Colonial America — from 13 Colonies to the United States

1607–1776

Colonial America was the period in which the 13 Original Colonies were founded, expanded, and achieved stability. It includes the American Revolution and the American Revolutionary War, which led to the establishment of the United States of America.

George Washington, President, 1795, Stuart

George Washington rose to prominence during the Colonial Era and played a significant role in the transition from the 13 Original Colonies to the 13 Original United States of America. Image Source: Christie’s.

Colonial America Quick Facts

While there are a significant number of events that helped shape the Colonial Era in America, here are 15 facts about Colonial America everyone should know about the era.

  1. Early English explorers claimed land in North America, and men like Sir Walter Raleigh and Captain John Smith played an important role in mapping the East Coast.
  2. The first colony, Roanoke Island, was a failure and is known as the Lost Colony.
  3. The first successful English colony was Jamestown, the foundation of Virginia.
  4. The arrival of Pilgrims in 1620 led to the establishment of Plymouth Colony.
  5. The success of Plymouth contributed to the establishment of Massachusetts, which led to the Great Puritan Migration.
  6. Early settlements struggled because there was no infrastructure. They had to build everything — homes, meeting houses, forts — using the tools they had and the natural resources available.
  7. Once the food they brought with them was gone, they had to grow their own or rely on trading with Native American Indian tribes.
  8. England’s economic system and laws played an important role in shaping the growth and development of the colonies during the Colonial Era.
  9. The Headright System and the Patroon System encouraged immigration, as did the promise of religious freedom, access to land, and the ability to escape European wars.
  10. After four destructive wars between Great Britain and France for control of North America, Britain won.
  11. Following the last war, the British enforced tax laws on the American Colonies that were unpopular.
  12. The colonies responded with public protests and pamphlets that formed the ideology of the American Revolution.
  13. Following the Boston Tea Party, Britain passed the Intolerable Acts. The colonies responded by holding the First Continental Congress.
  14. The American Revolutionary War started with the Battles of Lexington and Concord (1775) and lasted until the British were defeated at the Battle of Yorktown (1781).
  15. During the war, the colonies declared independence (1776) and adopted the Articles of Confederation — America’s first constitution — officially ending the era of Colonial America.

Bonus Fact — The Fur Trade between Native American Indians and European explorers and colonists played a significant role in shaping Colonial America. Not only did it create an important trade network, but it played a significant role in the battle for North America between the French, English, and Indians.

Cornplanter, Portrait, 1796, Bartoli, NYHS
Native American Indians like Cornplanter (Gayetwahgeh) played a significant role in shaping Colonial America. Image Source: New-York Historical Society.

Colonial America Overview

  • The exploration of the New World marked the onset of the Colonial Era in America.
  • European powers, including Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Sweden, competed for dominance and expansion in North America.
  • Massive influx of European settlers, particularly British and French, led to the establishment of new colonies.
  • The French and Indian Wars, spanning approximately 75 years, were fought for territorial control of North America.

Impact of Colonial Conflicts

  • British emerged as victors but incurred significant war debt.
  • Implementation of laws and taxes in the 13 Colonies aimed at clearing war debt.
  • British Parliament had the authority to enact laws affecting life and trade in the colonies.
  • Colonists strongly protested against these measures, leading to the American Revolution.

Causes of the American Revolution

  • Colonial protests against British laws and taxes sparked the American Revolutionary War.
  • The 13 colonies revolted against British rule due to grievances over taxation without representation and infringements on colonial rights.
  • The American Revolution marked a significant turning point in colonial history, leading to the formation of the United States of America.
Benjamin Franklin, Portrait, 1762, Chamberlin
Benjamin Franklin was likely the most famous American during the Colonial Era. Image Source: Philadephia Museum of Art.

Colonial America Phases

The Colonial Era can be divided into the following phases:

  1. Exploration and Discovery
  2. Settlement and Colonization
  3. Founding of the 13 Original Colonies
  4. The French and Indian Wars
  5. The American Revolution
  6. The American Revolutionary War
  7. Confederation

Phase 1 — Discovery and Exploration of America

  • Christopher Columbus’s voyages in the late 15th century marked the beginning of European exploration of the Americas.
  • Other early explorers, such as John Cabot, Amerigo Vespucci, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa, followed, mapping and documenting new lands.
  • Their findings and reports ignited European interest in the New World, leading to the Colonial era.
  • Advancements in navigation technology, including improved maps and navigational instruments, facilitated transatlantic voyages.
  • Henry Hudson’s explorations in the early 17th century further expanded European knowledge of North America.
Landing of Columbus, Vanderlyn, AOC
Landing of Columbus, John Vanderlyn, 1847. Image Source: Architect of the Capitol.

