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European Colonization North of Mexico Next
Digital History ID 3572


Prior to the seventeenth century, all European attempts to plant permanent colonies north of Mexico--with the exception of a Spanish fortress at St. Augustine in Florida and a small Spanish settlement in New Mexico--failed. Unprepared for the harsh and demanding environment, facing staunch resistance from the indigenous population, and lacking adequate financing and supplies, sixteenth-century French and English efforts to establish permanent North American settlements in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, the St. Lawrence Valley, Florida, and Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina were short-lived failures.

During the early seventeenth century, however, national and religious rivalries and the growth of a merchant class eager to invest in overseas expansion and commerce encouraged renewed efforts at colonization. England established its first enduring settlement in Jamestown in 1607; France in Quebec in 1608; the Dutch in what would become Albany in 1614; and the Swedes a fur-trading colony in the lower Delaware Valley in 1638. As early as 1625, nearly 10,000 Europeans had migrated to the North American coast. But only about eighteen hundred were actually living on the continent in that year, due mainly to the staggering number of deaths from disease during the initial stages of settlement.

Seventeenth-century European settlement took sharply contrasting forms. Perhaps the most obvious difference was demographic. The English migration was far larger and more gender-balanced than that of the Dutch, the French, or the Spanish. The explanation for the rapid growth of England's North American colonies lies in the existence of a large "surplus" population. Early seventeenth-century England contained a large number of migrant farmhands and unemployed and under-employed workers. Most English migrants to North America were recruited from the lower working population--farm workers, urban laborers, and artisans--who were suffering from economic distress, including sharply falling wages (which declined by half between 1550 and 1650) and a series of failed harvests. Outside of New England, most English immigrants--perhaps as many as 70 percent or more--were indentured servants, who agreed to serve a term of service in exchange for transportation across the Atlantic.

Religious persecution was a particularly powerful force motivating English colonization. England allowed religious dissidents to migrate to the New World. Some 30,000 English Puritans migrated to New England, while Maryland became a refuge for Roman Catholics and Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Rhode Island, havens for Quakers. The refugees from religious persecution included Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and a small number of Catholics, to say nothing of religious minorities from continental Europe, including Huguenots and members of the Dutch and German Reformed churches.

Europe's North American settlements differed markedly in their economies. While the Dutch, French, and Swedish settlements relied mainly on trade in fish and furs, English settlement took a variety of forms. In New England, the economy was organized largely around small family farms and urban communities engaged in fishing, handicrafts, and Atlantic commerce, with most of the population living in small compact towns. In the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia, the economy was structured largely around larger and much more isolated farms and plantations raising tobacco, with an average of only about two dozen families living in a twenty-five square mile area. In the Carolinas and the British West Indies, economic life was organized around larger but less isolated plantations growing rice, indigo, coffee, cotton, and sugar.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the population in Britain's North American colonies was growing at an unprecedented rate. At a time when Europe's population was increasing just 1 percent a year, New England's growth rate was 2.6 or 2.7 percent annually. By the early eighteenth century, the population was also growing extremely rapidly in the middle Atlantic and southern colonies, largely as a result of a low death rate and a sex ratio that was more balanced than in Europe itself.

By 1700, Britain's North American colonies offered an unprecedented degree of social equality and political liberty for white men. The colonies differed from England itself in the proportion of white men who owned property and were able to vote, as well as in the population's ethnic and religious diversity. Yet by the beginning of the eighteenth century, it was also clear that colonial expansion involved the displacement of the indigenous population and that the colonial economy depended heavily on various forms of unfree labor, of which the most rapidly growing form consisted of black and sometimes Indian slaves, who could be found in every one of Britain's North American colonies.



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