The 13 British colonies that eventually became the United States in some ways were more different than they were alike. They were founded for a diverse range of reasons— from the pursuit of fortunes to the desire to create havens from persecution and model societies and had differing systems of governance. The colonies’ inhabitants—an estimated 2.5 million when the Revolution began—varied greatly as well.
“Religiously, they included Congregationalists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Dutch and German Reformed, Quakers, Catholics and members of other sects,” notes Benjamin Carp, an associate professor at Brooklyn College and author of the 2010 book Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America.
Although most of the white colonists were from the British isles, the colonies also included people from other European countries, particularly Germany. About 20 percent of the colonies’ inhabitants were enslaved African Americans, who came from a range of different ethnic groups and nations. Indigenous people also still lived within the 13 colonies’ borders—as they had long before the colonists’ arrival.
The 13 colonies supported diverse economies, from those in the northeast that focused on urban commerce, to the southern coastal colonies that exported huge amounts of tobacco and rice, explains Carroll Van West, a history professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
The colonies also had some key unifying factors. Economically, from the southern plantation to port cities of the north, they all were dependent in some way upon both slave labor and access to overseas markets, as West notes. Ultimately, the 13 colonies became united in their opposition to British rule and desire to govern themselves and make their own collective destiny.
Here are some facts about each of the 13 colonies.
1. Connecticut enacted the first constitution in America.
In the late 1630s, the settlements of Windsor, Hartford and Wethersfield began unifying under a rudimentary form of government that was composed of magistrates and representatives from each town. But they soon decided that they needed a more formal common government, and wrote a document called the Fundamental Orders, which often has been called the first constitution in any of the colonies.
According to ConnecticutHistory.org, It consisted of a preamble and 11 sections, which included rules for electing a governor, magistrates and a General Court that was authorized to adopt and repeal laws, impose taxes, and punish people who committed crimes, among other powers.
2. Maryland was founded as a haven for Catholics.
George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, was a government official in England who became interested in colonizing North America. His first foray, though, was in Newfoundland, where in 1623 obtained a royal charter for a plantation that he called “the province of Avalon.” After converting to Catholicism in 1625, he eventually moved to Avalon, where he battled both the French and some of his own colonists, who opposed him bringing Catholic priests to his settlement.
George Calvert eventually tired of all the strife, and in 1632, obtained a royal charter for territory north of the Potomac River, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. When he died shortly afterward without visiting his new land, the charter was taken over by his son, Cecil Calvert, who named the new colony Maryland, in honor of King Charles I’s wife Queen Henrietta Maria.
Another of George Calvert’s sons, Leonard Calvert, led an expedition of settlers on two ships, the Ark and the Dove, which landed at St. Clement’s Island in southern Maryland in March 1634. The Calverts eventually built a capital, St. Mary’s City, where they erected a church and school as well as government buildings. Maryland became predominantly Catholic, and in 1649 enacted a law that guaranteed religious freedom—at least for Christian believers.
3. Massachusetts was the birthplace of the American iron industry.
In 1644, John Winthrop established the Saugus Works, which had a dam to provide water, a smelting furnace, a forge, and a rolling and slitting mill. The facility produced two types of iron—cast iron that could be poured into molds to make a product, and pig iron, large lumps that could be remelted and used in manufacturing.
One of the main products manufactured by the Saugus Works was small pieces of iron that could be used to make nails for construction, according to University of Houston historian and engineer John H. Leonard. It was the start of a colonial iron industry that spawned 175 different plants across the 13 colonies and produced a product that was so sought after in England that officials there eliminated customs duties in 1750.
4. Pennsylvania was created to pay a debt.
After the British monarchy was restored in 1660 and Charles II took the throne, British admiral Sir William Penn, used some of his own personal wealth to rebuild and feed the Royal Navy. That debt still hadn’t been repaid 20 years later, when the admiral’s son, William Penn, an aristocrat who had converted to the Quaker sect, petitioned Charles II for repayment. But instead of money, the younger Penn had a proposition. He wanted the king to give him a grant of land west of the Delaware River in America, where he envisioned starting a colony that would put into practice Penn’s beliefs about religious tolerance and a fairer judicial system.
