The establishment of the colonies was only possible after England became a great power. England had defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, and it was ready to establish colonies. England's initial motivations were not unlike those of Spain: it hoped to find gold and secure a route (Northwest Passage) to Asia.
The thirteen original colonies shared many similarities and differences. One unifying factor was geography. They were all located on the eastern seaboard of North America. Because of their location, they were not close to other British colonies, such as those in the West Indies. They were also united because most of them had similar enemies: the French and Spanish, and Native Americans. They were all under London's control, but the degree of control varied according to the colony and the era. Virginia became the most English of all the colonies. The Protestant Reformation was also an important influence on the development of the colonies. Various Protestant sects sought religious autonomy away from England.
The earliest colonies were set up in the South and in New England, and both nearly failed. The Virginia Company had hoped to make a fortune in North America. The Pilgrims and Puritans, on the other hand, went to New England in search of religious autonomy. Early settlers had underestimated the difficulties of surviving in the new wilderness. Jamestown, founded in 1607, almost failed until tobacco crops saved it. The Pilgrims, who barely survived the harsh New England winter, celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621. New England's economy, on the other hand, was not dependent on agriculture; it was more diverse than that of the South and included shipbuilding.
Maryland's founders had both commercial and religious incentives. Lord Baltimore, a Catholic, had failed to establish a colony in Newfoundland. His son, Cecilius Calvert, established a Catholic colony in Maryland. But most settlers were Protestant and religious freedom was granted. Maryland's economy, like that of neighboring Virginia, was primarily agricultural and its labor force included indentured servants.
Pennsylvania was an extremely important middle colony. It was a 'Holy Experiment' by William Penn (1644–1718). It was established with the goal of granting both religious and political freedom to its residents.
By 1750, there were about one million colonists living in the Thirteen Colonies, and the structure of the society and economy was not the same throughout.
For instance, the southern colonies had large numbers of slaves. By the middle of the eighteenth-century, there were as many as a quarter million enslaved Africans in these colonies. Previously, these colonies had relied on indentured servitude for labor. However, as a result of improving conditions in England, the number of indentured servants rapidly diminished by mid-century. As a result, more slaves were forcibly brought to the southern colonies. This created a dual society with white plantation owners enjoying the benefits of the labor of a subjugated slave class.
The middle colonies had some slaves, but not nearly in the numbers of the colonies to the south. Many of these colonies were dominated by descendants of Dutch settlers who were granted land by the English crown. They controlled large estates and dominated local governments. These colonies were often marked by practicing considerable religious tolerance compared to the other colonies.
New England society was characterized by strict religious devotion. Puritanism was commonly practiced in these colonies, and other sects were not tolerated. The line between church and state was very thin in this theocratic society.
The economy of the South was based mostly on agriculture. The fertile soil meant that much could be grown there. Tobacco, corn, and wheat were produced in abundance. Much was used to feed the other colonies, as well as for export to England and the West Indies. The middle colonies had a mix of agriculture and commercial centers. This diversified economy brought a lot of wealth to the region, especially around the Chesapeake Bay. New England's poor soil and short growing season meant the region could not support much more than subsistence agriculture. Instead, the economy of New England focused on trade, whaling, fishing, and manufacturing. Indeed, the many natural harbors and mill creeks in the region were ideal for this type of economy.
There were differences and similarities between the southern, middle and New England colonies. One difference was economic. The New England colonies had lots of industries. Because of the rocky soil and the cooler climate, many people worked in the shipping, lumber, fishing, and manufacturing industries. The southern colonies were mainly agricultural. With fertile soil and a mild climate, a lot of farming was done. Crops such as rice, tobacco, and indigo were grown. The middle colonies had both manufacturing and farming. The colonies closer to New England had more industry, while those closer to the South had more farming.
The societies were also different. Southern colonies depended on slaves to help them with the farming. The slaves had no rights and were not free to do what they wanted to do. The white plantation owner dominated southern society. The middle colonies had some slaves. Religious freedom was more common in the middle colonies. In New England, there were few slaves. People tended to live in towns, and the town meeting was a common part of the government structure.
There were similarities between the regions. Each region was fairly self-sufficient economically. Trade was an important activity of each area. Each region depended on trade with Europe, especially with Great Britain. Religion also played a role to some degree in the lives of the people in each region. Men, unlike women, were more likely to get a formal education. Each region eventually had some form of government.
There were differences and similarities between the southern, middle, and New England colonies.