Columbian Exchange — the Impact of New World Resources

  • European countries looked to claim the natural resources of the New World for economic prosperity.
  • The discovery of valuable resources, such as gold, silver, fur, and agricultural products, fueled European expansion and trade.
  • Trade networks between the New World and Europe flourished, contributing to the growth of global commerce.

Phase 2 — Settlement and Colonization of America

  • European explorers transferred people to the New World as permanent settlers, establishing colonies.
  • Colonists took advantage of the abundant resources of the Americas for economic gain.
  • Despite living in new territories, colonists maintained political allegiance to their respective European countries, often referred to as their “Mother Country.”

Colonial Allegiance to European Countries

  • Despite establishing colonies in the New World, colonists maintained political allegiance to their Mother Country.
  • European countries exercised control over their colonies through colonial governments, laws, and policies.
  • Colonists often faced conflicts with indigenous peoples and rival European powers over territorial control and resources.

European Competition for Control

  • Spanish, French, and British powers led efforts to establish control over North America and the New World.
  • Spanish explorers and conquistadors, such as Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, led early colonization efforts in the Americas.
  • French explorers, including Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain, established settlements and trading posts in North America.
  • British colonization efforts culminated in the founding of the first 13 Colonies along the Atlantic coast.

Phase 3 — Founding of the 13 Colonies in America

Captain John Smith,Illustration
This illustration depicts Captain John Smith, who is widely credited with saving Jamestown from disaster. Image Source: Captain John Smith by Tudor Jenks, 1904, Archive.org.

Challenges of the Colonial Era

  • Colonists faced conflicts with Native American Indians and endured demanding labor to establish colonies.
  • Priorities included building adequate shelter and ensuring food security.

Colonial Settlements and Hardships

  • Jamestown, founded in 1607 in Virginia, marked the beginning of English colonization in America.
  • The colonists faced significant challenges, including the “Starving Time,” a period of severe hardship and famine.
  • Seeking religious freedom, the Pilgrims sailed on the Mayflower in 1620, establishing the Plymouth Settlement.
  • John Winthrop led a fleet to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, with subsequent waves of colonists following suit.

Motivations for Colonization

  • Colonists and settlers undertook the dangerous 3,000-mile journey to North America seeking improved living conditions, employment opportunities, and religious freedom. 
  • The establishment of the first colonies was deeply influenced by religious considerations, with religion serving as a driving force for settlement.
  • In Europe, most people did not have the social standing to own or purchase land. The New World provided that opportunity to many people.
  • Many people also wanted to escape the wars that ravaged Europe.

Expansion and Migration

  • Establishing colonies like Jamestown, Plymouth, and Massachusetts laid the groundwork for future English settlements in North America.
  • The influx of settlers contributed to the growth and expansion of the 13 Colonies, shaping their cultural and social landscapes.

Phase 4 — The French and Indian Wars

The French and Indian Wars occurred during the early years of the Colonial era, spanning from 1688 to 1763. Minor European powers were ousted from America and the primary struggle was between the British and the French. However, each side was allied with Indian tribes, which is why they are known as the French and Indian Wars.

The four French and Indian Wars were:

  1. King William’s War
  2. Queen Anne’s War
  3. King George’s War
  4. The French and Indian War

Territories

Territorial and boundary disputes were often a cause of the wars.

  • French territories in America included Acadia and New France.
  • English territories included the American Colonies and areas of Canada.
  • Spanish territory in the American Southeast was also included.

Timeline

  • The conflicts occurred in phases, with hostilities from 1688 to 1748 between the British and French.
  • The struggle for New France and Louisiana intensified during the period of the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763.

Outcome

Great Britain won the last French and Indian War and asserted its dominance over North America. France ceded most of its territory to Britain in the 1763 Treaty of Paris.

Samuel de Champlain, Fighting Iroquois, 1609, Illustration
Samuel de Champlain and Algonquin allies fought the Iroquois Confederacy in 1609. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Phase 5 — The American Revolution

Great Britain faced significant war debt. To clear the debt, Prime Minister George Grenville ended Salutary Neglect and implemented various laws and taxes in the 13 American Colonies.

Tightening Control in the Colonies

  • British strategy shifted to assertive control, enabling enforcement of Navigation Acts and other measures.
  • The Proclamation of 1763 restricted westward expansion by colonists and favored British interests in the Fur Trade.