In 1681, the king granted the charter. Penn had wanted to call the colony New Wales, or else Sylvania, after the Latin word for woods. But Charles decreed that the name should be Pennsylvania, in honor of Penn’s father, according to the State Museum of Pennsylvania.
5. New Jersey had the alternate name of New Caesarea.
In 1664, King Charles II gave a charter for New Netherland, the land between the Connecticut and Delaware Rivers, to his brother James, the Duke of York. James, in turn, sent a fleet to chase out the Dutch, who also had claimed the area, and then gave a lease for a portion of the land to Lord John Berkeley, Baron of Stratton, and Sir George Carteret, a British naval officer who had helped defend the island of Jersey and keep it in Royalist hands during the English Civil Wars.
In honor of Carteret’s services to the Crown, James insisted upon calling the colony New Jersey, with the alternative name of New Caesarea, after the Roman name for the island of Jersey.
6. Virginia’s most lucrative crop was tobacco, even though it was opposed by the king and the Virginia Company.
In the 1610s, a colonial official named John Rolfe began experimenting with tobacco, a plant that American Indians dried and smoked in religious ceremonies and as a health remedy for health problems ranging from ear aches to insect bites. People in England and Europe had picked up the practice of smoking as well, creating a market.
Because Native Americans in Virginia planted a variety that English smokers found too harsh, Rolfe tried planting a variety from the West Indies, according to Encyclopedia Virginia. It became a big success. King James I vehemently opposed the use of tobacco and the Virginia Company wasn’t keen on colonists growing it, fearing that it would lure them away from planting corn, a crop the Virginia Company felt was more important. Nevertheless, tobacco cultivation caught on, and just before the start of the Revolutionary War, Virginia was producing 55 million pounds of tobacco a year, thanks to the labor of enslaved people and indentured servants who were purchased with profits from the crop.
7. New Hampshire offered parcels of land in exchange for one ear of corn each year.
After the end of the French and Indian War in 1762, Governor Benning Wentworth, an appointee of King George III, felt it was time to increase the colony’s population. He arranged a deal in which a group of 12 influential citizens, known as the Masonian Proprietors, acquired a large amount of land on behalf of the colony, and then began recruiting settlers for it. In a 1762 degree, Wentworth specified that those who received one-acre lots were required to pay a “Rent of one Ear of Indian Corn only, on the twenty-fifth day of December annually, if lawfully demanded.” Additionally, they were also charged a nominal annual fee, at the rate of one shilling for every 100 acres of land, with the payment due adjusted up or down depending on the actual quantity.
8. Georgia was founded as a new home for impoverished people and debtors.
In the 1730s, James Oglethorpe, a retired British army officer, decided to make it his mission to help the impoverished and debt-ridden inhabitants of London get a fresh start in life. He thought the best solution was for them to resettle in America. In 1732, Olgethorpe’s plan came to fruition, when 20 trustees received funds from Parliament and a Royal charter, authorizing them to enact their own taxes and laws and hand out land grants to settlers.
The corporation created to establish Georgia was a charity, and none of the trustees themselves could receive any land or pay. In order to prevent any of the settlers from becoming too wealthy, they set a 500-acre limit on individual land holdings, and speculators were kept out by banning settlers who’d received free land from selling or borrowing money against it. Settlers, though, eventually grew disenchanted with the lack of self-government and restrictions on how much land they could acquire, as well as with the colony’s ban on slavery, according to the Library of Congress.
