The Middle Colonies in Colonial America — A Guide to Four of the 13 Original Colonies
Because of their location, the 4 Middle Colonies are sometimes referred to as the Mid Atlantic Colonies.
Middle Colonies Facts
Here are five important facts about the Middle Colonies Colonies:
- Before Europeans settled in the Middle Colonies, the area was inhabited by various Native American Indian tribes and bands, including the Abenaki, Cayuga, Delaware, Erie, Seneca, Oneida, Lenape, Mohawk, Mohican, Munsee, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Shawnee, and Susquehanna.
- English settlement of the Middle Colonies started in 1664 after England captured the Dutch colony of New Netherland, which included New Jersey. The Dutch established New Netherland in 1614 and it was renamed New York after King Charles II gave it to his brother, James, the Duke of York.
- Farmers in the Middle Colonies had access to rich, fertile soil, which allowed them to grow large amounts of grain. Because of this, the Middle Colonies were referred to as the “Breadbasket” or the “Bread Colonies.”
- Port Cities in the Middle Colonies were important centers of trade. The Middle Colonies also had access to the coast, which allowed port cities to become important to colonial trade. Farmers would take their extra crops to the cities to sell.
- The Middle Colonies were tolerant of many different religions and people of various ethnic backgrounds. There were Germans, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Polish immigrants who were Quakers, Mennonites, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Presbyterians.
History of the Middle Colonies in the Mid-Atlantic Region
The Middle Colonies were all in the Mid-Atlantic Region of Colonial America, in the territory between the New England Colonies and the Southern Colonies. The area was originally explored by Henry Hudson in 1609 on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. On that trip, he sailed into present-day Hudson Bay, up the Hudson River, and made his way to Albany, New York. In 1614, the Dutch founded New Netherland, which was followed by the Swedes establishing New Sweden in 1638. New Sweden struggled and in 1655 the Dutch invaded the colony and conquered it.
The Anglo-Dutch Wars in Europe had a significant impact on the Middle Colonies. Hostilities were avoided during the First Anglo-Dutch War. In 1664, the English captured New Amsterdam and took control of New Netherland. Then, during the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the territory changed hands twice. First, the Dutch recaptured New Amsterdam in 1672, but the 1674 Treaty of Westminster that ended the war returned New Amsterdam, and the territory of New York, to the English. This gave the English control of the East Coast of America from Maine to the Carolinas.
The fact that the Middle Colonies were not started as English colonies created a diverse population, unlike the New England Colonies and the Southern Colonies. As a result, there was a diversity of religion, culture, and government.
By 1775, when the American Revolutionary War started, three of the four Middle Colonies were firmly established — New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Delaware — or the “Lower Three Counties” as it was called — was technically part of Pennsylvania. On June 15, 1776, Delaware officially became a separate entity.
Middle Colonies Map
History of the Middle Colony and Province of New York
In 1609, English explorer Henry Hudson sailed into present-day Hudson Bay in search of the legendary Northwest Passage. Hudson established trade with the Native American Tribes in the area and claimed the land for the States General of the Dutch Republic — the sponsor of his expedition.
The Colony of New Netherland was established in 1614, but colonists did not arrive until 1624. That was the year the Dutch West India Company established the first permanent settlement — Fort Orange — in New Netherland. Fort Orange was on the Hudson River, at present-day Albany, New York. The following year, a second trading post, New Amsterdam, was established on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, at the mouth of the Hudson.
The West India Company encouraged people to emigrate to the colony with different incentives, including the “Patroon System.” Under the system, investors were given land if they paid for immigrants to move to New Netherland and settle. In some cases, the investor, who was known as a “Patroon,” was required to purchase the land from the Indian Tribes.
The colony was attractive to immigrants because it offered religious freedom and the promise of land. Roughly half the population was Dutch, but the rest was made up of immigrants from France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
As New Netherland grew, so did the English colonies that bordered it. The two nations were intense rivals and wanted to control as much trade and shipping as possible. In 1651, England passed the First Navigation Act, which prohibited Dutch ships from transporting goods from the English Colonies to Europe. This led to outright war when the First Anglo-Dutch War started in 1652.
