Life in the American Colonies


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This section of the WEB site describes what it was like living in the American Colonies prior to the American Revolution.

I. Colonial Life Was Very Hard

II. Rice Cultivation

III. Wheat and Corn Cultivation

IV. Importance of Fisheries

V. Silk Laws

VI. Tobacco Production

VII. Colonial Governments

VIII. White Slavery in the Colonies

IX. Colonial Generosity

X. Cotton Mather and the Salem Witches

XI. Protest Against Persecution

XII. Hudson River Estates

XIII. Shay's Rebellion



Colonial Life was Very Hard

New England WeaverAFTER the colonists had relocated to the new world, and become familiar with their new surroundings, they began to discover the fallacy of most of their first notions and to adjust themselves to the new problems as best they could. The day when the settlement of a new world could be regarded as an experiment with possible fabulous results was over. They had come to stay, and they understood that staying meant winning and winning meant working.

The early notion that great fortunes were waiting to be picked up in the New Land, and that gold and silver and precious stones were almost to be had for the asking, had given place to a settled conviction that intelligent labor only would enable the settler to retain his foothold. Aid from the mother countries could not be depended upon, precarious as it was, nor was it to be desired. There were object lessons in frugality and industry that the colonist had set before him every day; lessons that he finally learned by heart.

As has been very wisely said, the problem which confronted the new people was one of changed conditions. Whereas in England harvests were reckoned at their cost per acre, in America they were counted at their cost per man, because in the old country labor was plentiful and land scarce, and in the new it was just the reverse. So, the old techniques of farming and cultivation did not work in the New World. Successful farming must be "skimming" the plentiful new land. To cut and burn wood-land, cultivate grain between the stumps, and abandon old holdings for new, was the necessity of the hour.

Importance of Rice Cultivation in the Colonies

Elsewhere we will speak of the influence of a staple upon the social and political life of Virginia. The first staple was tobacco. The growth of rice in the south did not begin till some years after the establishment of tobacco; and cotton culture was never really begun, except in a small way for domestic demands, till after independence was achieved, when the invention of Whitney's cotton gin had made it possible to minimize the immense labor of hand-cleaning.

The cultivation of rice, which had previously been grown in Madagascar, began in South Carolina in 1696, when a planter named Thomas Smith got from the captain of a brigantine a bag of rice for seed. Smith had been in Madagascar, and the appearance of some black wet soil in his garden suggested to him the soil of the rice plantations on that island. The experiment was a complete and instant success. Smith's rice grew luxuriantly and multiplied so that he was able to provide his neighbors with seed. This at first they attempted to grow upon the higher ground, but shortly found that the swamps were better adapted for the staple.

In three years from the time of the first distribution of seed Thomas Smith had been made Governor of the colony. The people of South Carolina who had borrowed a staple for years and who had not made the advance in prosperity that other colonists had, at last were blessed with a product all their own, one which was perfectly adapted to the soil. They learned to husk the rice, at first by hand but afterwards by horse power and tide mills. Then rice culture began to spread to Georgia, to Virginia, even as far North as New Jersey, but nowhere did it succeed as well as in the Carolinas. Even today the people of that section have cause to bless the forethought of Smith and the head winds that blew the brigantine with her rice cargo into a harbor on that coast.

Carolina also tried indigo growing, which became profitable about the middle of the 18th century. Miss Eliza Lucan, afterwards Mrs. Pinckney, mother of General Pinckney, deserves the credit of its introduction.

Wheat and Corn Cultivation in the Colonies

The Northern farmer, from the first, cultivated only a few acres compared with the large Southern plantations. His efforts were confined to the production of wheat and corn. Indian corn was grown from the very earliest New England days; the Indians had taught the white men their own method of manuring the corn hills by putting in each a codfish. Rye, little used as a food grain, was cultivated by certain Scotch and Irish settlers as a basis for whiskey. New York, Pennsylvania; and New Jersey were the great bread producers. In the year 1770, or thereabouts, the value of flour and bread exports reached $3,000,000. This was the result of a century and a half of patient, intelligent labor.

