What were the Thirteen American Colonies?

Thirteen American Colonies

Thirteen American Colonies, also known as the Thirteen British Colonies

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, the British Empire, which was buoyed on by it maritime dominance, continued to expand its territories and presence in North America. They established 13 colonies over a hundred-year period, and these colonies would go on to become the first official states of the United States of America. It is for this reason why those 13 American Colonies have been called the Original 13 States of the United States.

READ MORE: Lord North – the Prime Minister of Great Britain who lost the American Colonies

Read on to learn more about America’s early history, as well as life in these colonies:

Arrival of the English to North America

North America had had its fair share of European arrivals and settlers long before the arrival of the English in the early 1600s. According to some historical accounts, the Vikings were the first to ‘discover’ the land. Centuries later, in the early 1490s, the famed Spanish explorer, Christopher Columbus, sailed the ocean blue and ‘discovered’ America.

England in the 1500s was a difficult period for many of its citizens. Fueled by their desire to earn more money from wool production, many landowners changed their agricultural lands into sheep pastures. By doing so, England was plagued with severe food insecurity and job shortages.

It was also a time when European powers were in competition to gain more power and wealth by expanding their territories. England, like many of those European powers, looked to establish colonies in the Americas. The English saw those endeavors as hugely rewarding as it could benefit from the new trading routes and vast treasures of those territories.

James I of England

Armed with a naval strength that rivaled many European powers at the time, England (later Great Britain) set out to establish a colossal empire by crossing the Atlantic and conquering areas in North America in the 16th century. The two centuries that followed saw the establishment and thriving of British colonies – 13 major colonies – in what is today the United States. Image: James I of England

Additionally, the establishment of overseas settlements in the Americas was seen by many English as an opportunity to get a new home, which in turn promised to ease the burden of overpopulation and over-competition in the major cities. In certain instances, it also provided some religious freedom for many people (i.e. the Puritans), especially when there were clashes between the Protestant and Catholic Churches in England.

In 1585, the first groups of English settled on Roanoke Islands [in what is now Dare County, North Carolina, United States] after sailing from England under the leadership of explorer Sir Walter Raleigh. The group comprised 17 women, 91 men, and 9 children. A few years later, the entire colony, which had the royal prerogative of Queen Elizabeth I, tragically disappeared. To this day, it remains unclear as to what accounted for the demise of the Roanoke Colony.

Read More: Greatest Achievements by Elizabeth I of England

A few years later, in 1606, then-reigning English monarch, King James I, sent another group of 144 men to Virginia, America. When they arrived in 1607, they built a colony, which they named Jamestown.

This article will delve further into the colony of Virginia as it is a known fact that the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 sparked a wave of future English settlements across North America.

The New England Colonies: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire

The New England colonies consisted of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire.

The first group of English settlers to arrive in America aboard the ship Mayflower after 1607 were the Pilgrims, who were a group of Puritans that left the Anglican Church back in England. They arrived in 1620.

Between 1620 and 1640, many English Puritans (i.e. the Pilgrims) partook in the Great Migration (i.e. the Puritan Migration to New England between 1620 and 1640), which saw them settling in Massachusetts and other North American areas.

Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore

The English nobleman Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore, became the first proprietor of the Province of Maryland. Having experienced persecution in England for their Catholic faith, the Baltimores tried as much as possible to make Maryland a haven for Catholics and other religious minorities that were fleeing persecution in England.

In 1630, another group of Puritans arrived in Massachusetts and established another colony.

The English settlers mingled with the Native Americans who had been living in the area for about 10,000 years. It was through the indigenous people that the settlers learnt how to hunt, fish, and grow crops.

When the first group of settlers arrived in 1620, natives from the Wampanoag tribe welcomed them. The following year, in November 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated their harvest in Plymouth. Today, that feast is recognized as the first Thanksgiving celebration.

