The scene for the American Revolution was a narrow band of 13 British colonies, located on the eastern coastline of North America. These British colonies were explored, settled and colonised over more than a century, beginning with Virginia (1607) and Massachusetts (1620), and concluding with the settlement of Georgia in 1732. Each colony began as a claim and settlement by a British company or expedition group. Over time the 13 colonies developed into discrete political entities. As part of the British Empire, the 13 colonies shared a common heritage and some obvious similarities. Because of this – and because the colonies later joined together in revolution – we tend to think of them as a unified and homogenous group. This was far from the case. The 13 colonies were marked by differences in geography, climate, natural resources, population, economic production and how they were governed. Intercolonial tensions were not uncommon, usually fuelled by disputes over trade, borders and land claims.
The driving factor behind British colonisation in America, at least initially, was gold. Like the Spanish in South America, British explorers and settlers hoped to find large deposits of gold or other precious minerals. When this was not forthcoming, land and natural resources replaced gold as an incentive for colonisation, settlement and migration. Land was in extremely short supply in Europe, where it was monopolised by wealthy royals and aristocrats – but it was plentiful in the New World, where there was enough space for thousands of settlers to become freeholders or yeoman farmers, rather than mere tenants. The abundance of raw materials in North America was another potential source of profit. Timber, rice, grain, tobacco, cotton, indigo, furs, fish and other commodities could be harvested or grown in abundance in America. The availability of tall timber provided the materials for a colonial shipbuilding industry. Later, the discovery of iron ore encouraged the formation of local ironworking foundries.
John Bartram, 1751
The 13 colonies were populated rapidly during the late 17th and 18th centuries. Thousands of settlers emigrated after being enticed by European companies, who advertised ‘enormous opportunities’ for those intrepid enough to cross the Atlantic. An unknown number of Europeans, probably in excess of half a million, arrived in the colonies as indentured servants. Many found the New World more prosperous and comfortable. Farming land was readily available, food was plentiful and living standards – at least for the lower classes – were better than those of Europe. In 1650 there were an estimated 55,000 Europeans in the 13 colonies. This number had increased almost fivefold (265,000) by 1700. The European population reached one million by 1750 and two million sometime around 1763. Immigration continued apace, even at the height of the Revolutionary War. In addition to 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.
The 13 colonies were largely focused on agriculture and primary production. The vast majority of British colonists worked on plantations, farms or harvesting natural resources. Manufacturing in the colonies was confined to small businesses. British mercantilist legislation such as the Iron Act (1750) discouraged or prohibited the formation of large operations that might rival British companies. Many secondary goods such as clothing, furniture, machinery and weapons were still imported from England. The lack of major industries meant that American cities were small. The majority of colonists lived in small communities, towns, villages or on the frontier. Most colonists lived relatively independent lives, removed from the control or interference of governments, both their own and that in 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.
The 13 British colonies were not alone on the North American continent, with three other European powers laying claim to territory. The Spanish were the first to arrive, after Christopher Columbus’ famous expedition that ‘discovered’ North America in 1492. The French began exploring the continent in 1524 and by the end of the century was attempting permanent settlements. The Dutch also commissioned exploration of the North American coastline (1609) and initiated settlements 14 years later. By 1660 the Dutch controlled the area now occupied by New Jersey and eastern New York state. They surrendered their American colonies to England in 1667, after defeat in the Second Anglo-Dutch War. By 1750 some 80 per cent of the North American continent was controlled or influenced by France or Spain (see map). Their presence was a source of tension and paranoia among those in the 13 British colonies, who feared encirclement, invasion and the influence of Catholicism.
1. The scene of the American Revolution was 13 British colonies that were located along the eastern seaboard of North America.
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 gold, the colonies became a lucrative source of land and raw materials, both of which were less accessible in crowded Europe.
4. The colonies flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries. The availability of land, work and resources saw increased emigration and rapid population increases, from just 55,000 in 1650 to more than two 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.
This page was written by Steve Thompson and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
S. Thompson & J. Llewellyn, “The Thirteen Colonies”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/americanrevolution/thirteen-colonies/.