American Revolution/Chapter 1: The English Colonies in 1750/Lesson 1

Subject classification: this is a history resource.

In Lesson 1, we will review the manner in which each individual colony came into existence. The first few years of the colony's history and major activities will be studied, but the 150 years of colonial history prior to the American Revolution are not the subject of this course. Chapters 2 and 3 will provide overviews of this time period and explain the situation of the American colonies at the outset of the French & Indian War.

Pay careful attention to the Key Terms listed below. Links for additional reading will be provided throughout, but these terms are those that may appear on the section quiz.

Key Terms


Lesson Content


English Colonization

Elizabeth I, 1558-1603

The story of English colonial ventures begins in the 1500s. Unlike England's southern neighbors, religious, economic, and political upheaval prevented the British monarchy from expanding westward. After excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church, Henry VIII founded the Church of England and named himself as its Head. His heirs, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I struggled over which religious doctrine, Catholic or Protestant, would dominate England. Edward was a devout Protestant and favored his father's Church of England. Mary was the complete opposite: a devout Catholic who returned papal dominance to the British isles. After Mary's death in 1558, Elizabeth assumed the throne. Knowing that the continual religious upheaval was likely to destroy England, Elizabeth instituted a compromise to restore order within the realm. The Elizabethan Settlement provided England with a Protestant theology dominated by Catholic ritual. Elizabeth also secured the English economic position. The enclosure movement transitioned land from agricultural production to livestock grazing. Landlords found it more profitable to raise sheep for wool than grow wheat; however, this market flooded with supply in the 1550s and collapsed. She instituted several reforms following the collapse of the wool market that expanded the authority of England's merchant class, removed competition, and encouraged agricultural variation. Elizabeth's final contribution to the pre-colonization era was the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Philip II of Spain, former husband of Elizabeth's sister, Mary, sent his armada (Spanish, for fleet) against England when Elizabeth executed her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, for offering abdication in favor of Philip. (Elizabeth knew he would surely return England to Catholic domination.)

With stability in England, Elizabeth encouraged the foundation of colonies in North America. Richard Hakluyt, an Oxford clergyman, proposed in a 1584 essay titled Discourse Of Western Planting three reasons why England should establish New World colonies. These colonies would:

  • Create new markets for English goods,
  • Siphon off the excess population and alleviate poverty and unemployment, and
  • Provide raw materials not available in England.[1]

In the early 1580s, Elizabeth authorized Sir Walter Raleigh to send an expedition to the New World in search of a suitable site for colonization. In 1584, the expedition, under Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, landed in what would become North Carolina. They returned home after staying two months. A second expedition, under Sir Richard Grenville, was sent the following year to found a colony in the newly christened Virginia named Roanoke. After only a year, the 100 occupants wanted to return home. A second attempt was tried in 1588. When reinforcements came three years later, the colonists were nowhere to be found. The only clue to their whereabouts was the word Croatoan carved into a tree. (The "Lost Colony of Roanoke" remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of history.)[2]

See also


The Chesapeake




Though it had settlements only in the Florida peninsula, Gulf of Mexico, and far west, Spain maintained a blanket claim over all North America. This did not prevent James I from granting a settlement charter to the Virginia Company, a group of merchants, knights, and gentlemen, in 1606. Even though there was only one charter, the group was divided into two parts, one based in London called itself the London Company and the other based in Plymouth called itself the Plymouth Company. Their charters overlapped in the center but housed a provision stating one could not establish a colony within one hundred miles of an existing colony.[3][4]

Location of charter granted to the London Company and Plymouth Company. The "Po" shows the site of the Popham Colony and the "J" of Jamestown.

The Plymouth Company's first endeavour, the Popham Colony lasted only one winter. In August 1607, an expedition of men built a fort at the mouth of the Kennebec River in present-day Maine named St. George. The next spring, the fort was abandoned and the Plymouth Company waned. The London Company was far more successful. After a harrowing voyage across the Atlantic, just over one hundred men landed on a small peninsula about thirty-two miles up the James River from its mouth in the Chesapeake Bay. With the exception of the large, swampy marsh nearby, the site was perfect for the first settlement. There was plenty of nearby anchorage for the mooring of boats. Located on a peninsula, the colony was easy to defend against both water and land attacks. They named it Jamestown after the king. [5]