The relationship between the English and the Native Americans was initially peaceful. However, as more settlers arrived, they also brought with them diseases that the natives had little to no immunity against. As a result, close to 80% of indigenous tribes succumbed to these diseases and died.

As the number of arrivals swirled, the English settlers soon began to demand that the natives adopt their ways of life. In some cases, the natives were forced to convert to Christianity during that period.

There were also religious divisions among the settlers. Some of the Puritans who felt that Massachusetts wasn’t religious enough for them decided to establish the Connecticut Colony in 1636 and the New Haven Colony in 1638.

On the other hand, those that felt that the Puritan laws were too strict formed the colony of Rhode Island. There was much religious freedom in Rhode Island, and the Puritans lived freely with Jewish people. Several other groups of English settlers moved to the north of Massachusetts Bay Colony and settled in New Hampshire.

Tensions continued to rise between the settlers and the Native Americans; and in 1675, the settlers and natives fought against each other in what was known as King Philip’s War. By the end of the conflict (in 1678), at least 500 natives were imprisoned, with many either dying from illnesses or starvation. The survivors were then enslaved.

Modern-day Massachusetts now has two main indigenous tribes: the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of the Gay Head. Several other tribes exist but do not have official recognition.

After King Philip’s War, the colonies in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Haven formed the New England Confederation. In 1686, all the other New England colonies came together to form the Dominion of New England.

The Middle Colonies: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware

Before the English settled in the middle colonies, that area had been mostly occupied by the Dutch. Then-King of England Charles II (reign: 1660-1685) gave New Netherland (i.e. the land between Virginia and New England) to his brother, James, then-Duke of York (later James II of England). When the English arrived, they took over from the Dutch after winning a war against them in 1674 and renamed it New York.

New York was a melting pot as it served as a home to many European emigrants, including the Belgians, Scandinavians, Germans, and French Huguenots, among many others. A few years later, Charles II and James shared more lands amongst other men. His two friends, Sir George Carteret and Lord Berkeley of Stratton, were given the Province of New Jersey. In 1681, Charles gave the Province of Pennsylvania to a man named William Penn (1644-1718). It is said that the King was indebted to Penn’s father, Sir William Penn (1621-1670). Those North American territories, which are now present-day U.S. states of Pennsylvania and Delaware, were handed to Penn as payment for those debts.

Charles II of England

The Middle Colonies – i.e. New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware – were founded in New Netherland, an earlier Dutch colony that transferred (with the 1674 Treaty of Westminster) to the English following the Third Anglo-Dutch War in 1674. Image: Charles II of England

Philadelphia became the capital of the Province of Pennsylvania. The city was known as the hub for writers, philosophers, and thinkers. One of such prominent residents of Philadelphia was Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, who moved to the city when he was just 17 years old. Ultimately, Philadelphia played a crucial role in during the American Revolution. And even after the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the city, which was by then the capital of the newly created nation, hosted many important meetings, including the Constitutional Convention that took place from May 25 to September 17, 1787.

Later, a section of Pennsylvania broke away and formed Delaware. The Middle Colonies had tons of resources, including arable lands, which increased grain farming and production. Because these lands typically had more trees, the area also saw a rise in several lumber and shipbuilding companies.

Unlike Massachusetts, there was much more religious freedom and diversity in the Middle Colonies.  In New York, for example, foreigners were granted citizenships simply by converting to Christianity. Because of its diversity, it became the preferred destination for German immigrants, and by 1717, it made up a sizable portion of the colonies’ population. The second largest group of immigrants were the Irish and Scots who settled in Middle Colonies after 1717. Many areas in the former Middle Colonies still have strong Irish roots.

Although this area was extremely prosperous, there were labor shortages. As a result, most homes had indentured servants. It was mostly young European men who worked in these positions for an agreed period of time. Others also became farmers. In the height of slavery in the 18th century, many African slaves worked in New York.

Did you know…?

