United States Colonial History

Europeans first came to America for many different reasons. A few were looking for the northwest passage or other routes and were hoping to find great riches on the new continent. Some were looking for adventure. Many came because of their religious beliefs and to avoid persecution in their former countries. Some came because of lack of opportunities and because of poor economic conditions in their former countries. Many arrived in America for the promise of land and profit.

The first permanent English settlement was founded at Jamestown in 1607. Then the inhabitants of the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. By 1733, the British Empire in the New World consisted of 13 colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America.

In the early 1700s, the Spanish also made vast claims on the North American continent including what is now California, most of what is now the southwest states, Mexico, and Florida.

The French claimed an enormous tract of land from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and westward to the Rocky Mountains.

The area that became the Thirteen Colonies was also home to more than 500,000 Indians. The story of American colonization is their story, too.

Sample some of the following activities to learn more about the colonial years in America.


Places To Go    People To See    Things To Do    Teacher Resources    Bibliography

Places To Go

The following are places to go (some real and some virtual) to find out the colonial years in America.

Hopsewee Plantation
Travel to the birthplace and preserved home of Thomas Lynch, Jr., one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The home is in South Carolina and was built in 1725.
Visit Jamestown, Virginia. It was established in 1607 and was the first permanent English settlement in North America. It was settled 13 years before the Plymouth Massachusetts colony.
Plimoth on the Web
Visit this virtual 1627 pilgrim village to learn about early American settlements. This is part of the Plimoth Plantation site which also contains a great exhibit about a Wampanoag Indian homesite.  
Middleton Place
Henry Middleton, President of the First Continental Congress; his son Arthur, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; his grandson Henry, Governor of South Carolina and an American Minister to Russia; and his great-grandson Williams, a signer of the Ordinance of Secession. 
Visit Savannah, Georgia. "Savannah, located in the last of the 13 original colonies, had its beginnings when General James Edward Oglethorpe and 120 weary travelers from the English ship Ann ended their journey at Yamacraw Bluff in 1733. Oglethorpe is credited with creating the first "planned" city in the United States."
Sulgrave Manor
Travel to Sulgrave Manor. It's the ancestral home in England of George Washington's family. In 1656, John Washington, great-grandfather of George Washington came to America.
Original 13
Virtually visit the original 13 colonies. They came in to the union in this order:
  1. Delaware
  2. Pennsylvania
  3. New Jersey
  4. Georgia
  5. Connecticut
  6. Massachusetts
  7. Maryland
  1. South Carolina
  2. New Hampshire
  3. Virginia
  4. New York
  5. North Carolina
  6. Rhode Island

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People To See

Anne Hutchinson
Get to know Anne Hutchinson. She came to American in 1634 to the Massachusetts Bay colony. In 1638, she was expelled from the colony for preaching.
Benjamin West
Meet Benjamin West. He was born in 1738 in Pennsylvania and went to England, made friends with the King of England, George III, and was appointed historical painter to the king.
Blackbeard was an English pirate who preyed upon settlements on the Atlantic coast of North America--particularly around Virginia and North Carolina. He even shared some of his "booty" with the crooked governor of North Carolina. Blackbeard was killed killed in 1718 by an English naval officer.
Caleb Johnson's Mayflower Webpage
The Internet's most complete resource on the Mayflower and the Pilgrims, with genealogy, history, primary source documents, a complete passenger list, bookstore and giftshop, and links to Pilgrim-related family societies and museums.
Captain John Smith
Get to know John Smith. He was a member of the governing council of the Jamestown settlement. He established trade relations with the local Native Americans and began a comprehensive map of Virginia. He was never (in spite of what Disney movies may lead you to believe) married to Pocahontas.
Charles Willson Peale
Charles Willson Peale was an artist and naturalist, born in 1741. He established a museum of natural history in Philadelphia and even exhumed and reassembled a mastodon. Of his 17 children, four sons became well-known painters themselves: Titian Peale, Rubens Peale, Raphaelle Peale, and Rembrandt Peale.  
Ethan Allen
Spend time with Ethan Allen. He was a member of the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont. The Green Mountain Boys were armed groups of men in the 1770s who were trying to keep Vermont from becoming part of New York. The British had given the Vermont area to New York.
Henry Hudson
Henry Hudson was English, but he sometimes worked for the Dutch East India Company. In 1609, while looking for the Northwest Passage, he explored Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, and New York Bay. He was the first European to sail down the Hudson River, which is named for him.
John Alden
John Alden came to America on the Mayflower in 1620 and became prominent in the early government of Plymouth colony. He supposedly had a rivalry with Miles Standish over a young woman named Rebecca Mullin. John Alden was the one who won her hand.
John Singleton Copley
Acquaint yourself with John Singleton Copley. He was a colonial portrait painter born in 1738.
Virginia Dare
Meet Virginia Dare. She was the first child born of English parents in the new world. She was born on August 18, 1587 on Roanoke Island. Her parents were Eleanor and Ananias Dare. Her grandfather was Governor John White of Virginia.
William Penn
William Penn was from England, and he was a Quaker. In 1611, in payment of a debt owed his father, Penn obtained from King Charles II a vast tract of land called Pennsylvania (named by the king for Penn's father). William Penn called his colony his "holy experiment," and claimed that it would be a colony where religious and political freedom could flourish.

