Early America—Early Colonies

1585 to 1750
Lost Colony of Roanoke to Colony of Georgia

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Early Colonies

English Settlement in the New World began in earnest near the beginning of the 17th century, over 100 years after Spanish explorers first discovered the continent. By that time, the the Spanish empire had become over-extended and English sailors had proven their ability to resist Spanish domination.

An important factor that drove colonial development in the 17th century was the growing religious and political strife in England. The "Royalist" faction supported a strong monarchy and favored the traditional Anglican Church. The "Parliament" faction favored freedom of worship and more rights for democratic assemblies. As power in England shifted between these poles, disgruntled Englishmen sought refuge in the colonies. In general, Royalists tended to migrate to Virginia and Puritans tended to migrate to New England, but many colonists came to the New World for personal as well as political reasons. The colonial population grew to about 300,000 by the end of the 17th century, and to over 2 million by the time of the Revolutionary War. The most important early settlements were in Virginia and Massachusetts, and for almost one hundred years, most English colonial development was along the 600 miles of coastline between these two cities.

Virginia and Surrounding Colonies—Jamestown in Virginia was the first permanent settlement in America, and much of what we know about its earliest years comes from the journals of John Smith, one of the early leaders. Jamestown was first established by a private joint-stock company that hoped for quick returns on its investment, and most of the earliest colonists were adventurers rather than farmers. Jamestown only survived its first five years due to patient investors and tolerant Indians, but eventually John Rolfe, the husband of Pocahontas, established a profitable trade in tobacco. Eventually, as farmers and workers replaced gold-seeking adventurers, the colony began to thrive, and ultimately the settlement became a Crown colony, when Charles I sent William Berkeley to act as the first governor.

While the relationship of the colonists with the surrounding Indians was never good, Chief Powhatan stayed at peace with the Virginia colonists. Shortly after his death, however, the next Powhatan rose against the colonists and massacred hundreds of white settlers. The ensuing Powhatan Wars nearly obliterated the local tribes. A generation later, however, Indian trouble rose again, and was at the root of Nathaniel Bacon's Rebellion. It occurred when a group of rural farmers, led by Nathaniel Bacon, sought a commission to fight Indians that threatened their remote farms, and were able to get no help from Governor William Berkeley.

The population of Virginia and nearby regions swelled greatly during the English Civil Wars, when it became a refuge for Royalists. Many landed, aristocratic families sought to rebuild their fortunes there, and imported slaves from Africa in order to establish large plantations. Several generations later, Virginia was one of the most prosperous and populated colonies.

Once Virginia became established, the surrounding colonies, including the Carolinas and Maryland, also grew in population. The Carolinas attracted immigrants from all over Europe, as well as England, because it provided religious freedom, and Maryland was founded by George Calvert as a colony that was welcoming to Catholics. Most famously, Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn, a Quaker whose father had rendered valuable service to Charles II. The religious diversity of the colonies was almost as great an attraction to immigrants from throughout Europe as the inexpensive land, and freedom from oppressive governments. Although most settlers came from the British Isles, colonial America also welcomed immigrants from Holland, Sweden, France and Germany.

Perhaps the most idealistic founder of a colony was James Oglethorpe, who founded Georgia as a refuge for debtors. He prohibited both slavery and rum in his colony and envisioned a society of sober, self-sufficient farmers. But shortly after his death, the new governors reversed these prohibitions, and Georgia became a slave-owning state.

Puritans in New England—Stories of the Pilgrims' brave voyage in the Mayflower, and settlement of the Plymouth colony in New England are some of the romantic staples of Children's history, and in many ways, the Puritans were unique among American settlers. Many of the other early colonists of America were adventurers, traders, debtors, or convicts who sought to get rich quickly or escape from obligations. Many of the Pilgrims, on the other hand, such as William Brewster, and William Bradford, left prosperous, middle-class homes with their families in order to found new, more ideal society than the one they had left. They sought religous freedom, but also a permanent home rather than quick riches, and they prospered by industry and thrift. Their work ethic, idealism, independence and dedication to democracy greatly influenced the American character, and planted the seeds of the American Revolution.

Although the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts Colony sought religious freedom for themselves, they were intolerant of those whose ideas of worship differed from their own. For that reason, religious dissenters, such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, left Massachusetts to found nearby colonies in Connecticut and Rhode Island. In this way, the idea of religious pluralism—the idea that people were free to form independent communities of faith, rather than submit to a single religious authority, took firm hold in the colonies, at a time when most European nations had an established church.

The relationship between the British colonists and the New England Indians was complicated by intertribal rivalries. Indians tribes, such as the Wampanoag, who originally befriended the Pilgrims, did so partly because they were too weak to stand against their Indian enemies, and nearly two generations later, when they did decide to oppose the colonists, it was because they preferred to fight the white settlers than to retreat into the terrain of their mortal enemies, the Iroquois. King Philip's War was a devastating war, costing the lives of over 500 colonists, but utterly destroying the native Indian population of New England.

