Explain why the early colonies had to "look to the east" rather than "to the west".

Expert Answers
rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Early colonists had to look to the east for a number of reasons. The first was economic. Most colonies, Jamestown for example, depended on the mother country, or more accurately on the companies that founded them, for supplies and financial backing. They also had to become financially lucrative for their backers in England to justify their existence. While some were more explicitly motivated by the desire for profit than others, all of the colonies in their early stages were to some extent business ventures. 

Another reason was political. The colonies owed their legitimacy (even the Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose founders wisely took their charter with them) to the Crown. All of the colonies replicated, in some form or another, English common law, including the courts, local officials, and representative bodies. Before long, most colonies were governed by royal appointees, sent as the Crown's representative. Even the independent-minded Puritans were English subjects, and they thought of themselves in this way.

Still another reason is best described as strategic. The early colonists did not know that the footholds they established in North America would be permanent. They could not count on expanding into the West--in fact, the first generations of colonists were hemmed in by Native peoples for whom "looking (facing) east," as historian Daniel Richter has put it, was a matter of necessity. This brings up another sense (as Richter explains in the book linked below) in which "looking east" was essential for the colonists. They had to immediately involve themselves in the politics and customs of Native peoples, conducting war and diplomacy on their terms, not their own. The early colonists were in no position to dictate or really even alter the realities on the ground in North America. They stepped into complex political and diplomatic situations that they had to learn to navigate in order to survive, trade, and ultimately expand. So this is another sense in which they had to "look East": they had to see things, or at least try to understand things, as American Indians did, or be destroyed.