In 1664, English forces led by Colonel Richard Nicolls sailed into New Amsterdam’s harbor on four ships. New Amsterdam did not have sufficient weapons or ammunition to fight the English, and Governor Peter Stuyvesant surrendered on September 8, 1664.
King Charles II gave the colony to his brother, James, the Duke of York, who renamed it “New York.” After the English gained control, New York became a Proprietary Colony, immigration increased, and settlements expanded into the territory of the Iroquois Confederacy.
The Third Anglo-Dutch War broke out in 1672, and the Dutch captured New York in 1673. However, less than a year later, the war ended and New York was returned to British control in 1674.
History of the Province and Middle Colony of New Jersey
The territory that became New Jersey was originally part of New Netherland and then New York. The Dutch established a trading post at Bergen in 1620, which was followed by others including Fort Nassau and Pavonia, which is present-day Jersey City.
In 1638, the Swedes moved into the area and established New Sweden. In 1655, New Netherland captured New Sweden and incorporated the settlements. After the English took control of New Netherland, the area was renamed New Jersey, after Jersey, an island in the English Channel, just off the coast of France. The Duke of York, the proprietor of the Province of New York, granted the land between the Hudson River and Delaware River to his friends, Sir George Carteret and Lord John Berkeley.
When the Dutch regained control of New York in 1673, the New Jersey settlements were also forced to swear allegiance to the Dutch Crown. However, when the war ended, England regained New York and New Jersey. This set off roughly 25 years of disputes over the control of New Jersey.
At one point, the colony was divided into East Jersey and West Jersey. In 1702, the two regions were rejoined under Queen Anne, as a Royal Colony called the Province of New Jersey. In November 1703 the first General Assembly of New Jersey convened.
History of the Province and Middle Colony of Pennsylvania
In 1638, the Colony of New Sweden was established by the settlement of Fort Christina at present-day Wilmington, Delaware. Five years later, Fort New Gothenburg was built on Tinicum Island which is the present-day site of the Philadelphia International Airport. It became the first permanent European settlement in what would become Pennsylvania.
In 1681, King Charles II granted a charter to William Penn for the establishment of a new colony between Maryland and New York. The King named the new colony Pennsylvania, in honor of Penn’s father, Admiral William Penn. The first settlers arrived in Pennsylvania in December 1681 and Penn arrived in October 1682. Pennsylvania grew quickly due to Penn’s skills at marketing the colony, his commitment to diversity, and his willingness to make business deals with the Indian tribes to acquire land. Pennsylvania was full of rich, tillable land, and was ideal for farming. This was attractive to settlers and led to the colony’s prosperity.
History of the Middle Colony of the Lower Counties on Delaware
The first European settlement in Delaware was established by the Dutch in 1631 near present-day Lewes, Delaware. However, the settlement was destroyed in a dispute with local Indians.
The first permanent European settlement was Fort Christina, which was built by Peter Minuit in 1638 at present-day Wilmington. It was the first settlement of New Sweden. Minuit is more well-known for his role in buying Manhattan Island from the Lenape Indians on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. In 1632, Minuit returned to Europe and was hired by the Swedish government in 1637 to lead the establishment of New Sweden.
In 1654, Johan Rising became Governor of New Sweden and he attacked and captured Fort Casmir, a Dutch settlement. New Netherland responded by sending a fleet of ships with troops that captured the settlements in New Sweden. Like the other Middle Colonies, control of Delaware changed hands from the Dutch to the English, and back, until it finally wrested with the English. At that point, the territory of Delaware was under the administration of the Province of New York.
In 1681, William Penn sent agents to explore the land that had been granted to him as Pennsylvania. The agents found that Pennsylvania’s access to Delaware Bay was under the control of New York on the west bank and New Jersey on the east bank. Penn worked out a deal with the Duke of York to rent the land on the western shore of the Delaware River, which became known as the “Lower Counties on Delaware.”
As part of the arrangement, meetings of the General Assembly alternated between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New Castle, Delaware. However, the travel was inconvenient, and in 1704 the Lower Counties were given their own General Assembly. In a unique situation, Pennsylvania and the Lower Colonies shared the same Governor.
