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Introduction: thirteen colonies

The United States is part of the North American continent. It began as a nation of thirteen states on the Atlantic coast. Each of these states had been a colony of England or another European nation, in a Europe that was undergoing tremendous religious and political upheaval. This program will cover the early colonies, until 1660, and show how the imprint of that period on those colonies set the course and character of this nation, and the ideals to which it aspires.

Spanish and French holdings

Let us go back four hundred years in the history of North America, to 1600. At this time Spain held Middle America and much of South America as colonies. Huge deposits of silver were mined using Indians and African slaves. The treasure was transported to the mother country, Spain, in ships of her new world empire. In 1609, Spain established Santa Fe in what is today's New Mexico, as a northern outpost of her new world empire.

France developed her own interests in the natural resources of North America. Initially interested in fishing in the Great Banks off Newfoundland, towards the end of the 1500s France turned to trade with the Indians for furs, contacting them along the St. Lawrence River. In 1608, Quebec was founded at the mouth of the St. Lawrence.

England under Elizabeth I

During the 1500s the dominant country in the British Isles, England, emerged from the feudal period. A succession of Kings, culminating in King Henry the Eighth, created the modern British nation.

During the rule of Henry's daughter, Elizabeth the First, England challenged Spain as a world power. Sir Walter Raleigh was Elizabeth's favorite. She backed his proposal to found an English colony in America. He named this new land Virginia, in honor of his Queen, who never married and was presumed a virgin.

Roanoke Island

Raleigh sent several expeditions to the new world. Each stopped and took on supplies at the Canary Islands off Africa, and then proceeded west, across the Atlantic ocean to the West Indies, the same route followed by Columbus. Then they proceeded north, along the coast of Florida, finally stopping in what is today's North Carolina. Moving along the sandy shoals of this coastline, they found an opening, and sailed to Roanoke Island where they founded a small colony. This region had a dense native American population.

In 1588 England was threatened by the Spanish armada. For two years no one could help the tiny outpost in Virginia. In 1590, when a final expedition returned to Roanoke, no Europeans remained. The word CROATOAN was found carved on a tree, referring to an island to the south. To this day no one has discovered what became of this lost colony.

Jamestown and Chesapeake Bay

Preview  King James the First succeeded Elizabeth in 1603. He chartered two companies, one in London and one in Plymouth, to colonize Virginia. The London Company was allowed to establish colonies in the south, and the Plymouth Company in the north, with a broad overlap between the two.

In 1606, the London Company recruited 144 settlers, both rich and poor, who set off in three ships for the new world. They sailed north past Roanoke Island, stopping at Chesapeake Bay in 1607. They entered the bay and slowly moved up what they named the James River, and founded the colony of Jamestown, named for their King.

Thus began the oldest continuous English settlement within the future United States, located in the lower half of Chesapeake Bay. The states of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware would later cover this area. The Chesapeake Bay is one of the most important geographic features of America. It is located at the midpoint of the Atlantic Coast.

Early development of Virginia

The English settlers built the James Fort as a secure place to live. Their early history was miserable. Within six months half of them died from starvation and malaria, which was spread by mosquitoes from the nearby swamp lands. An able soldier among them, John Smith, took control, working the men and bargaining with the local Algonquian Indians. As a result the colony survived.

The most important village was Kecoughtan. To improve relations with the Indians, a settler named John Rolfe married Pocahontas, the daughter of the chief of that village. Later, on a visit to England, she died of smallpox at the age of 22. Rolfe also discovered that tobacco from the West Indies was an ideal crop for Virginia. Increasing amounts of this cash crop were sold to England, establishing the colony as a commercial enterprise.

The London Company supported the colony by giving grants of land to wealthy Englishmen, who would transport at least 250 workers to Virginia. Thus new plantations grew up along the rivers and coasts, each with its own access to the sea. Many of these workers were indentured servants who became free to obtain their own land after five to seven years of labor.

In 1619, the Virginia colony elected the first representative assembly in America, the "House of Burgesses." Despite this growth, an Indian massacre in 1622 killed one third of the settlers. Due to this disaster, the English Crown dissolved the London Company, and the King ruled Virginia directly as a crown colony, though the House of Burgesses was retained.

Reformation and England

Commercial interests like those that founded Virginia were not the only motive to colonize America. Religion provided a far more compelling motive for many people.

