The Thirteen Colonies

13 colonies
A map of the 13 British colonies in North America prior to the revolution.

The American Revolution unfolded in 13 British colonies strung along the eastern coastline of North America. As provinces of the British Empire, the 13 colonies shared common heritage and similarities – but there were also notable differences in geography, climate, natural resources, population, economic production and government.

European discovery and settlement

Eastern North America was first settled by five European nationalities in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Initially, the movement of Europeans to the New World, as they called it, proceeded slowly. Little was known about the geography of the region and whether it could sustain large populations.

The Spanish were the first to arrive on the eastern seaboard, landing in the Florida region in 1565. The first English settlement was established in Jamestown, now Virginia, in 1607. A year later, the French built fur-trading stations along the St Lawerence River, Canada. The Dutch (New York, 1614) and Swedish (Delaware, 1620) also had a presence in the region.

Most colonial settlements were built on natural harbours for shipping, as well as large rivers that provided both fresh water and access to the interior. Jamestown, for example, was located on Chesapeake Bay and its network of rivers that allowed ships to venture many miles inland.

British colonisation

The British presence in America began with the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 and proceeded haphazardly until 1732, when the province of Georgia was established. This unfolded alongside British expansion through the Carribean and in Nova Scotia.

Contrary to expectation, there was no deliberate British attempt to create an empire in North America. British colonisation of the region came not from royal imperative or government policy but entrepreneurship. Each of the 13 colonies was claimed, explored and settled by individuals and expedition groups, some funded by joint stock companies keen to invest in the New World and its riches.

Each of these groups was granted some form of charter by the British monarch. These charters provided royal authorisation to establish new colonies in America, while also specifying territorial limits and the form of government to be used in the new province.

There were multiple pull factors that led these groups to invest in the unexplored New World. The lure of gold, silver and other precious metals was significant. If that failed, there was also the incentive of America’s wide-ranging lands, a commodity in very short supply in Britain. The continent was also rich in raw materials – timber for shipbuilding, furs and fish – while the climate was suitable for growing cash crops like rice and tobacco.

“England already has an uninterrupted line of well-peopled provinces on the coast, successively begun within less than 150 years. Every year they are augmented by an accession of subjects, excited by the desire of living under governments and laws formed on the most excellent model upon earth. In vain do we look for an equal prosperity among the plantations of other European nations… This surprising increase of people is a foundation that will bear a mighty superstructure.”
John Bartram, 1751

Population growth

Numbers in the 13 colonies grew rapidly in the late 17th and 18th centuries. In 1650, the colonial population was around 50,000 souls. This number more than doubled within 20 years. By 1700, it had increased fivefold, exceeding 250,000.

The New World proved an attractive lure for young men, landless farmers and unmarried women. European colonial and shipping companies advertised great opportunities for those intrepid enough to resettle across the Atlantic. Thousands more made the journey against their will, as convicts or indentured servants.

This immigration continued apace, even at the height of the Revolutionary War. In addition to rapid European population growth, almost 300,000 African American slaves were landed in the British colonies between 1620 and the outbreak of the revolution in 1765.

Colonial economies

13 colonies
Building boats and small ships was an important colonial industry

The economies of all 13 colonies were dominated by agriculture and primary production. The majority of people, at least two-thirds, worked on small farms, larger plantations or harvesting natural resources.

Unlike in England, which was filled with tenanted farms, most colonial American farmers owned their own land. In addition, farm sizes were much larger than in Europe, often more than 100 acres. This meant many colonial farmers had the space and opportunity to engage in multiple types of farming – for example, growing grain alongside vegetables, fruit orchards or raising livestock.

Few crops were grown as exportable commodities until the 1700s. Rice was produced extensively in the southern colonies and by the mid-1700s was being shipped to England in large amounts. Indigo, a plant grown widely in Georgia and South Carolina, was sought after by English textile manufacturers to produce dye. Tobacco was also grown in the region, chiefly in Virginia, and by the middle of the 1700s had become British America’s most significant export crop.

Manufacturing in the colonies was confined to small businesses. British mercantilist legislation like the Iron Act (1750) discouraged or prohibited colonial industries whose products might compete with British imports. A large number of secondary goods like clothing, furniture, machinery and weapons were still imported from England. Most American manufacturing was limited to the processing of raw materials like timber, furs and animal skins, and the distilling of rum and other spirits.

Colonial communities

The lack of major industries meant that American cities remained comparatively small. The majority of colonists lived in local communities, small towns and villages or on the frontier. Most colonists lived fairly independent lives, untouched by control or interference, both their own colonial governments and London.

Most Americans did not think themselves “Americans” at all; they were yet to develop nationalism or a sense of American identity. Instead, most considered themselves British subjects and natives of their colony – Virginians, South Carolinians, Marylanders and so forth.

13 colonies

1. The scene of the American Revolution was 13 British colonies, located along the eastern seaboard of North America from Massachusetts in the north to Georgia in the south.

2. These colonies were founded and settled individually by British expeditions and companies, beginning with Virginia (1609) and Massachusetts (1620).

3. Initially claimed in the search for profit, the colonies became a lucrative source of land and raw materials, both of which were less accessible in crowded Europe.

4. The colonies flourished from the mid-1600s to the late 1700s. The availability of land, work and resources saw increased emigration and population growth, from just 55,000 in 1650 to more than 2 million by the outbreak of the revolution.

5. Despite their growth and progress the 13 British colonies occupied only 20 per cent of the North American continent. The remainder was controlled or influenced by France and Spain. Their existence contributed to political and religious tensions.

Citation information
Title: ‘The 13 colonies’
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: July 14, 2019
Date updated: November 20, 2023
Date accessed: April 12, 2024
Copyright: The content on this page is © Alpha History. It may not be republished without our express permission. For more information on usage, please refer to our Terms of Use.