  • New York derived its name the name of James, Duke of York, who later became James II of England and James VII of Scotland. James II was the younger brother of Charles II of England.
  • William Penn (1644-1718), a London-born Quaker philosopher and entrepreneur, is credited with the founding of the Province of Pennsylvania. Known for his advocacy for democracy and religious freedoms, Penn also called on the various North American colonies of England to unite. In so many ways, those calls of his had tremendous influence on the colonies a century later, when they demanded independence from Great Britain. As a matter of fact, the democratic principles he advocated for inspired our Founding Fathers when the time came for the framing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787.
  • The name Pennsylvania was coined from “Penn’s Woods”, which refers to Admiral Sir William Penn, the father of William Penn.
  • In the 18th century, Philadelphia, the capital of the Province of Pennsylvania, was the second biggest city in the entire British Empire. It was only second to London, England.
  • The driving force for the founding of the New England colonies was mainly to create a haven for people to worship freely. Similarly, the likes of Pennsylvania and Maryland were also founded based on the principle of religious tolerance.

The Southern Colonies: Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia

The Southern Colonies included Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. These colonies were resource rich and had many natural bodies, including rivers, swamps, forests, and fertile lands. As a result, settlers in the Southern Colonies were able to plant several types of crops like rice, corn, tobacco, and vegetables.

The earliest and first English settlers to arrive in America made landfall on Roanoke Island (located in modern-day North Carolina) in 1587. A man named John White was then elected governor of the colony and he traveled back to England to bring more supplies. Unfortunately, he got caught up in a naval battle against the Spanish on his way back, which lengthened his trip even further. White was eventually able to return to Roanoke in August 1590 only to find that the entire settlement had disappeared without a trace. The only clue that was left behind was the word “Croatoan”, which had been carved on a wooden structure. This event remains one of America’s unsolved mysteries.

In 1607, English settlers arrived and established the Jamestown and Popham Colony. Jamestown nearly collapsed a few years into its establishment. Luckily for the few surviving settlers, help arrived in 1610, when new settlers brought in vital supplies. Eventually, it became a thriving colony and started exporting tobacco. By 1624, Virginia had become a crown colony.

In 1632, King Charles I of England gave the Province of Maryland to George Calvert, 1st Baron Baltimore (1579-1632), who was looking to create a place of refuge for English Catholics looking to leave Europe due to religious conflicts. Upon the death of Lord Baltimore, his oldest son, Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore (1605-1675) inherited the proprietorship of the Provinces of Maryland and Avalon in America. He then appointed his younger brother Leonard Calvert (1606-1647) to position of proprietary governor of the Maryland, the first of his kind.

Under Leonard Calvert’s governorship (from 1634 to 1647), the first settlers arrived in America and they welcomed other Christian sects, including the Quakers, Anglicans, and Puritans. As English Roman Catholics, the Baltimore family worked very hard to create a conducive environment in Maryland where not only Catholics, but other religious denominations, could practice their faith without any fear or persecution. This was very important as England at the time was fighting very hard to do away with the vestiges of Catholicism.

Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore

The English nobleman Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore, became the first proprietor of the Province of Maryland. Having experienced persecution in England for their Catholic faith, the Baltimores tried as much as possible to make Maryland a haven for Catholics and other religious minorities that were fleeing persecution in England. Image: Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore (1605-1675), First Lord Proprietary, Earl Palatine of the Provinces of Maryland and Avalon in America.

Years later, a private business received a Royal Charter to the Carolinas in 1663 with the anticipation that they could establish a colony like that of Jamestown. Charles I’s successor, Charles II, strategically used the location to serve as a boundary line to prevent the Spanish from expanding in the north. It took a while for settlers to arrive, and a group of colonists from Barbados settled in the city of Charleston, the Province of Carolina. From 1663 to 1729, the English Lords had full control over Carolina. Eventually, the area was divided into two: North and South Carolina. And in 1729, both lands became crown colonies.

