"Have To" History - The Thirteen Colonies (Part One)

Stuff You Don't Really Want To Know (But For Some Reason Have To) About... The Original Thirteen Colonies (Part One): Three (or Four?) Regions & Three (Evolving?) Formats 


How your teacher covers the original thirteen colonies and what you’re expected to remember about them will vary widely with what they personally find interesting or important. If you currently live in one of the original thirteen states, you’ll no doubt have a little extra local color to consider as well. Either way, there are two substantial complicating factors worth noting up front – neither of which is intended to be discouraging. 

First, in your typical early American history course, the colonies are covered near the beginning of the year. Not the first week or two when things are just warming up, but right as everyone’s ambitions are at their highest. Teachers (particularly in advanced classes) tend to get a little carried away until reality sets in sometime before Fall Break. You’ll know it’s happened when they suddenly start breaking out the Crash Course videos or extended role-playing activities.  

Second, there’s so much of interest and importance about the colonies, so much they had in common and so much they didn’t, so much that stayed the same over time and so much that changed, that it’s honestly difficult to keep it all straight – particularly in the time generally allotted. By way of perspective, most states devote most of one school year and a full second year to covering the Revolutionary Era through yesterday – all told, around 250 years. Those same standards allow a maximum of two or three weeks to get from Columbus sailing the ocean blue to declaring independence – a period of nearly 300 years. Plus, they hope we’ll throw in the French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese explorers along with dozens of Amerindian tribes we can never keep straight (was Pocahontas part of the Algernon or the Pokémon tribe?)  

The point is, it’s OK if some of this colonial stuff is a bit of a blur. It’s somewhat planned that way.  

Most “Have To” History tries to capture the key facts and relevant connections necessary to understand and fake interest in whatever topic is at the top of the page. This particular chapter, however, is more of a schema-booster. It offers a framework for assimilating, categorizing, and perhaps even remembering whatever specifics your teacher or textbook decide to throw at you for this era. To do so, we’re going to categorize the original thirteen colonies in three distinct ways – by region, by charter, and by how they handled religion.  

Buckle your hats... it could get bumpy.  

Three (or Four) Regions 

One of the most popular approaches for crunching through the colonies is to clump them together by region. Unless you actually live in one of the original thirteen states (in which case your colony was obviously far more enlightened, advanced, and hard-working than those other twelve wannabes) this allows us to grossly overgeneralize about the three centuries of expansion and social evolution across a huge swath of the Atlantic – you know, like the way we cover China, Amerindians, or the 1960s.  

Most texts chunk the colonies into three regions; APUSH and a handful of others prefer four. Under either system, two of the regions are the same. In the “Hey, look at us – we're 33% more specific than you!” version, two colonies are simply broken off of the rest of the South and treated as special. (Given that both of them were essentially Virginia, they’d have been absolutely OK with that.)  

The New England Colonies – Massachusetts (including what later became Maine), New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The economies of the New England colonies centered around small farms, livestock, fishing, whaling, furs, lumber, textiles, shipbuilding, and rum. While it was possible to grow some crops successfully, the rocky soil, short growing seasons, and all those darned mountains made large-scale agriculture impractical.  

The religious climate was largely Puritan (with Rhode Island being the glaring exception). Dissent was not tolerated and consequences could be severe. Religion shaped local governance and impacted economic choices as well. The Puritans didn’t use the term “Protestant Work Ethic,” but they certainly typified it. Self-discipline, frugality, and due diligence were spiritual as well social or economic values. New England would have preferred to remain entirely insulated, had it been practical, and did less business with the outside world than any other region.   

The Middle Colonies – New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The economies of the Middle colonies leaned on wheat, corn, livestock, textiles, paper, and iron (plows, kettles, etc.) Middle colonies closer to New England also exported lumber and did a little shipbuilding, while those further south grew tobacco or other cash crops.  

Their ethnic mix was limited by today’s standards but the most diverse of any region; in addition to English settlers came Dutch, Germans, Scotch-Irish, French, and even a few Swedes. Quakers, Mennonites, and Lutherans shaped the culture and theology of the region, with a healthy smattering of Presbyterians and other Calvinists just to keep things interesting. Members of the same faith would generally congregate in their own communities; religion was still often supported by local government and you were expected to adhere to the norms of whatever theology ruled your neighborhood.   

The Southern Colonies (three-region version) – Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. (If called upon to discuss the economy and religion of the Southern colonies, simply combine the descriptions for the Chesapeake and the Lower South below. Duh.)  