Importance of Fisheries

All along the northern coast the importance of the fisheries was felt, from the early French settlements on Newfoundland, that antedated any successful planting of colonists on the main land of North America, till the development of the great fisheries of New England. The astonishment of those who described the country at an early period was occasioned by the teeming life, the marvelous fertility, of all creatures, either in the ocean or on the land. The immense schools of cod gave to the inhabitants of the coast employment which soon rose to the dignity of an industry. From Salem, Cape Cod and many other points, fleets of small vessels went and returned, till a generation of sailors who should accomplish more important voyages and adventures was bred on the fishing banks.

Fairfax Court House


The Silk Laws

One of the most curious chapters in the history of husbandry in the New world is that of the attempt to force a staple. Some one conceived the idea that the heavy duties that made the silk of France and Southern Europe so expensive might be avoided by raising the silk-worm and manufacturing the fabric in the British colonies. About 1623 the silk--worm was brought to Virginia, and a law was enacted making the planting of mulberry trees, the food of the silk-worm, compulsory. The House of Burgesses passed resolutions of the most exacting character. It also offered premiums for the production of silk, and in other ways endeavored to foster the new industry. It was required that every citizen should plant one mulberry tree to every ten acres of ground. Among the rewards offered was one of ten thousand pounds of tobacco for fifty pounds of silk. This was in 1658. That seemed to be a generous year with the Burgesses, for they also offered the same amount of tobacco for the production of a certain small quantity of wine from grapes grown in the colony. The silk laws were withdrawn in Virginia in 1666.

Colonial House

AN OLD-TIME COLONIAL HOUSE. (Built in 1634, Beaford, Mass.)

Georgia, too, had a silk craze, and Pennsylvania and Delaware also went heavily into the production. Charles II wore a complete court dress of American silk, which, it is said, must have cost its weight in gold to produce. The efforts to revive the silk industry were several times attempted, but without success. Except that we occasionally hear that some member of the British-royal family was clad in American silk, we might almost doubt the existence of the industry.

Vine planting and wine making were among the "encouraged" industries. All of these utopian schemes for the acquisition of sudden wealth failed because they were not based upon any true appreciation of natural conditions in the New World.

Fruits and vegetables were grown very early in the seventeenth century. In the latter part of the century a fresh impetus was given to horticulture by John Bartram, the Quaker, at Philadelphia. Horses and cattle, especially in the South, were allowed to run wild in the woods till the forests were full of them, and hunting this large game became a favorite amusement. Horses were so numerous in some places as to be a nuisance. New England adopted an old English custom, and the people herded their live stock in common, appointing general feeding places and overseers for it. The laws of England were such as to discourage sheep raising in the New World, and the wolves seconded the laws, but the farmers persisted, nevertheless, though they were not so successful in this as in some other pursuits.

Tobacco Production in the Colonies

As soon as the immediate necessity for the guns and stockades of the town were removed, those of the more favored colonists of Virginia who had obtained land grants began to separate, forming manorial estates and engaging in the production of staples, principal among which was tobacco. The tenants were practically serfs at first, and the introduction of slave labor made the proprietor even more independent, if possible, than he had been before, giving him authority almost absolute within his own domains, even to the power over human life.

It has been truly said that "that which broke down representation by boroughs and made the parish a vast region with very little corporate unity, was the lighting upon a staple." Tobacco and rice were the responsible agents for Virginia's social and political conditions, which resulted in the production of strong, self-reliant, and brave, though impetuous and uncontrollable men.

From the first, none of the great colonies bore so close a resemblance to England in the development of a feudal system as Virginia. The ownership of what would be to us vast tracts of land, was due to the way in which Virginia was settled. Men of no especial note held estates of ten, twenty, or thirty thousand acres. This was the result of the very rapid increase in the cultivation of the great staple. For a great many years the white servants were much more numerous than the blacks, and with indentured servitude, which was equal to slavery in all points but that of perpetuity; then arose the great class distinctions, which were almost unknown in the New England colonies, although originally the rural Virginia land-owner and the New England settler were of the same class. The effect of environment on social development can nowhere be traced more distinctly than in the first two great English colonies in America.

Colonial Governments

Town life, as remarked elsewhere, was not known in Virginia. Up to the time of the war for independence her largest towns numbered only a very few thousand souls not more than many a Northern village. There were very few roads and very many water-ways, so that the trading vessels could reach the individual plantation much more easily than the plantations could reach each other. The English custom of entail was early transplanted to Virginia, with some adaptations to suit the new conditions. The abolition of this system was due to Thomas Jefferson, as late as 1776.