Revolutionary Causes

  • British taxes and policies, including the Stamp Act of 1765, ignited protests and led to the Stamp Act Riots.
  • American discontent grew as British actions stifled colonial autonomy and economic freedom.

Colonial Resistance

Samuel Adams, Painting, Copley
Samuel Adams. Image Source: MFA Boston.

Intolerable Acts

  • In response to Massachusetts’ rebellious acts, Britain passed the Intolerable Acts, exacerbating colonial grievances.
  • The Intolerable Acts, seen as punitive measures, further fueled colonial resentment towards British rule.

First Continental Congress

Phase 6 — The American Revolutionary War

Battles of Lexington and Concord

On April 19, 1775, shots fired between British troops and American militia at Lexington and Concord marked the beginning of the American War for Independence.

Declaration of Resolve

  • On July 6, 1775, Congress issued the Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, affirming the determination to resist British oppression.
  • The declaration expressed the resolve to fight for freedom rather than submit to tyranny.

Formation of Continental Army

  • The 13 Colonies requested Congress to adopt the Continental Army, which had assembled during the Siege of Boston.
  • Congress directed the war effort and served as an advisor to each colony, coordinating military actions and strategy.

Leadership of George Washington

  • George Washington, appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, played a pivotal role in the war.
  • His leadership and strategy were instrumental in guiding the American forces throughout the war.

Declaration of Independence

  • On May 15, 1776, Congress advised colonies to establish governments, signaling a shift towards independence.
  • On July 2, 1776, Congress approved the motion to declare independence from Britain. Two days later, the Declaration of Independence was approved.
Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, Portrait, Peale
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. Image Source: U.S. Department of State, Diplomatic Reception Rooms.

Phase 7 — Confederation Ends the Colonial Era

13 Colonies Transition to 13 States

  • Following Congress’s advice, all colonies except Connecticut and Rhode Island formed new constitutions.
  • Connecticut and Rhode Island chose to retain their existing charters.
  • The adoption of constitutions by the 13 original colonies marked their transformation from British colonies to independent American States.

Articles of Confederation

  • The Second Continental Congress aimed to unify the colonies through a general constitution known as the Articles of Confederation.
  • The ratification of the Articles of Confederation established the United States as a united, sovereign, and national state.
  • This marked a crucial step forward toward a cohesive national government and the emergence of the United States as an independent nation.
  • The ratification of the Articles of Confederation effectively ended the Colonial Era.

Colonial America Facts and Characteristics

Religion

  • Religion played a pivotal role in the establishment and development of the first colonies in the Colonial era.
  • The pursuit of religious freedom led many colonists to seek refuge in North America, where they could practice their beliefs without persecution.
  • Although many people held strongly to their religious beliefs, they were also influenced by astrology and folklore.
  • The Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692 in Massachusetts is an example of the impact of religious fervor on colonial society.
Examination of a Witch, Salem Witch Trials, Matteson
This painting by T. H. Matteson depicts the trial of a woman accused of witchcraft. It was inspired by the Salem Witch Trials. Image Source: Wikimedia.

English Government

  • English governance principles heavily influenced the structure and operation of colonial governments.
  • The English legal system, parliamentary practices, and administrative procedures shaped colonial governance and legal frameworks.
  • Despite being geographically distant, colonial governments maintained strong ties to England and followed English precedents in their governance.
  • The English government also required the colonies to adhere to strict economic laws, as part of its economic system.

Colonial Government

  • Colonial Government served as an extension of the English government during the Colonial Era.
  • Each colony had its own form of government, typically consisting of a Governor, Governor’s Council, Legislative Assembly, and Judicial System.
  • Colonial governments were responsible for implementing laws, maintaining order, and managing colonial affairs under the authority of the British Crown.

Economy

The economy during the Colonial Era was shaped by:

  1. Geography — including the distance between settlements and differences in terrain, climate, and natural resources.
  2. British economic systems and policies — controlled trade between the settlements, trade with Native American Indian tribes, and foreign nations.

Geographic and climatic conditions influenced economic activities in the 13 Colonies, shaping distinct regional economies.

  • New England Colonies — focused on manufacturing, particularly in towns, with industries such as shipbuilding and rum exportation.
  • Southern Colonies — relied heavily on agriculture, employing slave labor and adopting the plantation system. Major agricultural exports included tobacco, cotton, indigo, rice, and sugar.
  • Middle Colonies — engaged in both agriculture and manufacturing, leveraging resources such as iron ore. Manufacturing of products like plows, tools, and kettles supported economic growth and export to England.

