Life in the Thirteen Colonies

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Discuss the demography, economies, and politics of the North American colonies from 1500–1700.

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The French, Dutch, Spanish, and English each went about colonizing various parts of North America in different ways. As your question suggests, this can be seen in their demographics, politics, and economies.

The demographics of each colonial power differed to a large degree. Most English colonists were from the middle...

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class. They wanted to create their version of an ideal English society on the continent. Starting in the early and mid-1600s, they instituted policies to encourage more English settlement, and the population grew rapidly. Most Spanish colonists were from the aristocratic class. They instituted a feudal-like society in New Spain where they established themselves as the ruling class over the native peoples there.

The first Dutch colonists were looking for economic opportunities. However, they soon set up the colonies to be safe havens for people escaping persecution in Europe. This attracted settlers from various parts of Europe and led to a lot of diversity. The French sent relatively few colonists to the Americas. Most were economic adventurers, trappers, and merchants. Although several cities, such as Quebec and Montreal, had sizable French populations, most tended to live scattered throughout the frontier, where they hoped to make their fortunes.

All four colonial powers hoped to build economies based on the natural resources of their regions of colonization. The French relied mostly on the fur trade with the indigenous peoples of Canada. New Spain provided precious metals as well as large amounts of livestock. This labor was mostly done by native people who had been forced or coerced into service. The English economy varied by region. In New England, it was mostly centered on timber and fish. Further south, cash crops were the basis of the economy. The Dutch economy in the Americas also relied on cash crops and fur trading to a certain extent. The Dutch colonies also served as a major trading hub between many of the other colonies in the hemisphere.

Politically, the English and the Dutch colonies practiced a significant degree of self-governance. In general, they elected or appointed their own legislatures and governors, and many operated under their own charters. The French and Spanish, on the other hand, remained under direct royal rule. Everything had to be granted the permission of the royal representatives in the colonies.

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