The Chesapeake Colonies (four-region version) – Maryland and Virginia. Lots of relatively flat land and long growing seasons were ideal for large-scale agriculture, although numerically most citizens lived on plots small enough to work themselves and practiced subsistence farming. The overall economy of the Chesapeake region was based almost entirely on tobacco. Tobacco was wildly profitable, but labor-intensive – which encouraged the growth of slavery and the slave trade and required reliable commercial networks both with sister colonies and abroad. Tobacco also exhausted the soil quickly, encouraging rapid expansion and periodic massacre of the locals in order to claim their land – whether there’d been actual conflict or not.  

Religion was largely Anglican (the American version of the Church of England), although anything Christian and not perceived as radical was generally protected. Maryland was at one point intended as a haven for Catholics, but they weren’t actually a majority and at different times lost even nominal protections. Government support was generally reserved for Anglican churches, but members of the other faiths could form their own communities and largely live by their own rules as long as they weren’t too far from what was considered “normal.” 

The “Lower South” (four-region version) – North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The economy of the Lower South was (no shocker here) largely based on cash crops – tobacco, cotton, grains, corn, rice, various fruits and vegetables, and livestock. This gave the Lower South the same thirst for expansion as the Chesapeake region and eventually the same reliance on slave labor.  

The most common religions were Anglican, Baptist, and Presbyterian, although anything Protestant and not perceived as radical was generally fine. Government support was generally reserved for Anglican churches, but members of the other faiths could form their own communities just as in the Chesapeake region.  

Three (Evolving) Formats 

ALL English colonies were established via special charter from the King. A charter describes in some detail the “rules” for how a colony will be run and the specific relationship between that colony and the King. There were no “independent” colonies prior to the Revolution. The differences between colonies in this sense were purely structural.  

Corporate Colonies (sometimes called “Joint-Stock” or “Self-Governing”) – This format is usually mentioned first because Jamestown began as a corporate colony. Joint-stock colonies were financed by pools of investors, allowing them to raise substantial capital without severe risk to any one individual. If the company proved profitable, everyone gained. If not, the loss was dispersed. Generally, anyone able to afford investing in a joint-stock venture was doing well enough that they had no reason to leave their established lives and check out the New World. On the other hand, the system allowed folks who could never have afforded to move overseas otherwise their own grand adventure – a new beginning, a chance to rebuild civilization as they saw fit, and mass starvation if they weren’t massacred by the locals first.  

And hopefully they could do it all profitably 

Corporate charters actually gave colonists more relative freedom and control over their own lives and communities than either of the other options. As long as they could send a little something back, few cared how they did it.  

Virginia (obviously) began this way, as did Massachusettes, Connecticut, and Rhode Island in the New England region and Georgia in the South/Lower South.  

Proprietary Colonies – These colonies were governed by charters granted to individuals who in turn reported to the King. (This usually included some form of annual “tribute” or payment.) This system was particularly popular in the late seventeenth century after the British “Restoration” of King Charles II and the Stuart Monarchy. Charles II granted land in several of the Middle and Southern colonies to individuals who’d supported and/or financed him during the fray.  

Proprietors held authority not so different from nobles under feudalism. Each proprietor organized his territory as he wished, established trade or businesses, chose who could live there and under what laws, and even determined the religion of the inhabitants.  

New Hampshire began under a proprietary charter, as did all of the Middle Colonies, Maryland, and Carolina (which eventually split into North and South Carolina).  

Royal Colonies (sometimes called “Provincial”) – These were under the direct rule of the King of England via his on-site representatives. While this didn’t entirely eliminate the “middle man” (there was still a pretty big ocean between the colonies and the crown), this was the system we typically envision when singing along with Schoolhouse Rock cartoons.  

None of the colonies began as royal colonies, oddly enough. On the other hand, by 1775 all but two (Deleware and Pennsylvania) had been taken over directly by the throne – usually long before the stuff we think of as leading to the Revolution. That’s part of what makes the whole “charter” issue so messy – very few colonies retained the same legal structure over their entire existence.  

It’s also worth keeping in mind that these categories are to some extent artificial conveniences imposed by historians after the fact. Some charters assigned control of a colony to a half-dozen or more proprietors with the understanding they’d develop natural resources and send back tribute to the crown along with whatever they chose to do for profit. Others created a new colony in the name of a rapidly formed joint-stock corporation led by one or more noteworthy individuals with the understanding they’d utilize local natural resources and find a way to make the land profitable, then cut the crown in on the results. The first we call “proprietary colonies” while the second were “corporate colonies” but in practice the distinctions weren’t often entirely clear. You’ll find different textbooks and online sources often use their own terminology or guidelines; the same colony can be categorized differently depending on who’s doing the sorting.  

So good luck with that.  

In Part Two 

Different colonies tried different approaches to religion over the centuries before independence. Over time, however, diversity led to tolerance which in turn led to the realization that everyone’s faith was best served by keeping religious matters entirely distinct from secular authority. Also, what are you likely to be expected to remember on the quiz?

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