During this period a great storm was raging over Europe, leaving as many dead as the plague. This was the conflict between the Roman Catholic church, ruled by the Pope in Rome, and new Protestant churches in northern Europe. This period is called the Reformation. Different European nations took different sides, and horrible wars and persecutions were committed in the name of Christ.

England had its own version of the Reformation under King Henry the Eighth. In order to divorce his first wife and marry Ann Bolyn, a lady of the court, Henry the Eighth separated England from the Catholic church, which did not allow divorce. He created the Church of England, or Anglican church, which allowed divorce and had the King, not the Pope, as its head. The English Parliament confirmed this union of church and state with a series of laws repressing the Catholic faith. Under Elizabeth and James, the Anglican Church, or Church of England, sprouted competition, the Puritans, who wished to purify the Anglican Church of its Catholic remnants. The royal government repressed the Puritans.

Pilgrims and Plymouth

Some of these Puritans sought refuge in the Netherlands, or Holland, a protestant country, but they never felt at home there. Through a connection with the Virginia company of London, they obtained a patent to form a plantation in America, and in 1620 they sailed to the new world in the Mayflower.

The Pilgrims initially intended to land in northern Virginia and serve out their term of indentured service. As the Mayflower approached Nantucket, off today's Massachusetts, a terrible storm came up and threw it off course. The Pilgrims were forced to head north, following the coast until they rounded the tip of Cape Cod and found a protected inlet. Here they anchored and deliberated. Since they were outside Virginia their patent was useless. They therefore drew up their own law, the Mayflower Compact, which would govern the new colony. Discovering that Cape Cod was too barren to support human life, the Pilgrims sailed west to Plymouth Bay. Here they landed and made their first settlement in the new world.

The Pilgrims barely made it through their first winter, but with the coming of spring and the help of local Indians, who had villages nearby, they survived. In October of 1621 they held their first Thanksgiving, inviting the Indians to join them and thanking God for their new life. The Pilgrims were a covenanted society, of one religion and faith, with only members of the Church having the power to vote. Within a few years they had established trading posts to the south and north.

Massachusetts Bay Colony

Meanwhile trouble was brewing in the mother country. James'son, King Charles the First, persecuted the Puritans and other dissenters with increasing force. In the 1630s, as the disaster of civil war loomed up, thousands of Puritans fled to the new world. Twenty thousand settled in New England and Virginia, while thirty thousand sailed to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean islands.

The Puritans headed for New England had a charter to found a new colony in Massachusetts Bay, which was north of Plymouth Bay. A protected recess of this bay had a nearly formed island which made a perfect harbor. Here the city of Boston was founded in 1630. By 1634 small towns had been established around Boston, all laid out according to the same plan. Salem had been established somewhat earlier.

The Puritans wanted to set an example in the wilderness of a life following the New Testament, a "city upon a hill" for all the world to see. They were driven by powerful ideals, but at the same time they were intensely practical. They became independent of England by transferring their charter to America. Thus they elected their own governors, usually John Winthrop who was their leader in this period. They established a legislature of two houses or assemblies, which became the standard for all the American colonies.

In this early period both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay people established small settlements and trading posts along the north coast of New Hampshire and Maine. New Hampshire and Maine were proprietary colonies, which means they were granted by the King to individuals as private property.

Origins of Connecticut

An important geographic feature of New England is the Connecticut River. The valley of the Connecticut River proved to have excellent ground for new settlements. In 1635, Boston Puritans founded Hartford on the Connecticut River. Two years later, a company of London Puritans chose New Haven on the coast as a trading city to rival Boston. Since these settlements were outside the lower boundary line established by the charter for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Hartford and New Haven formed separate governments, and formed a base for the later colony of Connecticut.

Roger Williams and Rhode Island

The Puritans demanded absolute religious agreement. Dissenters were sent back to England. In this early period, the first great American dissenter appeared in the form of Roger Williams, who took the position that religious belief was an individual's choice. He insisted on the complete separation of church and state. Winthrop, in a period when he was not governor, warned Williams that he was about to be arrested for his unconventional beliefs. Winthrop advised Williams to escape into the wilderness, recommending Narragansett Bay which was outside any charter. Roger Williams and his family took off through the forest towards the head waters of that bay. Here he was protected by the Narragansett Indians. Here he established the colony of Rhode Island, at a site he named Providence for his god. Rhode Island became a haven for freedom of worship and friendly relations with the Indians.