Georgia was the last of the 13 American colonies to be established by the English. It was established in 1732. At that time, the reigning monarch, King George II gave the colony to James Edward Oglethorpe, who wanted to create a new home for the English people who were debt defaulters that had been imprisoned. Much like the Carolinas, Georgia also served as a border to prevent the Spanish and the French from invading. The first group of settlers arrived in 1733 and built the city of Savannah; and in 1755, Georgia was made a crown colony.

Read More: Most Famous Founding Fathers of the United States

Life in the Thirteen American Colonies

Following the establishment of the 13 American Colonies, North America became a melting pot of various Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. And as the populations grew, so did the fight for control over this prosperous and vast land. Image: Flag of British America (1707–1775)

The colonies thrived between the 17th and 18th centuries. During that period, the population of settlers continued to rise well into the millions, forcing many of the indigenous tribes out of their lands. By 1754, at least 2 million Europeans had settled in America. The increase in the population was also due to the slavery and the arrival of millions of African slaves.

Life in America was relatively comfortable for these settlers, and they had access to more opportunities to increase their wealth. Have a look at how life was in these colonies:


Although many of the initial settlers were mostly Puritans, Protestants, and Quakers, as the American Colonies grew, so did many other religions, including Judaism. Apart from the Europeans, the indigenous tribes also practiced their own religions, as well as the African slaves that also arrived.

The Native Americans and the slaves had similar religious practices. They believed in multiple deities and revered certain animals as gods. Some of the African slaves also practiced Islam. Many of them converted to Christianity, as the European population grew.

There were many instances of religious intolerance in the colonies. Many of the settlers found the beliefs of the Native Americans to be demonic and accused them of worshiping the devil and believed that they could cast spells to affect agriculture.

There were also periods of hysteria where the colonists accused each other of practicing witchcraft, especially if the suspect acted in a way that was uncommon to them. The most popular event that occurred during that period was the Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693), which saw 19 suspected witches and wizards publicly executed in the Salem Village, Massachusetts.

By the mid-18th century, religion in the 13 American Colonies underwent major changes, a phenomenon known as “The Great Awakening.” Christian teachings, in particular, became more evangelical and more dynamic. “The Great Awakening” also led to the establishment of other branches of Protestants, including Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians.

Although Christianity was the dominant religion, there were also pockets of Muslims and Jews in the colonies. Most of the Muslims were slaves and lived in South Carolina. On the other hand, the Jews, who were descendants of Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, settled mostly in New York. Many other Jews also settled in other towns like Savannah, Philadelphia, Newport, and Charleston.


The standard of living in these colonies improved over the years. Therefore, there were several advancements and strides made in education in America as compared to Europe, particularly in New England. Most of the first public learning institutions started there. By 1647, the colony of Massachusetts legally mandated towns with 50 or more homes to hire teachers to help their children read and write.

New England parents were also required to support the school either by providing funds or supplies. The schools were usually single rooms and students learned from a book called the “New England Primer”, which taught them how to pray, as well as learn the alphabet and syllables. Harvard University was founded in 1636 and was first established to train ministers.

In the other colonies, settlers did not have access to public education. There were schools, however, most of them were religious schools, and only wealthy families could afford an education. Fifty years after Harvard was founded, the College of William and Mary opened in the southern colony of Virginia.


The economy of the original 13 colonies relied heavily on agriculture and a little bit on manufacturing. Many of the settlers lived and worked on plantations and farms. Agricultural activities, however, varied from colony to colony mostly due to differences in their climate and geography. In New England, for example, they exported more timber, animal products (leather and fur), whale oil, and livestock. The Middle Colonies exported more grains than the others, and the Southern Colonies, due to their near-tropical weather, exported mostly tobacco and rice.

America was still years away from the Industrial Revolution, so though there were some manufacturing companies, they were mostly small in size. Laws like the Iron Act of 1750 were passed to prevent the establishments of big manufacturing companies that could have been a threat to other British manufacturers. As a result, the colonists imported many products from England.


