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Along The Atlantic Coast

Many settlers traveled to the American colonies for freedom of worship. Quakers, Puritans, Jews, and people of other faiths arrived to create communities in what would become the United States.

On December 2, 1763, members of the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, witnessed the dedication of the Touro Synagogue, the first synagogue in the American colonies.

Organized Jewish community life in Newport dates to 1658, when 15 families arrived from overseas to establish a congregation in the growing seaport. For more than 100 years, the community relied on correspondence with rabbis in Europe to sustain their religious traditions in the New World.

After the colonists had relocated to the new world, and become familiar with their new surroundings, they began to discover the fallacy of most of their first notions and to adjust themselves to the new problems as best they could. The day when the settlement of a new world could be regarded as an experiment with possible fabulous results was over. They had come to stay, and they understood that staying meant winning and winning meant working.

The early notion that great fortunes were waiting to be picked up in the New Land, and that gold and silver and precious stones were almost to be had for the asking, had given place to a settled conviction that intelligent labor only would enable the settler to retain his foothold. Aid from the mother countries could not be depended upon, precarious as it was, nor was it to be desired. There were object lessons in frugality and industry that the colonist had set before him every day; lessons that he finally learned by heart.

The first colonies in North America were along the eastern coast. Settlers from Spain, France, Sweden, Holland, and England claimed land beginning in the 17th century. The struggle for control of this land would continue for more than a hundred years. The first permanent settlement in North America was the English colony at Jamestown, in 1607, in what is now Virginia. John Smith and company had come to stay. The Pilgrims followed, in 1620, and set up a colony at Plymouth, in what is now Massachusetts. Other English colonies sprang up all along the Atlantic coast, from Maine in the north to Georgia in the south. Swedish and Dutch colonies took shape in and around what is now New York.

If a foreigner asked an American what life was like in America, the answer would depend greatly on where a person lived in the country. That was just as true in the 1700s as it is today. Overall, America's colonial population increased from about 250,000 in 1690 to 2.5 million in 1754, fueled by natural increase and political turmoil in Europe. Poor Scots-Irish immigrants settled in the wilderness of North Carolina and the Appalachian Mountains. Wealthier German immigrants fled war and religious persecution. They felt most welcome in Pennsylvania and pushed the frontier steadily westward.

This steady stream of non-English immigrants, combined with a significant American-born population, meant the New World was soon filled with people who had very little, if any, direct connection to England. Still, thousands of Americans fought on England's behalf in four wars against Spanish, French, and Indian enemies. In our modern, developed world, it can be difficult to imagine how isolated the colonies were from each other.

We get news and information at the touch of a button. But in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were few roads that linked one colony to another, and few forms of information other than word of mouth. Most people received more news from Europe than from another region of America. So, each colony grew distinctly from the others, following the local patterns established by the earliest settlers.

Geography led New England to develop into a commercial and industrial region. The land and climate doesn't support large-scale farming, but natural harbors made fishing, shipping, and shipbuilding profitable. Fast-moving rivers ran mills and machinery to manufacture goods. A strong working class developed. Immigrants tended to come in families, and 90% of them lived in or near small villages along these rivers. Homes and businesses were literally built in rings around a common building, and there were often shared woodlands and pasture lands for livestock. Since New England farms were fairly small, homes were pretty close together.

This compact design encouraged commerce and made community schools practical. New England was the first region in which public education appeared. But the most important aspect of community life may have been the town meeting, held in the common building. These provided an opportunity for townsmen to voice their concerns and interests and planted the seeds of democratic government.

New England women enjoyed a higher social standing than their counterparts in Europe. A competent wife was an important asset in the new world. All women were educated, since everyone needed to study the Bible. They were even allowed to cast their husband's vote at town meetings if he were absent. But not everything was perfect in New England. In 1675, a Wampanoag chief named Metacomet (known to the colonists as King Philip) organized local tribes in an attempt to exterminate all of the whites. He completely destroyed 12 towns, damaged half of them and killed more than 10% of the militia before the colonists finally defeated him. It was the last time Native Americans played a significant role in New England history.

