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Brief History of the 13 Original Colonies in a Nutshell
What are the 13 Colonies?
Fifty nifty United States from 13 original colonies...
Anyone else remember that song? How about what the 13 colonies actually were and when they were founded? Do you remember all the details?
There are many fantastic, in-depth histories of the 13 Colonies, but this is a to the point timeline of the 13 original American colonies. They are listed in chronological order and given in two separate hubs. Each colony's section contains its basic founding date, purposes, and a few lesser-known tidbits that may impress your friends at trivia one day.
Virginia was the first permanent English colony in what is now the United States. Jamestown, Virginia was founded in 1607, 20 years after the foundation of the "lost colony" at Roanoke, the first real attempt made by English to colonize in the New World. The Roanoke colony disappeared without a trace, and its fate remains unknown to this day. Because schools tend to focus on Massachusetts, the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, many people do no realize that Jamestown was the first English settlement. When I worked at Colonial Williamsburg, countless visitors asked me what Jamestown was and were shocked to hear Massachusetts was not the first colony.
Massachusetts was the second English colony, founded 13 years after Virginia in 1620. One of the most important dates in Massachusetts's early history is November 21, 1620. This was the day when the Mayflower Compact, the colony's governing document for many years, was signed. The Mayflower, the original boat bringing settlers from England to Massachusetts, carried 102 passengers, 41 of whom were Christian Puritan Separatists. This minority group ended up being one of the most remembered groups of people in early Colonial American history. Called the Leiden group underway, the Puritan's presence in the colony lead to the general name Pilgrim being applied to all who were aboard the Mayflower. The story of the Puritans is one of the most repeated, and most misrepresented, stories in American history.
The story goes that the Puritans fled religious persecution in Europe to found a colony based on religious tolerance. Evicted from England for their beliefs, the Puritans were then exiled to Holland. After difficult relations with the Dutch, the Puritans decided to take the risky journey to the New World. In reality, the Puritans were fleeing religious toleration. They thought England was too lenient and wanted to "purify" the church so it would conform to their strict views on morality and religious conduct. The Plymouth colony they founded in 1620 was not based on religious toleration, but on the desire to create an isolationist vision of their religious utopia.
In 1628, more Puritans founded Salem and, in 1630, John Winthrop secured the Massachusetts Bay Charter and founded the city of Boston.
An oft-forgotten colony, New Hampshire was the third English settlement. First settled in 1623, one of the most notable early inhabitants was John Wheelwright, brother-in-law of the famous Jean Hutchinson. Also a Puritan, Wheelwright was a clergyman and founded the town of Exeter, New Hampshire.
Over the years, New Hampshire and Massachusetts vied for control of the colony. Eventually, New Hampshire was officially separated from Massachusetts by King Charles II, but governors of Massachusetts also governed New Hampshire between the years 1699 and 1741.
New Hampshire prides itself on being the first colony to create its own constitution and revolt, but it should be noted that this constitution still mentioned English supremacy and reaffirmed New Hampshire as ENglish! Now that's something most people are eager to overlook.
New Jersey was also founded in 1623. Sort of. It was founded by the Dutch as New Netherlands. It did not become the English colony of New Jersey until it was seized by the English in 1664 as part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The Dutch disputed the English claim to the land, but English monarch Charles II granted the colony to Lord John Berkley and Sir John Carteret.
Up next is New York, founded in 1624 as New Amsterdam. These Dutch colonists were the people who made the most infamous land purchase in history when they bought Manhattan Island for 60 Gilders worth of beads, roughly $24 of stuff today. While this trade is frequently decried as Europeans taking unfair advantage of the local native tribe, the beads in question were highly-prized blue beads that were worth a lot more to the natives than to the Dutch. Also, the natives continued to use the island as a hunting ground, so they did not vacate the land or stop using it. Furthermore, no solid documentary evidence tells historians that a) this transaction ever really took place and b) the Lenape Indians actually 'owned' Manhattan. Maybe they simply got some beads they could trade for lots of other goods for 'selling' some land they didn't even own!
The English and Dutch struggled for control of New York for 10 years before England finally took full control in 1674. This may actually be the worst real-estate trade in history. As part of the treaty that cemented English ownership of New York, England agreed to abandon Run Island to the Dutch. Run Island is a tiny piece of land, only 3 km by 1 km, in the Banda chain of islands in Indonesia. At that time, Run Island was the world's only source of nutmeg and important to the Dutch spice empire. Today, almost nobody has ever heard of Run Island but New York is world famous.
- Life in the Colonial Period
Curious about life in the Colonial period? Learn about how daily life for colonial Americans and some surprising facts about women in Colonial trades.
- A Brief History of Colonial America and the 13 Original Colonies, Part II
- How to Spend a Weekend in Colonial Williamsburg
Frequently, we focus in on a couple of colonies and only a handful of events. This single-minded focus causes us to forget so much of our history. For example, many people are not even aware that several of the 13 Colonies were not founded by the English. Hopefully this brief history of the American Colonies has helped you learn something new and interesting about the era!