French Colonies and Conflicts—French colonies were founded along the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes region during the early 17th century. For the first hundred years of their mutual existence, there was little strife between them and the British colonists. During the 18th century however, as both France and Britain fought each other in Europe, they also waged war in the colonies. The French Indian Wars between England and France in the late 17th and mid 18th century were used as an excuse to wage war in the colonies in order to increase regional influence.

French colonies in America were not as numerous, or as populated as English settlements, partly because France refused to permit religious dissidents to develop colonies. Colonization was directed by the central government rather than private companies, and many of the early settlers were Catholic missionaries, intent on converting the native population. The French relied much more on their Indian allies for both trading and military support, and many French settlers married Indian women. For this reason the Indian allies of the French were numerous and loyal, and a major threat to the English colonies.

Characters—Early Colonies

Character/Date Short Biography

Mid Atlantic colonies

John Smith
Adventurer, leader and early settler at Jamestown. Befriended Pocahontas.
Daughter of an Indian Chieftain who helped the early settlers in the Jamestown Colony in Virginia.
d. 1618
Chief of the Powhatan confederacy and father of Pocahontas. Kept an uneasy peace with Jamestown settlers.
Nathaniel Bacon
Colonial farmer who opposed Governor Berkeley's Indian policies and led a major rebellion in Virginia.
William Berkeley
Royalist governor of Virginia who served many years both before and after the English Civil War.
Alexander Spotswood
Governor of Virginia famous for leading an expedition to open settlement of the Blue Ridge mountains.
George Calvert
Founded Maryland, with the goal of providing a haven of religous tolerance in the new world.
William Penn
Quaker, and founder of the colony of Pennsylvania.
James Oglethorpe
Founder of Georgia as buffer state between English and Spanish Colonies . Opposed Slavery.

New England Colonies

William Brewster
One of the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed on the Mayflower. Elder in Congressional Church.
Miles Standish
Military advisor to the Plymouth colony. Arrived on the Mayflower.
John Winthrop
Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
William Bradford
Governor of the Plymouth Colony of Pilgrims. Wrote the Mayflower Compact.
Benjamin Church
Leader of Plymouth colony forces during King Philip's War. Adopted Indian tactics and recruited Indians for his raids.
Anne Hutchinson
Female preacher who was exiled from the Plymouth colony, and later with Roger Williams, founded Rhode Island.
Roger Williams
Religious dissident. Founded Rhode Island and asserted freedom of religion.
John Eliot
Missionary who worked with the American Indians, and translated the bible into native Indian languages.
John Harvard
Founder of Harvard University, the first institution of higher education in the colonies.
Mary Dyer
Quaker woman who publicly preached in Puritan New England and was hanged after repeated warnings to stop.
Harry Vane
Early governor of the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts. Later was beheaded during the English Civil Wars.
William Phips
Colonial governor of Massachusetts during the Salem which trials, who served in several naval expeditions against the French of Canada.
Hannah Dustin
Pioneer woman who was captured by Indians, but made a dramatic escape, killing several of her captors.
Cotton Mather
Puritan minister in colonial New England who was a prolific writer and pamphleteer.
New England Indian who helped the pilgrims their first year in Plymouth Colony.
Indian chief who befriended the pilgrims and lived in peace with them for forty years in Massachusetts.
First American Indian encountered by the Pilgrims at the Plymouth colony.
King Philip
Leader of the Wampanoags who led the first serious uprising against the white settlers in New England.

French/Dutch colonies

Count Frontenac
Governor of New France from 1672 to 1698. Expanded fur trade, and fought with British.
General Montcalm
Military leader of New France during the Seven Year War; died at Battle of Quebec.
Madeline de Vercheres
Fended off a tribe of Indians attacking her for when she was only fourteen.
Led a group of volunteers form Montreal to ambush a force of Iroquois. The entire force was killed to a man.
Peter Stuyvesant
Last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam. Responsible for many improvements during his administration.


Captain Kidd
Experience sailor who eventually became involved in piracy, and is said to have hid his treasure on Long Island.
Notorious pirate of the Spanish Main who haunted the Coast of North Carolina and the West Indies.
Stede Bonnet
Respectable colonial merchant who decided to become a pirate.