Type of Colonies in the Mid-Atlantic Region
The type of Colonies in the Mid-Atlantic Region was based on the type of government they had. There were three different types of colonies — Royal, Proprietary, and Corporate. Each colony was granted a charter, usually from the English monarch, that permitted people to colonize a specific area and establish settlements.
- New York — Proprietary Colony, became a Royal Colony on February 6, 1685
- New Jersey — Proprietary Colony, became a Royal Colony on April 17, 1702
- Pennsylvania — Proprietary Colony
- Delaware — Proprietary Colony
A Royal Charter meant the colony was ruled by the Crown, through a Royal Governor. In the Middle Colonies, New York and New Jersey started as Proprietary Colonies and transitioned to Royal Colonies.
A Proprietary Charter meant the territory was granted to a person or family and also granted them rights to govern the colony. Pennsylvania and Delaware were Proprietary Colonies. Although these two colonies had their own General Assemblies, they shared a Governor from 1701 to 1776. New York and New Jersey started as Proprietary Colonies.
A Corporate — or Joint-Stock — Charter was granted to a business. Colonies with a Corporate Charter are usually referred to as Charter Colonies. Since it was founded by the Dutch West India Company, New York was initially a Charter Colony.
Middle Colonies Government
The government in the Middle Colonies was established by the charter. The charter usually allowed for a Governor, a Governor’s Council, a General Assembly, and a court system — all based on English laws. However, due to the unique nature of the Middle Colonies having been started by the Netherlands and Sweden, the structure of the early government was inconsistent. As the colonies transitioned to English colonies and moved toward the start of the American Revolutionary War, the governments became more alike.
The Middle Colonies, especially Pennsylvania and Delaware, are generally viewed as prime examples of how a democratic system of government should work. This is because William Penn set up a system that allowed the citizens to elect the people who made the laws. In the Royal Colonies of New York and New Jersey, the Governor and members of the Governor’s Council were appointed by the Crown, and only the members of the General Assembly were elected by the people.
Government in the Province and Colony of New York
Soon after the English first took control of New York — formerly known as New Amsterdam — Governor Richard Nicolls called for a meeting of representatives from the 16 towns on Long Island and Westchester County. The outcome of the meeting, which took place on March 1, 1765, was a set of laws — known as the “Duke’s Laws” — that governed the City of New York. The laws were based on English law, Dutch law, and existing Colonial law, and established a court system and local law enforcement. The laws were extended to the entire colony on June 12. The colonists were critical of the Duke’s Laws because they did not provide for the election of an assembly.
After the Third Anglo-Dutch War, Edmund Andros was appointed Governor of New York. Andros was controversial and unpopular and without an elected assembly to push back, he overruled court decisions and meddled with business and trade laws. Andros was replaced in 1682 by Thomas Dongan, the Earl of Limerick, and he was instructed to establish a General Assembly, finally giving the people of New York some say in their government. The Assembly of Representatives met for the first time in 1683 and passed the “the Charter of Liberties and Privileges.”
When the Duke of York ascended to the throne in 1685, he became King James II of England and New York transitioned to a Royal Colony. The following year, Governor Dongan issued a new charter for the City of New York that gave the citizens the right to elect an alderman, an assistant, and a constable.
In 1688, King James II made New York part of the Dominion of New England — which was governed by Edmund Andros. After James II was removed from the throne in the Glorious Revolution, Andros was replaced and New York returned to being a singular Royal Province.
By 1735, the provincial government was firmly established with the Governor as the executive, the Governor’s Council as the upper chamber of the assembly, and the General Assembly as the lower chamber. In 1774, prominent New Yorkers formed the Committee of Fifty-One, which sent a circular letter to the Committees of Correspondence in the other colonies. The letter called for a “general congress” of colonial delegates to discuss the Boston Port Act and the idea of an American boycott of British goods in protest of the Intolerable Acts.
In the aftermath of that congress — the First Continental Congress — the provincial assembly was dissolved and the people of the colony established the First New York Provincial Congress. The Provincial Congress met for the first time on May 22, 1775, and disbanded on April 20, 1777, when the first Constitution of the State of New York was adopted.