Britain maintained control over the colonial economy. The primary objective of the economic policies and trade laws was to enrich the “Mother Country.” While colonial merchants profited from the system, it also undermined their economic autonomy.

  • Mercantilism — the British policy of Mercantilism aimed to maximize profitability for the Mother Country, often at the expense of colonial interests.
  • Navigation Acts — laws that placed restrictions on trade.
  • Triangular Trade Routes — driven by the Navigation Acts, facilitated the efficient exchange of goods between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, under the control of the British government. The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Middle Passage ran along these routes.

In the 18th Century, Prime Minister Robert Walpole implemented an unwritten policy known as Salutary Neglect. Under the policy, British officials were encouraged to neglect enforcing the Navigation Acts and to collect taxes. This led to a dramatic increase in business and profitability for American merchants.

The colonial economy was also shaped by the labor force, which consisted of Indentured Servants and Slaves.

  • Indentured Servants — workers who agreed to lengthy contracts were part of the workforce from the very beginning. A significant portion of the British and European immigrants to America before the Revolutionary War were indentured servants.
  • Slave Labor — plantation farming, a prominent economic activity, fueled the expansion of slave labor during the Colonial Era. By the 1700s, approximately 20% of the population were slaves, with 90% located in the Southern Colonies.

In the early years, systems were set up that encouraged wealthy landowners to pay for people to move to the colonies. These systems were the Headright System and the Patroon System. For each person a landowner paid for, he was given land, usually 50 acres. In return, each person worked for the landowner, essentially as an indentured servant. When their contract was completed, they were also given land. However, it was usually poor, undeveloped land that was not worth much.

These systems, especially the Headright System, led to tension between the wealthy landowners and the lower classes — small farmers, indentured servants, and slaves. This contributed to Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia.

Bacon's Rebellion, Burning Jamestown
This illustration depicts the Burning of Jamestown that took place during Bacon’s Rebellion. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In the years following Bacon’s Rebellion, wealthy landowners transitioned from indentured servants to slaves. The primary reason was they did not have to release slaves after a certain period.

The availability of slaves via the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the need for workers on large plantations in the South contributed to the dramatic growth of slavery in the South.

The increase in slavery led to the development of the Abolition Movement in Colonial America, which was led by Quakers.

Population

  • By 1775, the colonial population was around 2.5 million, with the ratio of English settlers to other European colonists about 3 to 1.
  • Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Maryland were some of the most densely populated colonies.

Fur Trade in the Colonial Era

Another significant industry during the Colonial Era was the Fur Trade. English, Dutch, and French traders created trade networks with the Native American Indian tribes. This led to competition among the Europeans for control of the trade and among the Indian tribes for control of the production of furs and skins. It can be argued that the Fur Trade drove the westward expansion and exploration of America more than any other factor in the colonial era

Impact on Native American Indians

  • The Colonial Era brought wars and deadly European diseases, resulting in a catastrophic decline in the indigenous population of Native American Indians.
  • When the Pilgrims established Plymouth, it was in the aftermath of a plague that decimated the Indian tribes in New England. This event is known as the Great Dying of New England.
  • There was intense distrust and fear between Indians and European colonists, but trade networks eased tensions with some tribes.
  • Powerful confederacies like the Iroquois Confederacy arranged alliances with the French or English, depending on what suited their needs best. The Iroquois eventually formed an alliance with the English, known as the Covenant Chain.

Colonial America APUSH Review 

Use the following links and videos to study the Colonial Era, the American Revolution, and the American Revolutionary War for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Colonial America APUSH Definition

Colonial America refers to the period of history from the early 17th century to the late 18th century when European powers, primarily Great Britain, established colonies in what is now the United States. These colonies, including Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and others, were founded for various reasons, such as economic opportunity, religious freedom, and territorial expansion. Colonial America was characterized by diverse cultures, including agrarian economies, religious diversity, and interactions with Native American populations. The colonial period laid the foundation for the development of American culture, politics, and society.

APUSH Resources for the Colonial Era

EDITOR’S NOTE — Native American Indians and enslaved Africans played a significant role in shaping Colonial America. As we expand the encyclopedia to include tribes and individuals, this article will be updated.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Colonial America — from 13 Colonies to the United States
  • Date 1607–1776
  • Author
  • Keywords Colonial America, 13 Original Colonies, Jamestown, Plymouth, Massachusetts, American Revolution, American Revolutionary War, Articles of Confederation
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 10, 2024

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