The Early American Colonial Regions

Signing The Declaration Of Independence

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The history of the 13 American colonies that would become the first 13 states of the United States dates to 1492 when Christopher Columbus discovered what he thought was a New World, but was really North America, which along with its Indigenous population and culture had been there all along.

Spanish Conquistadors and Portuguese explorers soon used the continent as a base for expanding their nations’ global empires. France and the Dutch Republic joined in by exploring and colonizing northern regions of North America.

England moved to stake its claim in 1497 when explorer John Cabot, sailing under the British flag, landed on the east coast of what is now America.

Twelve years after sending Cabot on a second but fatal voyage to America King Henry VII died, leaving the throne to his son, King Henry VIII. Henry VIII had more interest in marrying and executing wives and warring with France than in global expansion. Following the deaths of Henry VIII and his frail son Edward, Queen Mary I took over and spent most of her days executing Protestants. With the death of “Bloody Mary,” Queen Elizabeth I ushered in the English golden age, fulfilling the promise of the entire Tudor royal dynasty.

Under Elizabeth I, England began to profit from transatlantic trade, and after defeating the Spanish Armada expanded its global influence. In 1584, Elizabeth I commissioned Sir Walter Raleigh to sail toward Newfoundland where he founded the colonies of Virginia and Roanoke, the so-called “Lost Colony.” While these early settlements did little to establish England as a global empire, they set the stage for Elizabeth’s successor, King James I.

In 1607, James I ordered the establishment of Jamestown, the first permanent settlement in America. Fifteen years and much drama later, the Pilgrims founded Plymouth. After the death of James I in 1625, King Charles I founded Massachusetts Bay which led to the founding of the Connecticut and Rhode Island colonies. English colonies in America would soon spread from New Hampshire to Georgia.

From the foundation of the colonies beginning with the founding of Jamestown until the beginning of the Revolutionary War, different regions of the eastern coast had different characteristics. Once established, the 13 British colonies could be divided into three geographic areas: New England, Middle, and Southern. Each of these had specific economic, social, and political developments that were unique to the regions.

The New England Colonies

The New England Colonies of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut were known for being rich in forests and fur trapping. Harbors were located throughout the region. The area was not known for good farmland. Therefore, the farms were small, mainly to provide food for individual families.

New England flourished instead of fishing, shipbuilding, lumbering, and fur trading along with trading goods with Europe. The famous Triangle Trade occurred in the New England colonies where enslaved people were bartered in the West Indies for molasses. This was sent to New England to make rum, which was then sent to Africa to trade for enslaved people.​

In New England, small towns were the centers of local government. In 1643, Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven formed the New England Confederation to provide defense against Indigenous peoples, the Dutch, and the French. This was the first attempt to form a union between colonies.

A group of Indigenous people from the Massasoit tribe organized themselves under King Philip to fight the colonists. King Philip's War lasted from 1675 to 1678. The Massasoit were finally defeated at a great loss.

A Rebellion Grows in New England

The seeds of revolt were sown in the New England Colonies. Influential characters in the American Revolution such as Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, William Dawes, John Adams, Abigail Adams, James Otis, and 14 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence lived in New England.

As displeasure with British rule spread through the Colonies, New England saw the rise of the celebrated Sons of Liberty, a secret group of politically dissident colonists formed in Massachusetts during 1765 dedicated to fighting against taxes unfairly imposed on them by the British government.

Several major battles and events of the American Revolution took place in the New England Colonies, including The Ride of Paul Revere, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the capture of Fort Ticonderoga.

New Hampshire

In 1622, John Mason and Sir Ferdinando Gorges received land in northern New England. Mason eventually formed New Hampshire and Gorges's land led to Maine.

Massachusetts controlled both until New Hampshire was given a royal charter in 1679 and Maine was made its own state in 1820.


Pilgrims wishing to flee persecution and find religious freedom traveled to America and formed the Plymouth Colony in 1620.

