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History of Colonial America, colonial possessions or dependencies in the western hemisphere formed by European nations. European countries developed colonies for many reasons, but primarily to generate income. They used colonies to provide raw materials for trade and to serve as markets for finished products. English colonies eventually became dominant in North America because many settlers were drawn to their political systems. These systems encouraged representative government, religious toleration, economic growth, and cultural diversity.
After Christopher Columbus explored the Americas in 1492, the nations of Western Europe—Spain, Portugal, France, The Netherlands, and England—created vast colonial empires in the western hemisphere. The Spanish empire in Mesoamerica (the lands from present-day Mexico to Panama) sent great wealth to Spain in the form of gold and silver. The Portuguese colony in Brazil and the French and English possessions in the West Indies provided sugar, a valuable crop to sell in European markets. In addition, the French, Dutch, and English colonies in North America exported huge quantities of furs. These goods stimulated the European economy and pushed forward a commercial revolution that expanded European trade and wealth.
Yet within two centuries the number of European nations with colonial possessions in America began to dwindle as a result of conquests by rival nations. By 1700 England had pushed the Dutch out of North America, and in 1763 England and Spain divided the French empire in North America. Shortly thereafter, most of the British colonies on the mainland of North America revolted against imperial control and established their independence in 1776 as the United States of America. Three decades later, many of the colonies controlled by Portugal and Spain followed the example of the British colonies and gained their independence. By 1820 few European colonies remained in the western hemisphere.
This article focuses on the history of the English settlements that achieved independence as the United States of America. It covers their experience during the colonial period, which lasted from 1607 to 1763; a separate article covers the era of the American Revolution, which began in 1763.
Four themes are central to the colonial period of American history. First, property-owning settlers created an increasingly free and competitive political system based on representative institutions of government. Second, the diversity of religious belief among the settlers gradually eroded support for an established church and promoted a new ideal of religious toleration. Third, the settlers created a bustling economy based on communities of independent farm families in New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies and plantations owned by wealthy planters and worked by English indentured servants and African slaves in the Southern colonies. Fourth, colonial culture became more diverse after 1700 because of the influx of many African peoples—Senegalese, Gambians, Ibo, Yoruba, Kongo, among others—and various European ethnic groups—Scots, Scots-Irish, Dutch, and German. However, by 1763 the settlers had begun to fashion a common cultural identity rooted in the English language, English legal and political institutions, and the shared experience of life in America.
For younger readers
Barrett, Tracy. Growing up in Colonial America. Millbrook, 1995. For readers in grades 4 to 6.
Burgan, Michael. Colonial and Revolutionary Times. Watts, 2003. For readers in grades 5 to 8.
Doherty, Kieran. Puritans, Pilgrims, and Merchants: Founders of the Northeastern Colonies. Oliver, 1998. History of individual colonies and biographies of their leaders. For younger readers.
Doherty, Kieran. Soldiers, Cavaliers, and Planters: Settlers of the Southeastern Colonies. Oliver, 1999. History of individual colonies and biographies of their leaders. For younger readers.
Egger-Bovet, Howard, and Marlene Smith-Baranzini. Book of the American Colonies. Little, Brown, 1995. For readers in grades 5 to 8.
Jaycox, Faith. The Colonial Era: An Eyewitness History. Facts on File, 2002. A solid reference for readers in grade 10 and up.
Colonial Life (political)
Hakim, Joy. Making 13 Colonies. Rev. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1998. The story of the forming of the original American colonies. For grades 5 to 8.
Katz, Stanley Nider, and others. Colonial America: Essays in Politics and Social Development. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2000. An anthology of readings by top scholars provides students with insights on the colonial period.
Morgan, Edmund S. Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. Norton, 1989. How American leaders successfully limited popular power by resisting popular sovereignty.
Newcomb, Benjamin H. Political Partisanship in the American Middle Colonies, 1700-1776. Louisiana State University Press, 1995. The origins of the American party system.
Colonial Life (social)
Bailyn, Bernard. The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction. Knopf, 1985. Traces the origins and destinies of hundreds of ordinary people.
Bailyn, Bernard. Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution. Knopf, 1986. Demonstrates how America's demographic gain was Britain's loss.
Holliday, Carl. Woman's Life in Colonial Days. Dover, 1999. Draws on letters and diaries to dispel the image of the harsh life of colonial woman.
Nash, Gary B. Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America. 4th ed. Prentice Hall, 1991, 1999. This groundbreaking study from 1974 reveals the extent to which natives and blacks were active participants in colonial life.
Norton, Mary Beth. Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society. Knopf, 1996. Weaves theory and reality to reveal the variety of colonial life.
Reich, Jerome R. Colonial America. 4th ed. Prentice Hall, 1997. Covers economic, social, and cultural aspects of colonial life.
Henretta, James A., B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Priscilla Alden Burke Professor of History, University of Maryland. Author of Evolution and Revolution: American Society, 1600-1820 and America’s History.
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