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Things To Do

18th Century Clothing Resources
For colonial snappy dressers, the wig was the item that tied everything together. Wigs and hairpieces were available in either horse, goat, yak, or human hair. Wigs and hairstyles were often powdered to give them a more formal air.
The American Colonist Library: A Treasury of Primary Documents
Find several hundred full text documents of historical works which contributed to the formation of American politics, culture, and ideals.
As American As Apple Pie: A Short Pie History
The early colonists cooked their pies in long narrow pans called "coffins." The early crusts were frequently inedible and tough designed more to hold the filling together during baking than to be actually eaten. Try baking a colonial pie in maybe a long bread pan, and then make succotash and peanut soup to go with it.
Chronicling Black Lives in Colonial New England
Africans were a part of America from its very beginning. Learn how even the earliest of settlers owned slaves or indentured servants.
Colonial Currency
The first printed currency among the new American colonies occurred in Massachusetts in 1690 and was issued by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The money was used to pay soldiers who were fighting a war against Quebec.
Colonial Life in Virginia
Learn about some of the reasons why the English first came to America. Many of the reasons had to do with unfavorable economic conditions in Europe. Have students find out what primogeniture is and how this related to the influx of English settlers to America.
Colonial North America 1492 - 1763
For this time period in North America, learn about the history of the indigenous peoples, about European colonization, and about how Africans comprised one of three groups in the New World (along with Europeans and American Indians) whose interaction fundamentally shaped the colonial experience in North America.
Colonial Soap Making. Its History and Techniques
Learn how the early settlers made their soap. Then use this site to find instructions on how to make soap and candles today.
Crossroads: A K-16 American History Curriculum
Find information, lesson plans, and support materials geared to elementary school, middle school, high school, and post-secondary students.
Dutch Colonies
Learn about Dutch settlements in early America. Dutch settlers established New Netherlands, a series of trading posts, towns, and forts up and down the Hudson River that laid the groundwork for towns that still exist today such as Albany, New York City, and Kingston.
Economic Aspects of Tobacco during the Colonial Period 1612-1776
Tobacco was cured and then shipped in barrels--mostly to England. Tobacco had been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. Colonists used tobacco like money. It was common for individuals in colonial times to pay their debts with tobacco.
Discover some of the decorative and food plants that early settlers planted in their kitchen gardens and try your hand at planting a few of them in a schoolyard garden. Plant skirrets and leeks and tansy.
Gilbert Stuart
Learn about Gilbert Stuart. He painted that famous portrait of George Washington. Have students browse through the National Portrait Gallery Hall of Presidents and research other artists who painted the official portraits of presidents.
The History Place - Early Colonial Era
John Cabot of England explored the Atlantic coast of Canada, claiming the area for the King Henry VII. In 1565, the first permanent European colony in North America was founded at St. Augustine, Florida by the Spanish. On November 9, 1620, the Mayflower ship landed at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with 101 colonists. The timeline continues with the later colonial period from 1700 to 1763.
Mayflower Compact
Read through the Mayflower compact. The original colonists signed it on November 11, two days after they landed at Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Plymouth Rock
Virtually stand where the pilgrims landed in Massachusetts.
Poor Richard's Almanac
Using the pen name of Richard Sauders, Benjamin Franklin published the first issue of Poor Richard's Almanac. This annual publication continued for many years and was widely known for its wit and wisdom.
Salem Witch Museum
Find out about the history of the Salem witch trials of 1692.
Virginia Reel
Teach students to do the Virginia Reel. One of the oldest dances enjoyed in the New World by the colonists.
Neck ornaments and belts made from shells were traded among Native Americans as money. The Algonquian peoples called the shells wampompeag which means "string of white". The colonists shortened this word to wampum. Many different tribes made and traded wampum, and early colonists used it in their dealing with Native Americans as well.

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Teacher Resources

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  • Banks, Joan. Peter Stuyvesant: Dutch Military Leader. Philadelphia : Chelsea House Publishers, c2000.
  • Brownstone, David M. Historic Places of Early America. New York: Aladdin Books, 1989.
  • Dean, Ruth. Life in the American Colonies. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, c1999.
  • Erdosh, George. Food and Recipes of the Thirteen Colonies. New York : PowerKids Press, 1997.
  • Hakim, Joy. Making Thirteen Colonies. New York: Oxford University Press, c1993.
  • Ichord, Loretta Frances. Hasty Pudding, Johnnycakes, and Other Good Stuff: Cooking in Colonial America. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, c1998.
  • IlgenFritz, Elizabeth. Anne Hutchinson. New York, N.Y.: Chelsea House Publishers, c1990.
  • Isaacs, Sally Senzell. America in the Time of George Washington: 1747 to 1803. Des Plaines, Ill.: Heinemann Library, c1998.
  • Isaacs, Sally Senzell. America in the Time of Pocahontas, 1590 to 1754. Des Plaines, Ill.: Heinemann Library, c1998.
  • Kalman, Bobbie. Colonial Life. Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1992.
  • Knight, James E. Salem Days: Life in a Colonial Seaport. Mahwah, N.J. : Troll, 1998.
  • Lukes, Bonnie L. Colonial America. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, c2000.
  • Maestro, Betsy. The New Americans: Colonial Times. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, c1998.
  • Wroble, Lisa A. Kids in Colonial Times. New York: Rosen Pub. Group's PowerKids Press, c1997.