Before landing, they established their own government, the basis of which was the Mayflower Compact. In 1628, Puritans formed the Massachusetts Bay Company and many Puritans continued to settle in the area around Boston. In 1691, Plymouth joined the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Rhode Island

Roger Williams argued for freedom of religion and separation of church and state. He was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and founded Providence. Anne Hutchinson was also banished from Massachusetts and she settled Portsmouth.

Two additional settlements formed in the area and all four received a charter from England creating their own government eventually called Rhode Island.


A group of individuals led by Thomas Hooker left the Massachusetts Bay Colony due to dissatisfaction with harsh rules and settled in the Connecticut River Valley. In 1639, three settlements joined to form a unified government creating a document called the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the first written constitution in America. King Charles II officially united Connecticut as a single colony in 1662.

The Middle Colonies

The Middle Colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware offered fertile farmland and natural harbors. Farmers grew grain and raised livestock. The Middle Colonies also practiced trade like New England, but typically they were trading raw materials for manufactured items.

One important event that happened in the Middle Colonies during the colonial period was the Zenger Trial in 1735. John Peter Zenger was arrested for writing against the royal governor of New York. Zenger was defended by Andrew Hamilton and found not guilty helping to establish the idea of freedom of the press.

New York

The Dutch owned a colony called New Netherland. In 1664, Charles II granted New Netherland to his brother James, Duke of York. He just had to take it from the Dutch. He arrived with a fleet. The Dutch surrendered without a fight.

New Jersey

The Duke of York granted some land to Sir George Carteret and Lord John Berkeley, who named their colony New Jersey. They provided liberal grants of land and freedom of religion. The two parts of the colony were not united into a royal colony until 1702.


The Quakers were persecuted by the English and wished to have a colony in America.

William Penn received a grant which the King called Pennsylvania. Penn wished to begin a “holy experiment.” The first settlement was Philadelphia. This colony quickly became one of the largest in the New World.

Declaration of Independence was written and signed in Pennsylvania. The Continental Congress met in Philadelphia until it was captured by British General William Howe in 1777 and forced to move to York.


When the Duke of York got New Netherland, he also received New Sweden which had been founded by Peter Minuit. He renamed this area, Delaware. This area became part of Pennsylvania until 1703 when it created its own legislature.

The Southern Colonies

The Southern Colonies of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia grew their own food along with growing three major cash crops: tobacco, rice, and indigo. These were grown on plantations typically the stolen labor of enslaved people and indentured servants. England was the main customer of crops and goods exported by the Southern Colonies. Sprawling cotton and tobacco plantations kept people widely separated, preventing the growth of many urban areas.

An important event that occurred in the Southern Colonies was Bacon's Rebellion. Nathaniel Bacon led a group of Virginia colonists against Indigenous people who were attacking frontier farms. The royal governor, Sir William Berkeley, had not moved against the Indigenous groups. Bacon was labeled a traitor by the governor and ordered arrested. Bacon attacked Jamestown and seized the government. He then became ill and died. Berkeley returned, hanged many of the rebels, and was eventually removed from office by King Charles II.


Lord Baltimore received land from King Charles I to create a haven for Catholics. His son, the second Lord Baltimore, personally owned all the land and could use or sell it as he wished. In 1649, the Toleration Act was passed allowing all Christians to worship as they pleased.


Jamestown was the first English settlement in America (1607). It had a hard time at first and didn’t flourish until the colonists received their own land and the tobacco industry began flourishing, at which point the settlement took root. People continued to arrive and new settlements arose. In 1624, Virginia was made a royal colony.

North Carolina and South Carolina

Eight men received charters in 1663 from King Charles II to settle south of Virginia. The area was called Carolina. The main port was Charles Town (Charleston). In 1729, North and South Carolina became separate royal colonies.


James Oglethorpe received a charter to create a colony between South Carolina and Florida. He founded Savannah in 1733. Georgia became a royal colony in 1752.

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Kelly, Martin. "The Early American Colonial Regions." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Kelly, Martin. (2021, February 16). The Early American Colonial Regions. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "The Early American Colonial Regions." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).