9. New York became the first target of British trade restrictions—for exporting fur hats.
The Hudson Valley’s hatters produced beaver-pelt headwear that became popular in Europe, according to Perkins. British hatters took notice and persuaded Parliament in 1732 to pass the Hat Act, which made it illegal to export hats from the colonies, on the grounds that it endangered jobs in the mother country. The Hat Act also put limits on the number of workers and apprentices who could be hired by colonial hatmakers, and banned the use of enslaved people in the hat business.
As damaging as the Hat Act was to American hatmakers, it was followed by an even more potentially ruinous 1733 law, the Molasses Act, which sought to protect British sugar planters from price competition from the Dutch, French and Spanish West Indies. That outraged colonial merchants, who began smuggling sugar and molasses in response.
10. South Carolina benefited from the demand for blue dye.
In the mid-to-late 1700s, one of the colony’s most important agricultural products was indigo, a plant originally from India that was used to produce blue dye used in the British textile industry. The indigo plant also flourished in the climate of the American southeast, according to Charleston County Public Library. South Carolina’s settlers had little use for the plant except as a product for export, since extracting the dye from the plant was costly, time-consuming and labor-intensive, and the only real demand for it was on the other side of the Atlantic, where conflict with France and Spain made it difficult to obtain indigo.
A South Carolina merchant named James Crokatt, who had moved back to England, convinced the government there to pay a cash incentive of six pence per pound of indigo to purchasers of South Carolina indigo.
11. North Carolina was sold back to the British crown.
The Lords Proprietors, a group of eight men who received a royal charter in 1663 for what is now North and South Carolina, originally had the dream of creating a feudal society in which they would rule like absolute monarchs over the settlers, and even envisioned a class of hereditary serfs who would be bound to the land. That bizarre fantasy turned out to be unworkable, and in the half-century that followed, the colony was plagued by problems ranging from corruption and incompetence to pirate attacks and conflicts with Native Americans.
The proprietors couldn’t manage a colony with far-flung settlements, and in 1712, they officially split into South and North Carolina. The British government, tired of the proprietors’ incompetence, converted South Carolina to a royal colony in 1719, and 10 years later, seven of the eight proprietors agreed to sell their shares of North Carolina to King George II as well. The one holdout, John Carteret, insisted on keeping his one-eight share of the colony’s land, though he lost his say in its governance.
12. Rhode Island played a big role in the slave trade.
It wasn’t just the southern colonies who were involved in slavery. Rhode Island saw its first slave ship arrive in Newport Harbor in 1696, and the colony went on to play a key role in the slave trade during the 1700s. Ships set sail from the colony on about 1,000 triangular voyages. Cargoes of rum were exchanged for captives in Africa, the captives were then transported to the West Indies and traded for sugar and molasses produced by enslaved people. Those raw materials went back to New England, where they were used to make the rum.
Rhode Island also had the highest percentage of enslaved Africans in New England, with captives making up 11.5 percent of the colony’s population by 1755. Some in the colony were troubled by its dependence upon the cruel institution, and legislators passed a number of laws in an effort to limit it, including a 1783 law that emancipated the children of enslaved women once they reached adulthood. While slavery gradually died out, Rhode Island didn’t make it illegal until 1842.
13. Delaware wasn’t really formed until 1776.
Delaware started out as a Swedish colony in 1638 when explorer Peter Minuit established a settlement near what is today Wilmington. Then, in 1655, Dutchman Peter Stuyvesant conquered the Swedish colony, which he renamed the Colony of New Netherlands.
But the Dutch held the colony for less than a decade before they were chased out by the British, who absorbed it into the former Dutch colony they renamed New York. Then, in 1682, the Duke of York (who would later become King James II), gave what is now Delaware to William Penn, who wanted it so that his new colony of Pennsylvania would have access to the sea.
But Pennsylvania and the three counties that eventually formed Delaware never really meshed, and in 1704, those counties were allowed to establish their own separate elected legislature. In June 1776, Delaware legislators met at the New Castle courthouse and approved a Separation Resolution, severing ties with the British crown. That negated its relationship with Pennsylvania as well, and the state of Delaware was created.