Colonial society

colonial society

An artistic representation of colonial society

Around 2.5 million people of European origin lived in the British colonies. Only about 58 percent were of English heritage; the rest were a conglomerate of Irish, Scottish, German, Dutch and other European nationalities. British colonists shared the American continent with the French to the west and north-west, and the Spanish to the south, always worriedly aware of their presence. Living among the British colonists were approximately 500,000 black slaves. Kidnapped from the west coast of Africa and sold into unpaid servitude in America, African-Americans and their descendants existed as the chattels (property) of those who had purchased them. On the fringes of white settlement and beyond the frontier lived tens of thousands of Native Americans. They belonged to one of almost 500 tribal groups: Shawnee, Cherokee, Ottawa, Mohawk, Seneca and others. Its myriad of people and places made colonial America a fertile melting pot of backgrounds, ethnicities and beliefs.

Although almost three million Europeans and African-American slaves lived in the 13 colonies, most did so in small or isolated communities. Colonial America had few cities, and the places that considered themselves as such were very small by today’s standards. America’s largest city, New York, had approximately 25,000 residents. Boston, which later became the crucible of the revolution, had somewhere in the region of 12,000. American cities were centers of trade and shipping, rather than industrial production. Most American colonists lived as farmers and planters, either in rural communities, small villages or in virtual solitude on the frontier. Because of their isolation, these local communities became self-reliant and largely self-sufficient. Travel between American towns and villages was notoriously difficult, due to treacherous roads, unpredictable weather and the threat of hostile natives. For this reason, many Americans had not traveled more than a couple of dozen miles from their hometown. Communities and individuals became insular, suspicious of outsiders and outside interference. They feared the native tribes, slave escapes and uprisings, the French and Spanish, people from other colonies, even the city dwellers in their own colony.

“Figures on adult heights indicate an exceptionally high level of nutrition among the colonial population, especially regarding access to protein-rich red meat… Based on what is known of colonial diets, it would appear that they were fully adequate concerning calorie intake… and probably provided a balance of vitamins.”
Thomas L. Purvis, historian

Despite its apparent ethnic diversity, society in the 13 colonies was shaped largely by British values and conceptions. It was rural in structure and composition, so the wealthy farmer or plantation owner was a figure of significance, not only economically but also in the social and political hierarchy. The South Carolina planter played by Mel Gibson in the film The Patriot was a fair representation of this: ownership of a large and successful estate elevated a man socially and, in most cases, earned him a seat in the colonial assembly. These gentlemen of the planter-aristocracy were owed due respect, and this was marked by shows of deference from the lower classes, such as the doffing of caps. To many, this hierarchy was the natural order of things. Men of talent, ability and intelligence were born into the upper classes; commoners knew their place. It was an idea that would come under scrutiny, and indeed challenge, during the American Revolution. Colonial American society was also deeply patriarchal: the role of women was limited to that of wives, mothers, housekeepers and hosts. Women were rarely educated beyond training in home duties; they were not permitted to vote or stand for public office; if a single woman or widow had wealth or property, ownership of it immediately passed to her husband on marriage.

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