The Original 13 U.S. States

Photo of the recreated Plymouth colony of 1620
Plymouth Colony Plantation Recreates World of The Pilgrims. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

North America remained a largely unexplored wilderness in the 1500s. While a few Spanish settlers lived in St. Augustine, Florida, and French traders maintained outposts in Nova Scotia, the continent still belonged to Native Americans.

In 1585, the English tried to start a North American colony on Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina. The settlers stayed for a year. Then they went home. A second group arrived in 1587, but they mysteriously disappeared.

In 1607, another group settled the Jamestown Colony in Virginia. While it suffered great hardships, the colony succeeded. Over the next century, the English established a total of 13 colonies. They were Virginia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. By 1750 nearly 2 million Europeans lived in the American colonies. Still others came from Africa, most of them transported as enslaved persons.

Why Did They Come?

Why did these Europeans leave their homes in the Old World?

While a few nobles owned land, most people in England were farmers who rented small plots from the nobles. Eventually, however, the landowners started making more money by raising sheep than by renting to farmers. Farmers were turned out of their homes, leaving America as their only opportunity.

Others came to the colonies in search of religious freedom. In Europe each nation had an official state church, such as the Anglican Church of England, which everybody had to attend. Those who refused to practice the state religion were sometimes sent to prison. Religious dissenters, like the Puritan Pilgrims, voyaged to America to practice their own religion.

The first 13 states of the United States of America were comprised of the original British colonies established between 17th and 18th centuries. While the first English settlement in North America was the Colony and Dominion of Virginia, established 1607, the permanent 13 colonies were established as follows:

The New England Colonies

  • New Hampshire Province, chartered as a British colony in 1679
  • Massachusetts Bay Province chartered as a British colony in 1692
  • Rhode Island Colony chartered as a British colony in 1663
  • Connecticut Colony chartered as a British colony in 1662

The Middle Colonies

  • New York Province, chartered as a British colony in 1686
  • New Jersey Province, chartered as a British colony in 1702
  • Pennsylvania Province, a proprietary colony established in 1681
  • Delaware Colony (before 1776, the Lower Counties on the Delaware River), a proprietary colony established in 1664

The Southern Colonies

  • Maryland Province, a proprietary colony established in 1632
  • Virginia Dominion and Colony, a British colony established in 1607
  • Carolina Province, a proprietary colony established 1663
  • Divided Provinces of North and South Carolina, each chartered as British colonies in 1729
  • Georgia Province, a British colony established in 1732

Establishment of the 13 States

The 13 states were officially established by the Articles of Confederation, ratified on March 1, 1781. The Articles created a loose confederation of sovereign states operating alongside a weak central government. Unlike the current power-sharing system of “federalism,” the Articles of Confederation bestowed most governmental powers to the states. The need for a stronger national government soon became apparent and eventually led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The United States Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation on March 4, 1789.
The original 13 states recognized by the Articles of Confederation were (in chronological order):

  1. Delaware (ratified the Constitution on December 7, 1787)
  2. Pennsylvania (ratified the Constitution on December 12, 1787)
  3. New Jersey (ratified the Constitution on December 18, 1787)
  4. Georgia (ratified the Constitution on January 2, 1788)
  5. Connecticut (ratified the Constitution on January 9, 1788)
  6. Massachusetts (ratified the Constitution on February 6, 1788)
  7. Maryland (ratified the Constitution on April 28, 1788)
  8. South Carolina (ratified the Constitution on May 23, 1788)
  9. New Hampshire (ratified the Constitution on June 21, 1788)
  10. Virginia (ratified the Constitution on June 25, 1788)
  11. New York (ratified the Constitution on July 26, 1788)
  12. North Carolina (ratified the Constitution on November 21, 1789)
  13. Rhode Island (ratified the Constitution on May 29, 1790)

Along with the 13 North American colonies, Great Britain also controlled New World colonies in present-day Canada, the Caribbean, as well as East and West Florida by 1790.

Today, the process by which U.S. territories attain full statehood is left largely to the discretion of Congress under Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which states, in part, “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States…”

Brief History of the US Colonies

While the Spanish were among the first Europeans to settle in the “New World,” England had by the 1600s established itself as the dominant governing presence along the Atlantic coast of what would become the United States.

The first English colony in America was founded in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. Many of the settlers had come to the New World to escape religious persecution or in hopes of economic gains.

