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 clustered the eastern coastline of North America. These 13 colonies were explored, settled and colonised over more than a century, beginning in 1607 (Virginia) and concluding in 1732 (Georgia). To understand the causes of the American Revolution requires an understanding of the 13 colonies and their development and experiences in the colonial period, particularly their relationship with Britain.

Motives for colonisation

Each of the 13 British colonies in America began with a land claim, followed by exploration and settlement by a British company or expedition group. The main factor behind the British colonisation of America was gold. Like the Spanish in South America, British explorers and settlers hoped to find large deposits of gold or other precious minerals.

When large gold deposits could not be found, land and natural resources replaced gold as an incentive for colonisation, settlement and migration. Available land was extremely scarce in Europe because it was monopolised by wealthy royals and aristocrats. It was far more abundant in the New World, allowing 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 the colonial shipbuilding industry. Later, the discovery of iron ore encouraged the formation of local ironworking foundries.


Over time, the 13 colonies were populated with Europeans and slaves imported from Africa. Immigration increased steadily in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1640, there were fewer than 25,000 Europeans in British America. This increased to more than 70,000 by 1660 and around 150,000 in 1680. By the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1754, the European population was approaching two million.

Working-class Europeans arriving in the New World found life there more prosperous and comfortable. Farming land was readily available, food was plentiful and living standards were better than those of Europe.

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. Another half-million people arrived in British America as indentured servants.

Common heritage

As part of the British Empire, the 13 colonies shared some common heritage, attitudes and institutions. Because of this – and because they later joined together in revolution – many think of these colonies as a unified and homogenous group. This was far from the case.

All 13 colonies were marked by differences in geography, climate, natural resources, population, economic production and how they were governed. Intercolonial tensions were not uncommon and were usually fuelled by disputes over trade, borders and land claims.

Despite these differences and tensions, the British colonies in America were generally seen as a place of hope, opportunity and potential prosperity. The colonies’ biggest advantage was their distance from Europe and freedom from old European hierarchies and systems of power. The botanist John Bartram, who travelled extensively throughout the region, wrote of the British colonies in 1751:

“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.”

Economics and production

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Building boats and ships was an important colonial industry

The economies of British America were focused chiefly on agriculture and primary production. The vast majority of colonists lived in rural and provincial areas and worked on plantations, farms or harvesting natural resources.

Though agriculture was dominant across all 13 colonies, there was considerable variation from region to region. In New England, the six northernmost colonies, fix and whale oil made up almost half of exports, with fur, leather, timber and livestock also traded heavily. The more temperate weather in the Middle Colonies meant food grains constituted almost three-quarters of exports, while in the South, tobacco and rice made up almost 70% of goods exported.

Manufacturing grew considerably through the 1700s but was largely confined to small enterprises. British mercantilist legislation like the Iron Act (1750) discouraged or prohibited the formation of large operations that could rival or replace British companies. Many secondary goods such as clothing, furniture, machinery and weapons were still imported from England.

Life in the colonies

This lack of major industries meant American cities remained comparatively small. The majority of colonists lived in small communities, towns, villages or on the frontier. Distances, poor roads and the fear of native attacks meant that few travelled far from their hometown.

This meant that most colonists lived relatively independent lives removed from the control or interference of governments, both their own colonial assemblies and the parliament in London. As mentioned above, living standards were generally superior to Europe. This led to improvements in education and literacy, which was much higher in colonial America than in Europe (up to 85 per cent in some places).

In general, Americans did not think themselves “Americans”; they were yet to develop any sense of nationalism or American identity. Instead, most considered themselves British subjects and natives of their colony (Virginians, South Carolinians, Marylanders and so forth).

Foreign neighbours

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A map showing foreign colonies and influence in North America, 1750

The 13 British colonies were not alone on the continent. Three other European powers laid claim to territory in North America and shared borders with the British.

The Spanish were the first to arrive in North America, following 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, were 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 above). 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.

thirteen colonies

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.

Citation information
Title: “The Thirteen Colonies”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: September 3, 2020
Date accessed: April 08, 2021
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