Government in the Province and Colony of New Jersey
On June 24, 1664, the Duke of York gave the territory that became New Jersey to Lord John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret. Their immediate goal was to profit from the colony. Their plan was to encourage people in England to emigrate to the colony and then rent land to them. As a way to encourage people to move to the Province of New Jersey, or “New Caesarea” as it was known to the Crown, Berkeley and Carteret wrote “Concession and Agreement of the Lords Proprietors of the Province of New Caesarea, or New Jersey.” It guaranteed land to settlers, along with religious freedom and personal rights they did not have in England, and it provided for a General Assembly — a representative government — elected by the people. One of the most important things the Concession and Agreement did was establish that only the assembly of New Jersey could levy taxes on the citizens.
Although New Jersey was a colony of tolerance and freedom, it failed to entice as many Englishmen to emigrate as the proprietors hoped. Instead, the laws led to many settlers moving from New England and Long Island — especially Quakers — to move to New Jersey. When the colony was divided, both East Jersey and West Jersey had their own constitutions. In 1688, both provinces were merged into the Dominion of New England but returned to separate colonies in 1689. Finally, the two were reunited in 1702 as the Province of New Jersey.
On December 6, 1775, Governor William Franklin prorogued the Assembly. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, New Jersey leaders established the Provincial Congress of New Jersey and held its first meeting on May 23, 1775. It served as the government of the colony until July 2, 1776, when it approved the first Constitution of the State of New Jersey.
Government in the Province and Colony of Pennsylvania
On March 4, 1681, William Penn received a charter from King Charles II for the land west of New Jersey, north of Maryland, and south of New York. The charter gave Penn the ability to craft the government and laws for the colony as long as they followed the laws of England.
In July 1681, Penn issued the “Concessions for the Province of Pennsylvania,” which provided the basic details of what people could expect when they moved to Pennsylvania. It did not establish a government. Instead, it explained how the land would be acquired and used, and what his expectations of people were in terms of work and treatment of the Indians.
A year later, Penn proposed a government in a document called the “Frame of Government.” Today, it is called the Frame of 1682 and it provided for a Governor and a parliament consisting of two houses — the Provincial Council and the General Assembly. It was notable because it allowed eligible voters to elect members of both the Council and the Assembly. However, it also limited the role of the General Assembly in that it could not create laws, it could only recommend amendments.
In December 1682, Penn held a meeting with representatives of property holders from the counties in Pennsylvania and Delaware. Penn presented the Frame of Government — and 12 of his proposed laws were rejected. However, the assembly approved a set of laws, which are known as the “Great Law of Pennsylvania. The Great Law reinforced Penn’s Concessions of 1681 and turned many of the expectations into laws, including citizenship, freedom of religion, and trial by jury.
Early the next year, a compromise was reached and the Frame of 1863 was approved on February 2. Although the power of the Governor was reduced, the Assembly was still prohibited from proposing laws.
Penn returned to England in 1684. In his absence, the Frame of Government was amended in 1696 and the Assembly was given the ability to propose laws. When Penn returned to Pennsylvania in 1699, he rejected the change. Afterward, Penn found out there was a movement in Britain to take the colony from him and put it under the control of the Crown. Penn responded by drafting a new constitution for Pennsylvania which is known as the “Charter of Privileges.” The new system kept the best parts of the old system and made changes that ushered in a new style of government in Colonial America. For example, it eliminated the Council, created a unicameral legislature, and dramatically reduced the power of the office of the Governor. It also gave permission to the “Lower Counties” of Kent, Sussex, and New Castle to establish their own General Assembly.
Because of Pennsylvania’s unique government structure, its citizens did not establish a Provincial Congress until June 1776. Congress discussed independence, organized a constitutional convention, and mobilized the state militia for the war effort. Congress voted in favor of independence on June 24, 1776, and ratified the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 on September 28.
