Many books have been written that provide an overview of the 13 original colonies. Information on these colonies comes from a number of historical sources including paintings, letters, newspapers, sketches, battle fields and stories. Before the colonies came together as the United States, each colony had its own history and development. Learn about the history, people and economies of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
Joining The United States
After the War of Independence, the thirteen colonies were only loosely held together. This poorly defined confederation soon proved to be unworkable; America’s leaders decided to found the United States of America as a republic. Each state joined the new republic at different dates since communication in the 18th century was slow and each state’s leaders had to debate the idea and then communicate its decision. This list is based on the dates by which each state ratified the United States Constitution.
- Delaware: December 7, 1787
- Pennsylvania: December 12, 1787
- New Jersey: December 18, 1787
- Georgia: January 2, 1788
- Connecticut: January 9, 1788
- Massachusetts: February 6, 1788
- Maryland: April 28, 1788
- South Carolina May 23, 1788
- New Hampshire: June 21, 1788
- Virginia: June 25, 1788
- New York: July 26, 1788
- North Carolina: November 21, 1789
- Rhode Island: May 29, 1790
Delaware: The First State
The Unami Lenape, an Eastern Algonquian group of tribes, were the first human inhabitants of the area that became known as Delaware. The area’s first European settlement in 1638 was led by Peter Minuit and the New Sweden Company. After the colony came under England’s control, the early economy depended on a combination of indentured servitude and slaves. The main industry was tobacco farming, but other forms of agriculture soon became popular. Delaware is also historically important as the home of America’s oldest black church which was founded in 1813 by Peter Spencer.
First settled by English colonists led by William Penn, Pennsylvania was founded in 1682. In addition to Penn’s colony, the territory had Swedish and Pennsylvania Dutch settlers. Wars between the European powers, mainly Holland and England, continued throughout the 18th century. By the time of the American Revolution, the state’s largest city, Philadelphia, was an important political and economic center. During the war and afterwards, Philadelphia served as home of the Continental Congress. The Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution were both written and debated in Philadelphia.
New Jersey was settled by Europeans in 1664; Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret are credited as the state’s founders. The state is named after the British island of Jersey, though the area had a different name when it was first settled by the Dutch. The fur trade and farming were the most important aspects of colonial New Jersey’s economy. In 1789, New Jersey became the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights.
The area that would become Georgia was settled by James Edward Oglethorpe in 1732. The impetus to settle the new colony came from England, which was worried about the Spanish presence in nearby Florida. The need to attract as many settlers as possible to expand the colony led to a policy of openness: Protestants from across Europe, some Catholics and Jews came to live in Georgia. The civic rights of some minorities such as Catholics were restricted during the colonial period. The state is named after King George II of England.
Connecticut: “Upon The Long River”
In 1635, Thomas Hooker founded the first settlement in the region that would become known as Connecticut. The state’s name derives from a Native American word “quinatucquet” (loosely translated as “upon the long river”). As with the other colonies, Connecticut was home to several European colonies. Most of the early settlers either came from England or other English speaking colonies. The state also adopted a constitution, the Fundamental Orders of 1639, which influenced the U.S. Constitution more than a hundred years later.
A group of Puritans from England founded the Massachusetts colony in 1620. In addition to very strict laws, Massachusetts was known for its very high literacy rates. The first two English colonies in the area were Jamestown and Plymouth. In the 18th century, Boston became known as a major center of the revolution; the Boston Tea Party of 1773 was among the most famous protests. British restrictions on shipping were particularly controversial in Boston, a city that depended on trade.
The state of Maryland was settled by immigrants from England in 1634. George Calvert, also known as Lord Baltimore, is generally recognized as the state’s founder. Prior to founding Maryland, Calvert had previously led a settlement in Newfoundland, a territory that would become part of Canada. The colony was named after Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I of England. The area’s early settlers came from different sources; some English convicts were sent to Maryland, some Catholics went to the colony, and others who simply wished to claim land. Though it would abolish slavery in the 19th century, colonial Maryland’s economy was highly dependent on slave labor to produce tobacco.
A group of English nobleman founded South Carolina in 1663 with a Royal Charter from King Charles II of England. North and South Carolina were not originally planned to be two colonies - the break happened later. At the time of the American Revolution, slaves outnumbered Americans of European descent by a wide margin. The state’s economy was composed of farming and natural resources; indigo, tobacco and timber were important products.
New Hampshire: “Live Free or Die”
After being explored by several different European nations, Englishman John Wheelwright founded New Hampshire in 1623. The state is well known in U.S. history for a number of reasons. It had the first state constitution (1776) and is sometimes credited with being the first colony to declare independence from England. During the colonial period, New Hampshire came under the authority of Massachusetts at several points. This was extremely unpopular in New Hampshire, a state known to value its autonomy.
Named after Elizabeth I of England (known as the Virgin Queen), Virginia was settled in 1607 by the London Company. The first town in the colony, Jamestown, is generally considered to be the first permanent European settlement in the United States. Virginia’s origins as the project of an English joint-stock company make it different from most other states; it was founded explicitly for commercial gain. Unfortunately for the London Company, Virginia took a long time to become productive. As with other colonies, slavery and indentured servitude were important to Virginia’s society and economic development.
Originally settled by the Dutch, New York was settled by the English in 1664. Indeed, the city of New York was originally called New Amsterdam. A number of important battles and events such as the Battle of Long Island (1776) and the Battle of Saratoga (1777) were fought in New York. During the debate on the U.S. Constitution, New York City newspapers published a set of articles that have come to be known as “The Federalist Papers.” New York City remained a major port but did not become the country’s largest city until the nineteenth century.
North Carolina was founded by settlers from Virginia in 1653. Germans, Quakers and other people quickly came to settle the state. Slavery slowly became more common in the region but slaves did not become vitally important to the state until after 1800. After the War of Independence, many settlers left the state to claim land in Tennessee. Cotton and tobacco farming were North Carolina’s main industries in the colonial era and afterwards.
Rhode Island was settled in 1636 under the leadership of Roger Williams. Williams established religious freedom on the island after being exiled from Massachusetts. As one of the few states to permit a significant degree of religious freedom, Rhode Island is noteworthy. Rhode Island is also important for being the last of the 13 colonies to ratify the Constitution; the state’s leaders made a Bill of Rights a condition of ratification.
Historians, educators and researchers have found much 13 original colonies information by using newspapers, letters, journals, paintings, government documents and related materials. To learn more about the early American history, consult these resources.
The Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies, https://www.law.indiana.edu/uslawdocs/declaration.html
Historic Jamestowne, https://www.nps.gov/jame/index.htm
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Bruce Tuten
The Federalist Papers, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/fed.asp
Massachusetts History Research Guide, https://www.lib.wsc.ma.edu/mahistory.htm
Philadelphia History Research Guide, https://gethelp.library.upenn.edu/guides/philadelphia/philahist.html