The Virginia substitute for the New England town meeting, committees, etc., was the vestry and parish system, modeled in part after the English parish. The vestrymen in each parish, however, were twelve representatives chosen by the people of the parish. This at least was the case at first, till by obtaining power to fill vacancies they became practically self-elective. The vestrymen were apportioners and collectors of taxes, overseers of the poor, and governors of the affairs of the church. Their presiding officer was the minister.

Spanish House


Mr. John Fiske, in his admirable text-book, "Civil Government in the United States," makes this observation: "In New England, the township was the unit of representation, but in Virginia the parish was not the unit of representation; the county was that unit. In the colonial legislature of Virginia the representatives sat not for parishes but for counties." The county was arbitrarily defined as to physical limits, nor were any particular number of parishes required to constitute it. There might be one parish or a dozen. The machinery of county government consisted principally of a court which met once a month in same central place, where a court-house was erected. There it tried minor criminal offences and major civil actions. The court also was one of probate, and had the supervision of highways, appointing the necessary servants and officials. Like the parishes, the county courts, in course of time, became self-elective.

The taxes, like many other obligations, were paid in tobacco, of which the sheriff was the collector and custodian. He also presided at elections for representatives to the colonial assembly. There were eight justices of the peace in each county. These were nominated by the court (i. e., by their own body), and appointed by the Governor. The election, or rather appointment of the sheriff was conducted in the same way practically, so that we see how little voice the people really had in either parochial or county government.

On July 30, 1619, Virginia's first General Assembly convened; as the English historian said, A House of Burgesses broke out in Virginia." These Burgesses were at first the representatives of plantations, of which each chose two. The duty of the Assembly was to counsel the Governor; or, more nearly in accordance with the facts, to keep him in check and make his life miserable.

In 1634 the Burgesses first sat for counties, upon the new political formation. So it will be seen that the earliest form of representative government in the Colonies began in Virginia; and that it was not government by the voice of the people, is apparent. The poor whites had little or no voice. The rights and liberties that were contended for were those of the rich and powerful. As in England, civil liberty began with the barons and did not extend to those in the humbler walks of life, so in Virginia, it was the planter, the proprietor of acres, the owner of slaves, who first guarded his own rights against despotism.

Virginia MansionIn New England, on the contrary, such a thing as caste was hardly known. Town life induced a development very different from that of plantation life. Perhaps the individual was less aggressively independent. Perhaps the long course of bickering and obstruction on the part of Virginia's Burgesses against her governors, was as good a school as possible for future essays the direction of national liberty; but it is certain that New England could show a high level of intelligence all along the line. She had no "poor whites." While the distinctly influential class was not so prominently developed, each man had influence. He counted one, always.

The practice of sending criminals and the offscouring of England to the Colonies under articles of bondage became established. Men were sold, some voluntarily, and others by force, for a term of years. The broken-down gentlemen, soldiers, and adventurers who composed the bulk of the inhabitants, found this system of white slavery to their temporary advantage, and the exodus of those creatures from London was doubtless a relief to the authorities there.

White Slavery in the Colonies

Sandys, the Treasurer of the Virginia Company, sent, in 1619, thirty young women, whose moral characters were vouched for, who were bought as wives by the colonists upon their arrival; the price of passage being the value set upon each damsel.

James River


As the years went by, the evil of this system of bondage became more and more apparent, and spread to other parts of the country. Philadelphia, the Quaker refuge, was a white slave mart. Such terms as " Voluntary sales," " Redemptioners," "Soul Drivers," "Kids," " Free Willers," " Trepanning," etc., were familiar throughout the new land.

Kidnapping in England, for the Colonies, was so common that it became the cause of violent agitation. Even youth of rank were not exempt from the danger and degradation. Those who carried on the business of trepanning were known as "Spirits." Criminals under sentence of death, might have the sentence commuted to seven years' servitude. Artisans and laborers who were unemployed could be "retained" by force, under certain conditions. Of course, these bond-servants were a source of moral and social trouble and danger to the colonists.

Colonial Generosity

The usual impression regarding the Puritans is that they were austere, unsmiling men, with much hard fanaticism and little of the milk of human kindness. That they did suffer much and cause others to suffer for conscience sake is undoubtedly true, but no special pleading should be required to convince those who read the early history of New England carefully, that the highest of Christian virtues flourished quite as much in the Boston of the seventeenth century as in the Boston of the eighteenth or nineteenth.