Government in the Three Lower Counties on the Delaware River
The history of government in Delaware — the Lower Counties on Delaware — is tied directly to that of Pennsylvania — or the Upper Counties. For years, the meetings of the General Assembly rotated between Philadelphia and New Castle. In 1701, William Penn issued the Charter of Delaware, which gave the Lower Counties the option to hold a General Assembly. Three years later, n 1704, the Lower Counties decided to establish an assembly and pass its own laws, but it still shared a Governor with Pennsylvania. Unlike many other colonies, Delaware did not establish a Provincial Congress — in part because it was never an actual independent colony. On June 15, 1776 — known as “Separation Day” in Delaware — the General Assembly declared independence from Britain — and Pennsylvania. Delaware adopted its first constitution on September 20, 1776.
Religion in the Middle Colonies
Religion in the Middle Colonies was diverse, due in large part to the ethnic and religious diversity of the population. Although all the Middle Colonies offered religious freedom, Pennsylvania was the only one founded on that principle. William Penn wanted to create a safe haven for Quakers but also wanted to show they could live side by side with people from other religions. Penn called it the “Holy Experiment.”
New Netherland and New Sweden were established by trading companies for profit. Because of that, the proprietors encouraged anyone to settle in their colonies, regardless of religion. Throughout the Middle Colonies, there were Dutch Mennonites, French Huguenots, German Baptists, Portuguese Jews, Dutch Reformed, Lutherans, Quakers, and Anglicans. There were also Indians and Africans who had their own religious traditions. Overall, the Middle Colonies had more churches than either the New England Colonies or the Southern Colonies due to religious tolerance.
Middle Colonies Economy — The Breadbasket Colonies
The economy of the Middle Colonies was diverse due to the fertile land, plentiful forests, and access to the ocean. Those qualities allowed the Middle Colonies to prosper in farming, agriculture, shipbuilding, and the production of textiles.
The Middle Colonies were leaders in food production in Colonial America. Many farmers grew staple crops — wheat, barley, and oats — which were traded to other colonies at the major ports in New York and Philadelphia. Farmers also raised livestock, including cows and pigs. As a result, the Middle Colonies earned the nickname “The Breadbasket Colonies.”
Natural resources were plentiful throughout the region, including iron ore, timber, fur, and coal. It allowed the Middle Colonies to manufacture goods — as much as was allowed by the British government — including nails and farm equipment.
Access to forests, especially in Pennsylvania and New York, allowed both New York City and Pennsylvania to establish a strong shipbuilding industry by the early 1700s. Logging and milling were also vital to the economy of the Middle Colonies.
Mercantile System in the Middle Colonies
Mercantilism is an economic theory that focuses on the trading of goods as a means to create wealth. Mercantilism gained popularity in Europe as nations transitioned from feudal governments to national governments, especially from the 16th Century through the 18th Century — the Age of Exploration. England and other European powers worked to create their own stand-alone economic environment where they could be as self-sustaining as possible. In other words, they wanted to be able to have everything they needed for their empires to survive — food, raw materials, products, and ships — produced from within the empire.
The British Mercantile System in the Middle Colonies forced them to operate as a source of raw materials for England, and as a market for British merchants to sell finished products. As far as England — later Great Britain — was concerned, the colonies only existed for the benefit of the Mother Country. The Middle Colonies produced iron ore and wheat that were sent to Great Britain.
Navigation Acts in the Middle Colonies
To force compliance with the Mercantile System, England — and later Britain — enacted the Navigation Acts. They were a series of laws passed by Parliament designed to regulate and control the shipping of raw materials and products within the empire. The laws were based on the economic theory of mercantilism and were intended to give England a favorable trade balance against other nations. The Navigation Acts played an important role in how the Middle Colonies were shaped.
Effect of the Anglo-Dutch Wars on the Middle Colonies
One of the early acts, the Navigation Act of 1651, made it illegal for English merchants to ship their goods on Dutch ships. This led to the Anglo-Dutch Wars. In the aftermath of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, England wrested control of New Netherland from the Netherlands and it became the Province of New York.
Dominion of New England
In 1686, the Dominion of New England was established to enforce the Navigation Acts. At first, the New England colonies were part of the Dominion, but New York, East Jersey, and New Jersey were added on May 7, 1688.
Salutary Neglect in the Middle Colonies
Salutary Neglect in the Middle Colonies allowed merchants to ignore the Navigation Acts. It led to an increase in smuggling and bribery. Merchants knew they were breaking the law, but they also believed they were doing smart business. Salutary Neglect allowed merchants to prosper but also increased their independent spirit.