Timeline—Early Colonies

AD YearEvent

Southeast Colonies

1584 First English expedition to Roanoake, Virginia is organized by Walter Raleigh.
1607 British colony at Jamestown is establishd by the Virginia Company of London.
1608 Pocahontas, daughter of chief Powhatan, saves the life of John Smith.
1617 Pocahontas marries John Rolfe and travels to England.
1619 "House of Burgesses", the first elected assembly in America is established in Virgina.
1619 First Africans slaves brought to the English colony at Jamestown.
1622 Indian massacre led by the Powhatan Confederacy kills 350 Jamestown colonists.
1624 Charles I makes Virginia a Crown colony but does not interfere in its operation.
1642 Royalist William Berkeley appointed governor of Virginia.
1644 Second Indian massacre of settlers leads to Powhatan Wars against Virginia tribes.
1649 Execution of Charles I sends a flood of Cavaliers to Virginia colonies.
1651-60 After first declaring for Charles II, Virginia colony submits to Cromwell's Commonwealth government.
1660-63 Britain passes Navigation acts that outlaw colonial trade with foreign countries.
1663 Charter for Carolina Province given to eight English noblemen who allow settlers from all over Europe.
1676 Nathaniel Bacon leads a rebellion because of the governor's failure to protect settlers from Indians.
1711-17 Tuscarora and Yamasee Wars decimate native tribes in the Carolina colony.
1716 Expedition to western Virginia led by governor Spotswood opens up Shenandoah Valley to settlers.
1718 Notorious pirate Blackbeard is killed after blockading Charleston harbor.
1729 Carolina colony is split into North and South regions.
1732 James Oglethorpe founds Georgia as a penal colony for debtors and petty criminals.
1750 Oglethorpe's ban on slavery in Georgia colony is lifted.

Northeast Colonies

1620 First Pilgrims sail on the Mayflower, and settle in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
1621-57 William Bradford serves as governor of Plymouth colony, celebrates first Thankgsgiving.
1625 Dutch settlers found city of New Amsterdam on what is now Manhattan Island
1630 John Winthrop arrives in Massachusetts; founds city of Boston on Charles River.
1634 First settlers sent by Catholic George Calvert to establish a Maryland colony.
1636 Thomas Hooker, a prominent Puritan leader, founded a Connecticut colony in the region of Hartford.
1636 Roger Williams a religious dissident from Boston, founds a colony in Rhode Island.
1636 Harvard University is founded as a seminary by cleryman John Harvard.
1637 Anne Hutchinson and her followers are exiled from Boston and settle in Rhode Island.
1634-38 Pequot War in Connecticut decimates the Pequot tribe.
1638 New Haven colony in Connecticut is established by Puritan settlers without a charter.
1638 Colonists from Sweden begin to settle in the region of Delaware.
1664 Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam falls under the control of the British and becomes New York.
1675-78 King Philip's War is the most deadly conflict between Massachusetts settlers and New England tribes.
1681 William Penn sends three shiploads of settlers to his colony in Pennsylvania
1687 Connecticut colonists hide their "Charter" in an Oak Tree, rather than surrender to a Royalist governor.
1692 The territory of Maine becomes part of Massachusetts colony.
1692-93 Salem Witch Trials result in the deaths of over twenty Puritan colonists.
1696-99 Captain Kidd is chartered by the colony of New York to fight pirates, but resorts to piratery himself.
1723 Benjamin Franklin arrives in Philadelphia to work as a typesetter

Border Wars with France

1688-97 King Williams War (a.k.a Williamite War in Ireland)
1702-13 Queen Anne's War (a.k.a. War of the Spanish Succession)
1720 Mississippi Bubble—Financial crisis in France caused by land speculation in Mississippi territory.
1740-48 King George's War (a.k.a. War of the Austrian Succession)
1756-63 French Indian Wars (a.k.a Seven Year's War)

Recommended Reading—Early Colonies

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Selections

Guerber - Story of the Thirteen Colonies   Smith's Adventures to Two Wars with the French (26)
Marshall - This Country of Ours   Captain John Smith to The Mississippi Bubble (35)

Supplemental Recommendations

Evans - America First—100 Stories from Our History   Adventures of John Smith to Hannah Dustin (13)
Eggleston - Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans   The First Governor in Boston to Daniel Boone's Daughter (23)
Pratt - American History Stories, Volume I    entire book
Otis Kaler - Peter of Amsterdam    entire book
Otis Kaler - Ruth of Boston    entire book
Otis Kaler - Calvert of Maryland    entire book
Otis Kaler - Richard of Jamestown    entire book
Otis Kaler - Mary of Plymouth    entire book
Otis Kaler - Stephen of Philadelphia    entire book
Pumphrey - Stories of the Pilgrims    entire book
Burton - Massasoit    entire book
Stockton - Buccaneers and Pirates of Our Coasts    entire book
Abbott - King Philip    entire book
Drake - Indian History for Young Folks   Virginia Colonized to French and Indian Wars (6)
Morris - Historical Tales, Vol I: American   Sir William Phips to How the Charter was Saved (3)
Morris - Historical Tales: American II   Lost Colony of Roanoke to Oglethorpe Saves Georgia (7)
Abbott - Miles Standish the Puritan Captain    entire book

Also Recommended

Perkins - The Puritan Twins    entire book
Morris - Heroes of Progress in America   Roger Williams to Alexander Hamilton (10)
Southworth - Builders of Our Country: Book I   John Smith and Pocahontas to Sir William Johnson (18)
Nye - Comic History of the United States   Thirteen Original Colonies to The Revolutionary War (14)

I: Introductory, II: Intermediate, C: College Prep