The good John Winthrop, first Governor of Massachusetts, who was firm and even severe in his administration of the government, so that he frequently felt the results of unpopularity, was, as one writer calls him, "most amiable" in his private character. A neighbor, accused of stealing from Winthrop's wood-pile, was brought before him. The Governor had announced that he would take such measures that the thief should never be able to rob him again, so, of course, the case attracted attention. "You have taken my wood," said Winthrop, in effect ; "You have my permission to keep on doing so. Help yourself as long as the winter lasts."

We can imagine the scene when his servant, who used to be sent with messages to the poorer neighbors about dinner time, returned from one of his visits. The Governor's interest quickened as he listened to the details of the meals at which the servant had acted as a spy. Mr. So-and-so was without meat, this one lacked bread, and that other ate his bread dry. The good man expressed his sympathy in the best possible way, by sharing his larder.

The man who had been one of Winthrop's angry opponents owned himself vanquished when he received from the object of his animosity a cow, in his time of need. In a quaint fashion he expressed himself: "Sir, by overcoming yourself you have overcome me."

The best early history of the colony of Massachusetts is that written by Governor Winthrop. Next to that work in value is Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, which is a history of the colony in all its interests and affairs, from the year 1620 to 1689.


Cotton Mather's name is perhaps most widely known as the great instigator of persecution in the time of the witchcraft terror. A man of great and varied learning, he was singularly devoid of common sense, and allowed himself to be swayed by opinions that bear a close resemblance to those of insanity. Unfortunately, through his great influence, and perhaps by virtue of that quality which we have learned to call "personal magnetism," he succeeded in inoculating a majority of the most influential people of Massachusetts with his singular craze. There had been executions for witchcraft in New England before Doctor Mather's time, but in the revival of persecution he was most prominent.

Especially severe have some New York writers of later years been, in commenting upon this reign of terror in New England, yet New York's history has had a darker chapter of cruelty. Twenty hangings for witchcraft occurred in Salem; nearly double that number of persons were burned at the stake in New York City, upon the ground until recently known as the "Five Points." Both of these occurrences were in the same generation, but the one was the result of delusion, while the other resulted from abject terror, caused by one Mary Burton, a criminal character, who pretended to have information of a negro insurrection, and then for a few pounds swore away forty lives. Virginia, too, had her witch trials, though not carried to the lengths that those of Salem were, and even tolerant Maryland has her record of witch hanging. And surely none can fail to honor Samuel Sewell, of Massachusetts, whose public expression of sorrow for the part he had taken in the witch executions was one of the first signs of recovery from the popular delusion.

In like manner the persecutions of the Friends were due to the same sombre, sadly mistaken views of religious duty. Undoubtedly the New England Quakers were guilty of some actions which must have greatly annoyed the Puritans. The gentlest, kindliest, and, in some respects, the most enlightened people in the New World showed sometimes a most exasperating obstinacy in doing things which should shock the strict ideas of propriety which the Pilgrims possessed. For instance, in New London Pastor Mather Byles was greatly annoyed by having Quaker men sit with their hats on and women with their spinning wheels in the aisles, industriously working during service on the Lord's day. As soon as the Quakers were settled, when no one opposed them the aggressive side of their character, as shown in symbolic acts of an exaggerated kind, does not seem to have manifested itself at all.


In the middle of the century the beginning of the protest against Quaker persecution began to be felt. Nicholas Upsall, pastor of the Boston Church, first opposed it. He was promptly fined twenty pounds and banished. He was refused a home in Plymouth and returned to Cape Cod, where he succeeded in inoculating a number of other people with his views. Robinson, son of the Leyden pastor, was sent by the General Court of Massachusetts to visit the Quakers and expostulate with them. He decided that there was no harm in them and made an able defense of them, for which he was disfranchised. The prejudice, once started, took years to eradicate. Perhaps a few lines from Cotton Mather on this subject may not be out of place. He says It was also "thot that the very Quakers themselves would say that, if they had got into a corner of the world and with immense toyl and change made a wilderness habitable in order there to be undisturbed in the exercise of their worship, they would never hear to have New Englanders come among them and interrupt their public worship, endeavor to seduce their children from it, yea, and repeat such endeavors after mild entreaties first and then just banishment."