Triangular Trade in the Middle Colonies
Triangular Trade in the Middle Colonies contributed to the wealth of Mid-Atlantic merchants and contributed to the slave trade in the British Empire. Merchants in the Middle Colonies contributed iron ore, wheat, and other raw materials that were part of the Triangular Trade System.
Middle Colonies Geography
The geography of the Middle Colonies was diverse — there were mountain ranges, lowlands perfect for farming, and plenty of lakes and waterways. Two rivers, the Hudson and Delaware encouraged shipping and allowed both New York City and Philadelphia to become major centers of commerce.
Middle Colonies Climate
The Middle Colonies experienced cold winters and hot summers. However, the climate was pleasant and offered more rain, sun, and a longer growing season than New England.
Middle Colonies Timeline
1609 — Henry Hudson explores the waterways in the Middle Colonies.
1614 — New Netherland is established.
1620 — The Dutch establish a trading post at Bergen, present-day Jersey City, New Jersey.
1624 — Fort Orange is built at present-day Albany, New York.
1625 — New Amsterdam is built at present-day New York City.
1626 — The Dutch West India at New Amsterdam buys 16 people from Portuguese pirates.
1630 — The Great Puritan Migration begins.
1638 — New Sweden is established and Fort Christina is built at present-day Wilmington, Delaware
1643 — Kieft’s War begins in New York and New Jersey.
1651 — The Navigation Act of 1651 is passed.
1652 — The First Anglo-Dutch War begins.
1655 — New Netherland conquers New Sweden.
1655 — The Peachtree War takes place along the Hudson River.
1655 — The first shipment of slaves from Africa arrives in New Amsterdam.
1659 — The First Esopus Indian War begins in New York.
1663 — The Second Esopus Indian War begins in New York.
1664 — English forces capture New York City and take control of New Netherland.
1665 — The Second Anglo-Dutch Wars begins.
1672 — The Third Anglo-Dutch War begins.
1674 — The Treaty of Westminster is signed. New Netherland returns to English control.
1681 — King Charles II grants a charter to William Penn for Pennsylvania.
1684 — The first slaves in Pennsylvania arrive in Philadelphia.
1686 — The Dominion of New England is established.
1702 — East and West Jersey are combined into the Province of New Jersey.
1704 — Delaware establishes its General Assembly.
1762 — Slaves arrive at Wilmington, Delaware.
Interesting Facts About the Middle Colonies
- Connection to the Beaver Wars — The Beaver Wars subsided after the English took control of New Netherland in 1664 because the Iroquois lost their Dutch allies.
- English in New Jersey — In 1641, a group of English left New Haven Colony in Connecticut and established a colony at Varkens Kill near present-day Finns Point, New Jersey, however, it was wiped out by illness.
- Pennsylvania’s Borders — The border between Pennsylvania and Delaware was not established until 1768 when the survey of the Mason-Dixon line was completed. It also finalized Pennsylvania’s border with the Maryland Colony.
- Log Cabins — The Swedes who settled in New Sweden introduced the log cabin design to Colonial America.
- Slavery in the Middle Colonies — The institution of slavery is often linked to the Southern Colonies, however, there were slaves at some point in each of the Middle Colonies.
- Alcohol Fueled the First Esopus War — A Dutch mob attacked a group of drunk Esopus Indians after the Indians grew rowdy and loud. The Dutch thought the Indians were going to attack, so they attacked first, triggering retaliation.
- Dutch Taxation was a Cause of Kieft’s War — Governor William Kieft tried to force the Indians to pay taxes, which created tension that contributed to Kiet’s War, which started in 1638.
Editor’s Note: The primary purpose of this article is to provide a high-level overview of the founding of the Middle Colonies and their governments. Although the article touches on other topics, such as slavery in the Middle Colonies and Indian Wars, they are not covered in depth. The article also focuses on the period from 1609 to the beginning of the French and Indian War, even though it discusses the Provincial Governments. We intend to add more articles on the Middle Colonies that will cover most topics.