The Puritan church continued its powerful influence over government and daily life by offering the 'half-way' covenant - partial church membership to those who drifted from the faith. But dedicated Puritans continued to watch themselves and each other for signs of evil. In 1692, a few teenage girls in Salem, Massachusetts, came under scrutiny. They blamed their troublesome behavior on a slave who practiced witchcraft. Soon, they pointed fingers at other people as well. Over the next year, 150 people were arrested on suspicion of witchcraft, a crime punishable by death. In the end 20 people were executed, and at least five more people died in prison.

Whereas Northerners came to start a new life away from religious persecution, families and homesteads weren't part of that picture. Adult male immigrants to the South outnumbered female immigrants by seven to one. But few Southerners achieved the dream of owning a plantation. The overwhelming majority of them were indentured servants, slaves, or yeoman farmers. A lucky few became wealthy planters who owned fabulous houses and vast stretches of land with their own access to the waterways.

The plantation system limited commerce and discouraged urbanization. Plantations evolved into little towns that produced almost everything they needed for day to day operations. Planters could import directly from European markets, and they could buy or hire a skilled servant to create items that weren't practical to import. With few cities, there was only a small middle class of urban professionals like teachers, merchants, artisans, or lawyers. This meant there was almost no opportunity for social mobility. The distance between plantations made community schools and sometimes even churches impractical.

During the 1700s, the average life expectancy in the South was 10 to 30 years lower than other English colonies due to disease and malnutrition. This had a dramatic effect on the development of family life and other aspects of society. Few children reached adulthood with two surviving parents. A web of step-parents and half-siblings meant kinship was often a powerful factor when it came to connections in business or leadership.

All of these factors created a unique culture for Southern women. The gender imbalance increased their power and status. Single and widowed women were highly sought after and protected once they were married. But women were still a minority group that played no role in the political process, and this reality persisted even after women balanced the population. Female slaves and indentured servants were often the victims of aggressive male masters, and they had no legal recourse.

For all of its uncertainty, many poor Englishmen thought life in the Southern colonies was still more attractive than life in the Old World. Those who remained in England would never own land, would often go hungry, and could easily end up homeless and jobless with nothing better on the horizon. An immigrant in the South still had a glimmer of hope for a better life, however small.

Life in the middle colonies took on aspects of both the North and the South. Like the North, many immigrants came in family units. Though many of the people were religious, government and society as a whole were not. Like the South, the middle colonies had large farms. But rather than cash crops, the mid-Atlantic region produced food. This, combined with a healthier climate, created a longer life expectancy than the South. The economy also supported many businesses and had the largest cities.

Since New York had been the commerce center for the Dutch empire, that city had connections to the rest of the world since its beginnings. Philadelphia flourished because of the careful urban planning by its founder. Throughout the middle colonies, land ownership was high; so was productivity. A Frenchman visiting the region first explored the concept of the American dream, and described the area in a letter, saying 'Here (one) beholds fair cities, substantial villages, extensive fields...decent houses, good roads, orchards, meadows, and bridges, where a hundred years ago all was wild, woody, and uncultivated.'

Stable families and society, a healthy population, and a steady influx of new ideas contributed to greater innovation during the 16- and 1700s than other regions. For example, the middle colonies were the birthplace of many items commonly associated with American pioneers, including the Kentucky Rifle, the Conestoga Wagon, and the log cabin. The mid-Atlantic region also became the colonial leader in printing and publishing. - by Alexandra Lutz



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Along The Atlantic Coast | St. Augustine, The First Permanent European Settlement | Chesapeake Colonies | New England Colonies | The Puritan Experiment | Effort To Colonize Maine | Middle Colonies | The Middle Colonies Also Frustrated English Visions Of An Empire Responsive To Command | Virginia English Colony On The Banks Of The James River | Southern Colonies | The Plantation System | The Colonies Swarmed With Rogues, Tricksters, Impostors, And Con Men | Anglo–Powhatan War | The New World
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