The three main types of governments were the Royal, Charter, and Proprietary systems. Though they had different names, they had the same concepts. Each colony practiced a level of autonomy and could elect their legislatures. The colonies were also headed by a governor, who was usually appointed by the English monarch. Citizens of the colonies could also elect assemblies. However, these assemblies would often protest against the immense power that governors had.

Proprietary colonies were lands that were given to people by the English monarchy to families or people. These individuals could make laws and also elect top officials. Maryland was the first of such colonies, followed by Delaware and Pennsylvania. The British ended the Proprietary system upon realizing that the colonists were becoming more independent.

The Chartered colonies were agreements between the monarch and the companies hoping to take colonists to America. Colonies like Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island were all charter colonies. It was purely for business purposes, and all parties involved benefited heavily if the colonies were successful.

The Royal colonies were under the leadership of a royal governor who was appointed by the monarch. These were New York, the Carolinas, Virginia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Georgia.

How the 13 American Colonies gained independence: The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) & the Treaty of Paris (1783)

As the colonies expanded and grew more prosperous, they became more independent and the English’s colonial power over these territories started to decline. With the population increasing over the years, these territories became increasingly desirable, especially to the French. Determined to keep these territories firmly under their control, both England and France went to war against each other. This was known as the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Eventually, England won the war, and as a result, had full control over North America, including Canada.

But Britain would have to contend with internal issues within the colonies. By the mid-1700s, the colonies preferred to work with each other instead of its colonial master. Great Britain was also attempting to recoup its financial losses from the war and tried to do so by imposing tax laws and making changes in government administration. This move further soured the relationships between the two sides.

Eventually, both parties fought against each other in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), with the colonists forming alliances with the French, Dutch, and the Spanish. During that period, America’s Founding Fathers declared independence Great Britain on July 4, 1776. Later that year, it was renamed the United States of America.

Through the help of the French, the colonists (i.e. the Continental Army), under the command of Virginia-born George Washington (later 1st U.S. President), ultimately won the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) against Great Britain. Both parties signed the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, which ended the war and granted the original 13 colonies independence.

Declaration of Independence

As colonists began to agitate for more political control, the relationship between the monarchy and the colonists soured. The French and Indian War (1754-1763) made matters even worse as the British Crown insisted that the Thirteen Colonies bare a share of the war costs. The colonies responded bitterly to increased taxation that came without any form of representation in London. Gradually, the 13 Colonies began to come together to fight against what they saw as the King’s intolerable and oppressive policies. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. Image: The Committee of Five presents the draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress

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Other Interesting Facts

Here are some interesting facts about the 13 American Colonies:

New England

The English explorer, Captain John Smith, is known to be the first to use the term “New England” in his book “A Description of New England.

The Birth of Virginia Dare

Virginia Dare was the first English child  to be born in America. Her father was John White, governor of Roanoke. Dare, together with other colonists, mysteriously disappeared upon White’s return from England.

Population of the Thirteen Colonies

In the first few decades of the 1600s, the population of the American Colonies was just a few thousands. By the start of the American Revolutionary War in 1775, the population had reached close to 2.5 million.

‘United Colonies’

Between 1775 and 1776, the Second Continental Congress used the term the “United Colonies” to describe the 13 American Colonies. That name later changed in September 1776 to the “United States of America”.

Last monarch

With the United States declaring themselves independent in 1776, George III of Great Britain (reign: 1760-1776) became the last monarch to rule the American Colonies.

New Jersey was also called New Caesarea

James, the brother of King Charles II, gave the alternate name of New Caesarea to New Jersey. During that time, the British believed that the Isle of Jersey, which was once called Caesarea, had been named after Roman Caesars during the age of the Roman Empire and that the name “Caesarea” (meaning Island of Caesar) had been anglicized over the years until it became Jersey.

Another interesting point to note is that the “ey” at the end of New Jersey means “island” among the Viking community.

King George III of Great Britain was the last monarch to rule the Thirteen American Colonies. Image: George III of England


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