The Virginia colony struggled to gain a sure foothold in the tender wilderness of North America. Strict rules and labor requirements imposed by colonial governor John Smith assured survival in the first years. When Smith returned to England, Jamestown suffered its "starving time," a period during which most colonists died from hunger and disease. When John Rolfe discovered a smoother-tasting variety of tobacco in 1616, Virginia finally began to prosper. Rolfe also married the native princess Pocahontas, ensuring calmer relations with the local tribe. Two years later, London officials instituted new rules governing how individuals earned land in the new colony. They also established the first representative assembly; it met one year later in the Jamestown church on July 30, 1619. That year also saw the development of two other firsts for the colony: a ship arrived with 90 women as potential wives for the colonists and another with the first African Americans. Despite these prosperous years, tensions with the natives over land and trade led to back-and-forth struggles between 1622 and 1624. When the British government assumed authority over the colony in 1624, only a mere 1,132 people (of over 14,000 emigrants) were still alive.[6]

At first, Virginia had revealed to be an unhealthy and hazardous place and when tobacco became an important crop, it helped to create an economic boom for the colony. To increase the supply of labor, the Virginia Company enacted in 1618 a new system of land grants : each settlers was to receive a parcel of lands and another 50 acres for each additional person (in order to encourage settlers to grow tobacco and make the colony survive.) The following year, the company sanctioned the formation of the House of Burgesses, the first legislative assembly in the new world. Then, when Virginia became a royal colony in 1624 because the London Company failed to protect its inhabitants from Indian raids that killed around 350 settlers. As a royal colony, Virginia expanded and grew to the detriment of natives on the frontier. In the meantime, the House of Burgesses became a powerful club of landowners at the expense of the electorate, increasingly restricted. Royal authory was challenged in 1676 when Governor Berkeley failed to respond to Indian attacks by force. The settlers, many facing poverty, took the matter in their own hands and led by Nathaniel Bacon, they burned the colonial capital of Jamestown.[7]



Sir George Calvert served as the principal secretary of state under James I. After declaring his Catholic faith, he resigned his position with the king but became enstated as the first Baron of Baltimore in the peerage of Ireland. In 1632, James' son, Charles I, granted Lord Baltimore a land charter in the Chesapeake. Lord Baltimore died before he could assume control of the charter and it passed to his son, Cecilius Calvert.[8] According to the land grant, the Calverts received an area between the Potomac River and the 40th Parallel. Charles named this land after his wife, Henrietta Maria of France. In addition to the land, the king granted large governmental powers provided they be in accordance with the laws of England and gain the approval of the men of the colony.[9]

Land grant given to Lord Baltimore.

The colony of Maryland prospered from its start. Cecil Calvert selected his brother, Leonard Calvert, to serve as governor of the colony and found the first settlement. In 1634, they built a town near the mouth of St. George's River and named it St. Mary's. Unlike Jamestown, St. Mary's was "found to be [in] a very commodious situation for a town, in regard the land is good, the air wholesome and pleasant, the river affords a safe harbor for ships of any burden, and very bold shore; fresh water and wood there is in great plenty, and the place so naturally fortified, as with little difficulty, it will be defended from any enemy."[10] Also unlike Jamestown, the first settlers in Maryland had the benefit of Jamestown's mistakes in the founding of their colony. The proportion of laborers to gentlemen was higher and there were greater incentives to work.

Instead of quarreling with the local Indians, the colonists feared most an attack from neighboring Virginia. Under the Virginia Company's original charter, the land granted to Lord Baltimore was a part of Virginia. When the charter was absolved and Virginia became a royal colony, technically distribution of the land became the prerogative of the crown; however, many Virginians did not agree. They established a trading settlement on Kent Island in 1631 (predating St. Mary's) and argued that it belonged under the governance of Virginia. Maryland's governor knew the territory lay within the boundaries of Baltimore's grant and petitioned the king to address the issue. A royal proclamation declared the territory to be a part of Maryland and alleviated a potential war between the two colonies.[11]

New England


By the end of the reign of Elizabeth I in 1603, Protestantism was the dominant religion in England. The Anglican communion was accepted as the state church and all other forms of worship were prohibited; however, there were some who believed that Anglicans were too conservative in ritual and doctrine and that Anglicanism too closely resembled Catholicism. Those who desired the abolition of popish customs and errors in doctrine called themselves Puritans. Puritans believed in the personal obligation to seek God and find grace. They sought to reform the evils of society by reinforcing the values of thrift, diligence, and delayed gratification. Puritans denounced the acquisition of wealth and insisted that the purpose of human life was to prepare for salvation in the next world.[12]

Two prominant groups of Puritans existed. There were those who believed that their dissatisfaction with the Anglican church could be ameliorated via specific reforms. They desired to fight the church from within and make changes to bring its doctrine into harmony with their beliefs. Today they are known as the Nonconformists. The other group advocated complete separation with the Church of England as the only means by which religious purity could be achieved. They believed that each congregation should manage its own religious affairs and choose its own minister (a movement later known as congregationalism). This second group is known as the Separatists.[13]

In the founding of New England, the settlers at Plymouth (the Pilgrims) were Separatists while those landing in Massachusetts Bay were Nonconformists. Eventually, however, the Massachusetts Bay settlers did adopt the congregationalist view of religion.

Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, & Maine


Settlement at Popham, in the current state of Maine, predated the lower colonies around the Massachusetts Bay, by 17 years. The Popham Colony was a short-lived adventure; by the time of the American Revolution, only a few towns of any significant size existed. As a consequence, the Province of Maine was absorbed by the larger Massachusetts Bay in 1664 by grant of Charles II.

After a two month journey that began in September 1620, 41 men signed a declaration of self-governance and alliance aboard the Mayflower. The Mayflower Compact, as the declaration became known, provided a promise of cooperation among the settlers to found a colony "unto which [they] promise[d] all due Submission and Obedience."[14]

Location of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

It appeared early on that the New England environment matched the spirit of the Puritans that had landed on her shores. With harsh winters and rocky soil, the cultivation of New England required diligent, manual labor. Despite this, the first inhabitants of the Massachusetts colony, the Pilgrims, landed at Plymouth Rock and occupied an abandoned native village with already cleared fields. They named their settlement Plymouth. After a rough first winter, good crops and annual emigration stabilized the population such that 1,500 English lived there only 10 years later.[15] The Colony of New Plymouth (so named to distinguish it from the town) was short-lived. It was located poorly for cultivation of land or the fur trade. It had a very shallow port and could not compete with more northerly fishing posts. Finally, the type of Separatism practiced by the Pilgrims quickly lost muster in England and failed to contribue annual immigrants for the colony's expansion. In 1691, a new charter was issued by the crown to the Massachusetts Bay colony that consumed the land grant of Plymouth and absolved its charter.[16]

Plymouth Colony, showing borders of original towns and the location relative to the Massachusetts Bay Colony

In 1630, under the leadership of John Winthrop, a much larger Puritan contingent obtained a charter from the king as the Massachusetts Bay Company. They quickly moved their charter, colonists, and capital funds to the New World and settled north of Plymouth at a site they named Boston. As emigration increased throughout the 1630s and 1640s, the new colonists spread further inland, establishing towns with churches and schools. Early disagreement over local government influenced the spread of these settlements; as individuals found they disagreed with the established order, they simply moved with their like-minded peers further inland and set up their own town government.[17] The Crown revoked the colony's independent charter in 1684 and sent a royal governor two years later.

Rhode Island & Providence Plantations


Roger Williams established the town of Providence (so-named because he believed divine providence had led him to the site) in 1636. Establishment Puritans exiled Williams (first to Salem, and then later out of the colony's boundaries) because he preached against congregationalism in favor of the separation of church and state. A year later, another exile, Anne Hutchinson founded Portsmouth nearby. Together, the two towns grew in size.

As settlers from Massachusetts Bay moved westward and southwestward, they clashed with the Pequot Indians of the Connecticut Valley. The Pequots refused to pay tribute to the settlers and rebelled. The Naragansetts, the tribe surrounding the newly-formed colony of Providence Plantations allied with the English to drive the Pequot out of the valley, an era known as the Pequot War. The indiscriminate slaughter of the Pequot tribe appalled the Naragansett. They became subsequent victims of the Massachusetts Bay when a decade later the colonists attempted to destroy their power by convincing the Pequot to take revenge. [18]

Williams received a charter in 1647 that permitted the merger of the four plantations around Naragansett Bay. A separate "colony" appeared in the southern portion centered around an island in the bay. This island, Rhode, along with the town of Portsmouth, formed the separate colony of Rhode Island. Oliver Cromwell supported the separation of the two areas, but after the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II combined the two areas into one colony.

New Haven & Connecticut

Map of Connecticut

The area of Connecticut was originally contested with the Dutch; by the late 1630s, however, it was firmly in the hands of the British. Like many of the other New England colonies, Connecticut was the result of a merger between smaller settlement areas: New Haven, Connecticut, and Saybrook. The major boost in settlement occurred in 1636 when Thomas Hooker led a group of 100 unhappy settlers from Massachusetts Bay into the Connecticut River Valley to found Wethersfield. Along with the settlements at Hartford and Windsor, leaders from the three towns constructed the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut in 1638. Though a small document, the Fundamental Orders established the role of government and the rights of citizens in the colony. The three separate areas were combined by royal decree in 1662 as the Colony of Connecticut. Under this charter, King Charles II granted Connecticut's governor, John Winthrop, Jr., all the land south of Massachusetts to the Atlantic and west of the Naragansett River to the Pacific, ignoring the land claims of the settlement at New Haven as well as the claim of New Netherlands.[19]

