfare.

17          The Preconditions of the American Revolution, by Jack P Greene, from Richard D Brown, Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution 1760-1791,, p. 63.

home · introduction · genealogy · background · maps · bibliography · search · contact