English Civil War

The conflicts in the mother country built up to a civil war in 1642. The House of Commons, dominated by the Puritans and led by Oliver Cromwell, fought the royalists who were Anglicans led by the King. In 1649 the House of Commons won, abolished the House of Lords, had King Charles beheaded, and declared England to be a commonwealth. As a result of this improved position in England, the Puritans ceased emigrating to the new world. The New England Puritans were on their own. By 1650 most of the coast was populated.

Hudson River

The Netherlands, or Holland, or the Dutch, faced England across the English Channel. Despite its small size, the Netherlands emerged as a rival world power to England in the 1600s. In 1609, the Dutch East India Company commissioned Henry Hudson, an English explorer, to search the new world for a north west passage to the Orient.

Let us journey past Cape Cod and along the New England Coast, past Long Island. We arrive at what will become the most important harbor in the world, that of New York city. We continue past the isle of Manhattan, following the route of Hudson up the broad river which will later bear his name.

Development of New Netherland

Hudson gave up when he reached the first rapids on the river. He had discovered not a route to the East, but the greatest fur-bearing region in North America south of the St. Lawrence. In 1624, the Dutch founded a trading post for furs at Fort Orange. This would later become Albany, the capital of the state of New York. Furs were a popular export to Europe, where the forests had been depleted. The five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy were the primary source of furs. Other Indian tribes allied themselves with the French along the St. Lawrence, leading to extensive tribal warfare and future wars between the French and English colonists.

Let us proceed down the Hudson to where it flows into the sea. This area has a perfect harbor, protected by Staten Island and Long Island, with the broad expanse of the Hudson going into the interior. In 1626 the Dutch purchased the isle of Manhattan from the Indians for trinkets worth twenty-four dollars. They established New Amsterdam at the tip of Manhattan. This would later become the financial district of New York City. Small towns with Dutch names were soon established, including New Harlem, Hoboken, Hackensack, Yonkers, Bronck, Flushing, and Breuckelen.

The Dutch granted feudal domains along the Hudson River to "patroons" who would transport at least fifty workers to the colony. By 1650, when the Puritans had settled the coasts of New England, the Dutch had settled the area from New Amsterdam to Fort Orange with large farms. They were not successful, and the near feudal structure of New Netherland kept it from growing at anything like the rate of the English colonies.

New Sweden

In 1623 the Dutch established a small trading post on the Delaware River, in what is now the state of New Jersey. In 1638, Sweden established a trading post nearer the mouth of the river, which soon grew into a small colony. The Swedes introduced the log cabin to America, which was so well suited to pioneer housing that it spread all over the frontier. In 1655 the Dutch took over this settlement of about three hundred people.

Maryland and later Virginia

We left Virginia in 1624. Virginia grew steadily under King Charles the First. In 1632 he granted the area north of the Potomac River to his friend, Lord Baltimore, who was a Roman Catholic. This proprietary colony was named Maryland after Lord Baltimore's wife, and it became a haven for English Catholics who were persecuted even more than the Puritans in England.

By 1660, the tidewater region of Chesapeake Bay was largely settled with tobacco farms and plantations. With the English Civil War and Puritan rule thereafter, it was the turn of the Anglican royalists to escape to the new world. Many young nobles emigrated to Virginia and founded upper class families like the Washingtons, the Randolphs, the Madisons, and the Lees. However most Virginians were small farmers. They sought land further and further west, in the piedmont region at the base of the Appalachian Mountains. By 1700 they reached the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley.

Conclusion: religious freedom

We have reached the end of this chapter in American history. We have traced the early development of New England, New Netherland, and Virginia and Maryland, as well as mentioning New France. The English colonies were fortunate in being able to obtain a certain independence, politically and economically, during the English Civil War and its Puritan aftermath. This concluded a century later with separation from the mother country in 1776.

Trade between the colonies was beginning. Ships built and manned by New Englanders transported tobacco raised in Virginia and Maryland to England, and returned with manufactured goods. More important than commerce, a tradition of religious and political freedom had begun. Religious tolerance is the root of the tree of liberty on which would grow other civil rights. Given the terrible European history of intertwining government and religion, it should come as no surprise that the very first clause of the our Bill of Rights states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

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