In September 1620, the Pilgrims, a group of oppressed religious dissidents from England, boarded their ship, the Mayflower and set sail for the New World. Arriving off the coast of what is now Cape Cod in November 1620, they established a settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts.

After surviving great initial hardships in adjusting to their new homes, colonists in both Virginia and Massachusetts thrived with the well-publicized assistance of nearby Indigenous groups. While increasingly large crops of corn kept them fed, tobacco in Virginia provided them with a lucrative source of income.

By the early 1700s a growing share of the colonies’ population was comprised of enslaved African people.

By 1770, the population of Britain’s 13 North American colonies had grown to more than 2 million people.

By the early 1700s enslaved Africans made up a growing percentage of the colonial population. By 1770, more than 2 million people lived and worked in Great Britain's 13 North American colonies.

Family Life and Population Growth in the Colonies

The American colonists were both industrious and especially prolific. Vast areas of easily obtained, agriculturally rich land encouraged early marriages and large families. Needing partners and children to maintain their farms, most colonists married in the teens, and families of 10 or more members were the rule rather than the exception.

Even in the face of many hardships, the population of the colonies grew rapidly. Eager to move to what they viewed as a land of opportunity, immigrants from Europe and Great Britain itself streamed into the colonies. Both the colonies and Great Britain encouraged immigration, with English Protestants especially welcome. In in its drive to populate the colonies, Great Britain also sent many people—including convicts, political prisoners, debtors, and enslaved Africans—to America against their will. For much of their history, the original 13 American colonies doubled in population during every generation.   

Religion & Superstition

Whether the Puritan pilgrims of Plymouth or the Anglicans of Jamestown, the American colonists were deeply religious Christians who regarded the Bible as God’s Word and understood they were supposed to live their lives according to its restrictions. Their heartfelt belief in the existence of a supernatural omnipotent deity, angels, and evil spirits encouraged them to create extra-biblical superstitions which conformed to the Christian vision.

The colonists tended to automatically identify Native Americans with menacing dark forces. Even Edward Winslow of Plymouth Colony, who encouraged friendly relations with the Native Americans, claimed they worshiped the devil and could cast spells, wither crops, and hurt or heal at will. Fellow colonists could also harness this power, however, and so had to be carefully watched for signs of witchcraft. 

Every colony demanded that its residents conform strictly to social norms. Even in the liberal colonies of New York, and Pennsylvania, which welcomed people of all religions and nationalities, any aspect of a person’s life which seemed out of the ordinary warranted suspicion.

Certainly, the most famous example of this was the Massachusetts Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693, which resulted in 185 colonists (mostly women) accused of witchcraft, 156 formally charged, 47 confessions, and 19 executed by hanging. Although marginalized groups, mainly women, were the most frequent targets of accusation, anyone from any social class could be suspected or accused of conferring with the devil to practice the “dark arts.”

Government in the Colonies

On November 11, 1620, before establishing their Plymouth Colony, the Pilgrims drafted the Mayflower Compact, a social contract in which they basically agreed that they would govern themselves. The powerful precedent for self-government set by the Mayflower Compact would be reflected in the system of public town meetings that guided colonial governments across New England.

While the 13 colonies were indeed allowed a high degree of self-government, the British system of mercantilism ensured that the colonies existed purely to benefit the economy of the mother country.

Each colony was allowed to develop its own limited government, which operated under a colonial governor appointed by and answerable to the British Crown. With the exception of the British-appointed governor, the colonists freely elected their own government representatives who were required to administer the English system of “common law.” Significantly, most decisions of the local colonial governments had to be reviewed and approved by both the colonial governor and the British Crown. A system that would become more cumbersome and contentious as the colonies grew and prospered.

By the 1750s, the colonies had started dealing with each other in matters concerning their economic interests, often without consulting the British Crown. This led to a growing feeling of American identity among the colonists who began to demand that the Crown protect their “Rights as Englishmen,” particularly the right of “no taxation without representation.”

The colonists’ continued and growing grievances with the British government under the rule of King George III would lead to the colonists’ issuance of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the American Revolution, and eventually, the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Today, the American flag prominently displays 13 horizontal red and white stripes representing the original thirteen colonies.

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "The Original 13 U.S. States." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Longley, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Original 13 U.S. States. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "The Original 13 U.S. States." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).