1. Early America: Before Columbus to 1754
2. Pre-Columbian America
3. The Columbian Exchange
4. Colonial Motivations
5. Colonial Societies
6. Colonial Economies
7. Slavery in the Colonial World
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1. Early America: Before Columbus to 1754

On a North American continent controlled by American Indians, contact among the peoples of Europe, the Americas, and West Africa created a new world.


  • Many complex American Indian societies existed in America before the the arrival of Europeans.
  • Contact among Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans resulted in the Columbian Exchange and significant social, cultural, and political changes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Geography often determines what kind of societies develop.                
  • In Colonial America, social class and status were based not on heredity but largely on wealth and property ownership, which led to greater social mobility.
  • A glaring contradiction in colonial society and the early United States was “preaching liberty while practicing slavery.”1
  • Recurring periods of conflict and peace existed between the European colonists and various Native American tribes concerning boundaries of settlement, access and usage of land and natural resources, cultural differences, and trade transactions.

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2. Pre-Columbian America

“Estimates of the New World population in 1492 range from thirty million to one hundred twenty million, and those for North America above Mexico range from five million to thirteen million. (The best guesses today are around fifty million and seven million respectively.) On some points, however, all agree. In 1492 what is today the United States was home to an extraordinary number of cultures of breathtaking variety. There were more than five hundred peoples, most of them divided into smaller related groups.” - Read more from Elliot West.


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3. The Columbian Exchange

Click to explore the Columbian Exchange

The Columbian Exchange refers to the flow of goods between the Americas, Europe, and Africa that followed Columbus’s widely advertised “discovery” of the New World. People, animals, plants, and disease passed from continent to continent affecting virtually all aspects of the environment and daily life.



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4. Colonial Motivations

Historians of American colonization often use a short-hand phrase to explain the motivations of European explorers and settlers . . . GLORY, GOLD, and GOD.


Colonial adventures were costly and needed the financing of the sovereign powers. When Christopher Columbus first set off across Europe to find sponsors, his brother Bartholomew went to the court of the English king, Henry VII, (who turned him down, much to the regret of later Britons who recognized the opportunity they had missed). Eventually Columbus received support from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. (Read more about Imperial Rivalries.)

The Doctrine of Discovery, 1493

Pope Alexander VI issued the Inter caetera, a 1493 papal bull granting significant lands to Spain at the expense of Portugal’s New World ambitions. The bull, known as “The Doctrine of Discovery,” stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”


The Spanish conquistadors were lucky among early explorers in finding South American societies rich in precious metals. The English colony, Jamestown, did not offer any such quick and easy returns. It wasn’t until John Rolfe capitalized on a lesson from the local Indians about what crop to plant that the Virginia Plantation began to make a huge profit of tobacco.

Encomienda system established, 1512

Under the encomienda system, conquistadors and other leaders (encomenderos) received grants of a number of Indians, from whom they could exact “tribute” in the form of gold or labor. The encomenderos were supposed to protect and Christianize the Indians granted to them, but they most often used the system to effectively enslave the Indians and take their lands.


According to historian Peter Mancall, “it is impossible to overstate the significance of religious strife in post-Reformation Europe.” When Ferdinand and Isabella had completed the Reconquista of Spain (1492), they turned their attention to the winning of souls in the New World. After Martin Luther, a German monk, sparked the Protestant Reformation in 1517, the newly Protestant kingdoms of northern Europe were equally committed to combating the expansion of Catholicism. And then, of course, there were the Pilgrims, Quakers, and assorted Puritans and other dissenters arriving in a steady stream from all over Europe.

Boston—The City on the Hill, 1630

Between 1629 and 1640, 20,000 Puritans left England for America to escape religious persecution. They hoped to establish a church free from worldly corruption and founded on voluntary agreement among congregants. John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, famously desired these settlements to be a “A Model of Christian Charity”—a “City on a Hill.”