It is probable that in an age when we are more fond of finding causes for things than of suffering for conscience sake we will blame neither party in this obsolete quarrel. It was incompatibility of temper.


Washington Irving has humorously dwelt upon facts in his relation of the differences which occurred between the Dutch Government in New Amsterdam and the Patroons whose little principalities were further up the Hudson River. The grants to the patroons were such as to insure to them almost absolute control upon their estates, with only the shadow of allegiance. The fact that the great patroons allowed a semblance of subserviency to the metropolitan governor was rather a question of their advantage than of their necessity.

The holdings were immense. The Livingstone estate was sixteen by twenty-eight miles in extent; the Van Courtlandts owned eight hundred square miles; the Rensselaer manor contained five hundred and seventy-five square miles. Sir Vredryk Flypse, the richest man in the colony, possessed the fairest portion of the river from Spuyten Duyvel Creek to the Croton River. From the mill on his manor he shipped grain and other commodities direct to Holland and to the West Indies, and received rum and other exchanges from those countries, without either clearing or entering at the port of New Amsterdam (or New York as it afterwards was called). Flypse, Van Courtlandt, and Bayard were keen politicians as well as successful traders. To them is credited the hanging of Governor Zeisler, and they were hotly charged with receiving from Kidd, whose privateering commission they had procured, a share of his piratical booty.

Upon the great estates, the exactions of the lords proprietors drove many tenants out of the colony. Some of the patroons even went to the length of asserting their right to eject tenants and reassume the land at will. This course of procedure retarded the growth and development of the Hudson River Settlements for many years. In some respects the great estates and assumption of feudal authority in New York were very much like the monopolies of land and power in the South. But in one thing New Amsterdam differed very much from Virginia; that was in the possession of a thriving, busy city that should counterbalance the spirit of feudalism by its democratic disposition.

How can we close this chapter better than by reference to the beginnings of what we hold most precious of all the legacies which the forefathers of the American people left to their descendants?

In Virginia Governor Berkeley, in 1671 thanked God that there were no free schools, nor were likely to be for a hundred years. But less than twenty years afterward, a different feeling began to prevail. William's and Mary's College was founded by James Blair in 1692. But already a university was inexistence in the North, and the first common-school system, probably, that the world had ever known, had been established half a century in Massachusetts. Salem's free-school dates back to 1640, and the state adopted a general plan for common schools seven years later; a plan, the purpose of which was set forth in language so remarkable, that it should be preserved through all time a few sentences we can give : That learning may not be buried in the grave of our faith in the church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors, It is therefore ordered, that every township in this jurisdiction after the Lord hath increased them to the number of fifty householders shall then forthwith appoint one within their town to write and to read, . . . and it is further ordered that where any town shall increase to the number of one hundred families they shall set up a grammar-school, . . . . to instruct youth so far that they may be fitted for the university."

Rioters SpringfieldMaryland was nearly a century in following this lead. Rhode Island, beginning where Massachusetts did, fell from grace in educational matters till 1800. Philadelphia had good schools at a very early date, and New Amsterdam, or New York, moved very slowly, doubtless feeling confident that, whatever their attitude toward letters, her children would instinctively learn the use of figures. But we cannot pursue this matter without trenching upon another chapter. It is difficult to conceive that from the various formative elements in the lives of the early colonists, a single one could have been well spared in the making of the new people.

Shay's Rebellion

But Virginia was not the only State troubled with insurrection. Massachusetts had a like experience. It was in 1786 that the movement broke out, Daniel Shay, a Revolutionary captain, having been rather forced to the head as leader, so that it became known as Shay's Rebellion. The pretext of the rebellion was the high salary paid the Governor, the aristocratic character of the Senate, the extortions of lawyers, and the oppressive taxation. In December, 1786, he led a considerable force of rioters to Worcester, where he prevented the holding of the U. S. Court, and with 2000 men traveled to Springfield, Mass., January, 1787, to capture the arsenal, but was repulsed by the militia under General Shepard. Finally, defeated, he fled the State, but he was pardoned the following year by Governor Bowdoin. Ultimately he received a pension for Revolutionary services. He died September 29th, 1825, at Sparta, N. Y., whither he had removed.



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