New Hampshire


In 1629, the land between the Merrimack and Piscataqua Rivers was named New Hampshire. Several settlements comprised the area but the towns were unable to confederate given their religious differences. Portsmouth was Anglican while Dover was both Anglican and Puritan. Exeter and Hampton were both Puritan, but of the orthodox variety. Massachusetts used the regional weakness to assert its interpretation of its charter as rationale for sovereignty over the territory. According the Massachusetts charter, anything above three miles north of the Merrimack River belonged to her; Massachusetts calculated its territory using a line three miles from the northernmost reach of the river. This included the New Hampshire settlements. The New Hampshire towns accepted this control until the territory brought a case before the Lords Chief Justices of the King's Bench and Common Pleas in 1677. Two years later, the King granted a royal charter to the colony.[20]

Middle Colonies


New York

Pennsylvania & Delaware

New Jersey

Southern Colonies


The Carolinas


Important Dates

  • 1558 -- Elizabeth I ascends English throne
  • 1588 -- Defeat of Spanish Armada; Attempt to colonize Roanoke Island
  • 1607 -- Foundation of colony at Jamestown
  • 1620 -- Foundation of colony at Plymouth
  • 1632 -- Charles I grants land to Lord Baltimore
  • 1634 -- Foundation of St. Mary's in Maryland
  • 1636 -- Exile of Roger Williams/Anne Hutchinson; settlement of Providence Plantations
  • 1662 -- Merger of New Haven, Saybrook, and Connecticut under one royal charter


  1. Hakluyt, Richard. (1584). Discourse of Western Planting.
  2. Chitwood, Oliver. (1948). A History of Colonial America, 3rd Ed. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. pp. 43-45
  3. Avalon Project. Yale Law School. "The First Charter of Virginia"
  4. Avalon, pp. 50-52.
  5. Avalon, pp. 52-53.
  6. Tindall, George; Shi, David; & Pearcy, Thomas. (2001). The Essential America, Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 13-14.
  7. Stanard, Mary N. (2009). The Story of Bacon's Rebellion. pp. 19-20.
  8. Chitwood, pp. 79-80.
  9. The Charter of Maryland (1632).
  10. Chitwood, pp. 80-81.
  11. Chitwood, pp.81-83.
  12. Taylor, Alan. (2001). American Colonies: The Settling of North America. New York: Penguin Books.
  13. Chitwood, pp. 89-90.
  14. The Mayflower Compact. (1620).
  15. Taylor, pp. 159, 165.
  16. Chitwood, pp. 100-101.
  17. Chitwood, p. 165
  18. Taylor, pp. 194-197.
  19. Chitwood, pp.123-129.
  20. Chitwood, pp. 135-137.

Additional Resources

  • The Avalon Project: This site contains many primary sources relating to legal issues in colonial America. There is also a nice selection of primary sources for modern times. The site is divided into centuries.
  • Virtual Jamestown: This site has searchable databases of first-hand records concerning the foundation of Virginia and its early years.

Section Questions

  • Read the wikipedia entries for Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. Describe the religious, social, and political climate Elizabeth I inherited when she assumed the throne in 1558.
  • How are the sciences of archaeology, genetics, and climatology helping to solve the mystery of the Lost Colony of Roanoke?
  • The English settlers routinely played the natives against one another. How did the encouragement of inter-tribal fighting, like the Pequot War in Rhode Island and Connecticut, benefit the English colonists?

Section Quiz

  1. Which of the following statements is true of the Chesapeake colonies?
    1. The Maryland charter to Lord Baltimore included the territory where the Virginia Company founded Jamestown.
    2. The profitability of tobacco allowed the Virginia colony to grow and prosper.
    3. Both Maryland and Virginia were granted charters that included clauses relating to religious tolerance.
    4. St. Mary's and Jamestown became centers of significant trade in the British triangular trade routes.
    5. Relations with other colonies were mediated through peaceful congresses of leaders in both colonies.
  2. Which of the following statements is not true of the New England colonies?
    1. The geographic boundaries of the colonies on the eve of revolution had changed since their foundation.
    2. Religious disagreements, specifically related to the separation of church and state, formed significant rationale for the foundation of the grouping of colonies in the southern area of New England.
    3. The Popham Colony pre-dated English settlement in every other American colony but is not remembered because it failed after a few years.
    4. Boston emerged as the capital of a unified Confederation of New England after the defeat of the Connecticut Valley Pequot Indians in 1664
    5. Leaders of the several New England colonies drafted governing documents that contained many of the freedoms later espoused in the Constitution.