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Growth Through Immigration, European and African Immigration in the Colonies

involuntary immigrants, animists, African royalty, geographic isolation, upper Mississippi River

The Europeans and Africans added new layers of complexity to the territories named the New World. European military technology, commercial wealth, and immunity to diseases such as smallpox, influenza, and tuberculosis generally gave Europeans an advantage over the original inhabitants. Yet the Native Americans knew the land and were skilled negotiators, eloquent orators, and fierce fighters. Wresting control of the land from the indigenous peoples took the newcomers some 300 years to accomplish.

Colonists established a variety of outposts for their European empires. By the 17th and 18th centuries, the French had settlements around the Great Lakes and the upper Mississippi River, and at New Orleans. The Spanish established settlements in Florida, the Southwest, and California. The British entrenched themselves in New England and the South, while the Russians settled on the West Coast, and the Swedes and the Dutch on the East Coast. This short list fails to capture the ethnic complexity of early European settlement in what is now the United States. The various settlements included Scots, Welsh, Irish, Germans, Finns, Greeks, and Italians, as well as Maya, Aztec, and African slaves.

European settlements, both in the North and the South, depended on the skills and labor of these indentured European servants and, particularly after 1700, of enslaved Africans. The majority of the early European immigrants were not free—60 percent in the 17th century and 51 percent in the 18th century arrived as indentured servants or prisoners. However, these Europeans could hope to achieve freedom at the end of their servitude. Africans were treated differently; neither they nor their children could realistically hope to attain freedom. A few Africans arriving in the New World were free men sailing the Atlantic as part of an economic network connecting Europe, Africa, and the Americas. The vast majority, however, were enslaved, purchased in various parts of Africa to work on European plantations, farms, and homesteads. Most Africans came from coastal West Africa and the Niger River region. Smaller numbers came from central, southern, and eastern Africa. Twenty-one percent of the population on the eve of the American Revolution (1775-1783) was of African descent, almost all working as slaves.

Ethnically and linguistically the African migration was as diverse as the European; culturally it was more so. Most Africans caught in the slave trade were skilled farmers, weavers, and metallurgists; smaller numbers were herders, hunters, foragers, or city dwellers. Some had been enslaved in their homelands and some were African royalty. They included Muslims, Christians, and others who worshiped one god, as well as those who worshiped multiple deities, such as animists and ancestor worshipers. These involuntary immigrants faced a hard life in the New World. Their labor and skills were exploited, their specific national origins were forgotten, and their cultural traditions were partially suppressed. Yet Africans in America constructed flexible family networks that allowed their population to grow and expand in spite of enslavement. The family protected its members from some of the harshest features of enslavement and preserved elements of religious belief, vocabulary, poetic tradition, family values, craft and artistic practice, and other aspects of African heritage.

European American populations generally thrived as they expanded their control over the continent. The predominately British Protestant settlements on the East Coast grew rapidly during the colonial period because of the immigration of women and men, nearly all of whom married and had many children. Colonial American women, free and enslaved, gave birth every two years on average, pushing the natural increase (the surplus of births over deaths) of Britain’s American colonies to twice that of the Old World. In addition, Britain absorbed the smaller Dutch and Swedish colonies on the East Coast before the end of the 17th century. The more isolated French, Russian, and Spanish Roman Catholic settlements to the west remained relatively small, in part because few women resided at these military posts, missionary compounds, and trading stations. Their geographic isolation inhibited immigration, keeping growth rates low and populations small.

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