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5. Colonial Societies

  • The family was the economic and social center of colonial life. 
  • Religious toleration existed with varying degrees of freedom, especially for Protestant Christian denominations and religious revivalism with the “Great Awakening1 in the 1730s and 1740s.
  • No aristocracy based on hereditary existed, but a class system developed on economics, wealth, and property ownership; the majority of colonial inhabitants were common people (small farmers and craftsmen).
  • Those other than enslaved peoples had opportunities for social mobility and improved social status through hard work. 
  • Representative governments were established with colonial assemblies and legislatures elected by eligible voters (white male property-owners).
  • Examples of democratic principles and practices (“consent of the governed”) including the Mayflower Compact by the Pilgrims,2 Fundamental Orders of Connecticut,3 New England town meetings, and the Virginia House of Burgesses.4




  1. Great Awakening (17341736): A wave of religious revival and enthusiasm popularly known as the “Great Awakening” began in New England, ignited by Jonathan Edwards, whose sermons in Northampton, Massachusetts, emphasized human depravity and divine omnipotence.   



  2. Pilgrims seeking religious freedom arrived in the New World aboard the Mayflower. On November 11, 1620, they signed the Mayflower Compact, the first governing document of Plymouth. The 41 men who signed agreed to “Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic.”


  3. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut became the first written constitution in America on January 14, 1639.

  4. The Virginia House of Burgesses was the first elected assembly of representatives in the British colonies in America. It was established in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. The House of Burgesses was formally dissolved by Lord Dunmore in 1774 on the eve of the American Revolution. However, it continued to meet in secret despite Dunmore’s ban.



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6. Colonial Economies

Characteristics of English colonial economies

  • Under the policy of mercantilism,1 colonies existed for the benefit and enrichment of the mother country, and the accumulation of wealth with a favorable balance of trade served as the foundation for a nation’s development of military and political power.
  • Colonies supplied raw materials to the mother country to promote the growth of its manufacturing industries.
  • Mercantilist policies were implemented and enforced through the Navigation Acts (1650 to 1673),2 passed by the British Parliament, but often enforcement was often lax (“salutary neglect”),3 which led to colonial smuggling activities.
  • Geography played a major role in the development of the colonial economies: New England colonies (fishing, logging, shipbuilding, trading [“Triangular Trade”]), middle colonies (farming of corn and wheat, small manufacturing of clothing and iron goods), and southern colonies (farms and plantations that grew food crops and cash crops, like tobacco, rice, indigo).
  • Labor shortages were addressed through the use of indentured servants4 in New England and the middle colonies and African American slavery in the South.

  1. Under mercantilism a nation’s goal was to be as self-sufficient as possible so that no wealth, primarily gold and silver, flowed out of its borders and to produce something other nations wanted so that wealth would flow into its treasuries. To achieve this goal, European nations conquered lands and created colonies—where new, marketable raw materials and precious metals might be discovered that could be sold and where staple agricultural products could be produced that would feed the mother country.

  2. In 1651 Parliament passed the First Navigation Act, which was intended to interrupt Dutch trade. Passed after the restoration of the monarchy, the New Navigation Act of 1660 created duties on many products—including cotton, wool, dyes, sugar, and tobacco—shipped to England.

  3. Prime Minister Robert Walpole hoped that Britain, by easing its grip on colonial trade, could focus its attention on European politics and further cement its role as a world power. Salutary neglect enabled the American colonies to prosper by trading with non-British entities, and then to spend that wealth on British-made goods, while at the same time providing Britain with raw materials for manufacture. But some historians argue that the policy had an unintended side effect: it enabled the colonies to operate independently of Britain, both economically and politically, and to forge an American identity.

  4. Colonial Americans engaged in many forms of unfree labor, with great numbers of youths moving away from their families to become servants or apprentices. The terms of their service were spelled out in contracts called indentures, legal agreements that were entered into by the child’s parent(s) and the child’s new master.



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7. Slavery in the Colonial World

The rise of the Atlantic slave trade, 1525

The first record of a slave trade voyage direct from Africa to the Americas is for a ship that landed in Santo Domingo, on the island Española (Hispaniola) in 1525. Slave Arrivals on the North American Mainland, map, Atlas of the Transatlantic S

  • The transatlantic slave trade was responsible for the forced movement of 12.5 million people out of Africa between 1501 and 1867.
  • Four-fifths of the people brought to the New World between 1492 and 1820 were from Africa and were enslaved.
  • Well over 90 percent of African slaves were imported into the Caribbean and South America. Only about 6 percent of imports went directly to British North America. (For more information see Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database.)

The Middle Passage

In 1725 Stephen Bayard reported that “30 [negroes] dyed in the passage” on a seventeen-week voyage to New York due to a shortage of food. Almost two million captured Africans did not survive the journey to the Americas.

Sketch of the hold of a slave ship from Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Rise

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