It has been over 400 years since the first English settlers erected their first houses in America. It’s hard to even consider how many generations have passed since then, and yet, some historians argue that the beliefs, and the motivations of those first settlers still have a powerful influence today. Could it be that our lives, and our ideas are still determined by those long-dead English immigrants?

Do we still think and act like Puritans? Do we still hold racial prejudices brought to the South by planters from Barbados? What about the settlers of the other colonies – New York, Maryland, or Pennsylvania, for example? Did the people who created those societies also leave a mark that we can see today?

What do you think? Do colonial differences from the 1600s still matter today?


England was not the first European power to settle the land known now as New York. That distinction belongs to the Dutch. Ironically, the English explorer Henry Hudson brought the region to the attention of the Netherlands in 1609 by sailing into New York Bay and up the river that would eventually bear his name.

New Netherland became a reality fourteen years later. The Dutch West India Company hoped to reap the profits of the area’s fur trade. Shortly after setting up camp, Peter Minuit made one of the greatest real estate purchases in history. He traded small ornaments, jewelry, etc.) with local Native Americans for Manhattan Island. The town that was established there was named New Amsterdam.

The Dutch had no patience for democratic institutions. The point of the colony was to enrich its stockholders. The most famous governor of the colony, Peter Stuyvesant, ruled New Amsterdam with an iron fist. Slavery was common during the Dutch era, as the Dutch West India Company was one of the most prominent in the world’s trade of slaves.

Languages that could be heard in the streets of New Amsterdam included Dutch, French, Flemish, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and several other European and African tongues.

Primary Source: Map

A map of New Amsterdam showing the fort and wall that protected the town. New Amsterdam was at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, and Wall Street, which ran along the wall, is now the center of American finance. The fort, which held a battery of cannon, is now the site of Battery Park.

Northwest of New Amsterdam, New Netherland approached feudal conditions with the awarding of large tracts of land to wealthy investors. This created instability as the gap between the landed and the landless grew more obvious.

After Charles II came to the throne, the English became interested in the Dutch holdings. When a powerful English military unit appeared in New Amsterdam, Governor Stuyvesant was forced to surrender and New Netherland became New York. It marked the end of Dutch settlement in the future United States. Even today, though, New York City retains the cosmopolitan feel of the colony that give rise to the great city.

Although majority Dutch presence was short-lived, the legacy remains.

Cultural contributions left by the Dutch include the pastimes of bowling and skating. Christmas and Easter were transformed by the introduction of Santa Claus and Easter eggs. Any resident or visitor to Harlem or Brooklyn should recognize the Dutch influence in the names of locales.


Quakers, or the Society of Friends, had suffered greatly in England. As religious dissenters of the Church of England, they were targets much like the Separatists and the Puritans. But Friends were also devout pacifists. They would not fight in any of England’s wars, nor would they pay their taxes if they believed the proceeds would assist a military venture. They believed in total equality. Therefore, Quakers would not bow down to nobles. Even the king would not receive the courtesy of a tipped hat. They refused to take oaths, so their allegiance to the Crown was always in question. Of all the Quaker families that came to the New World, over three quarters of the male heads of household had spent time in an English jail.

William Penn was a dreamer, and he was powerful. Charles II owed his father a huge debt. To repay the Penns, the king awarded William an enormous tract of land in the New World. Immediately he saw possibilities. People of his faith, the Quakers. With some good advertising, he might be able to establish a religious refuge. He might even be able to turn a profit. In, 1681, his dream became a reality.

The Quakers of Penn’s colony, like their counterparts across the Delaware River in New Jersey, established an extremely liberal government for the seventeenth century. Religious freedom was granted and there was no tax-supported church. Penn insisted on developing good relations with the Native Americans. Women saw greater freedom in Quaker society than elsewhere, as they were allowed to participate fully in Quaker meetings.

Pennsylvania, or “Penn’s Woods,” benefited from the vision of its founder. Well advertised throughout Europe, skilled artisans and farmers flocked to the new colony. With Philadelphia as its capital, Pennsylvania soon became the keystone of the English colonies. New Jersey was owned by Quakers even before Penn’s experiment, and the remnants of New Sweden, now called Delaware, also fell under the Friends’ sphere of influence.

William Penn had a distaste for cities. His colony, Pennsylvania, would need a capital that would not bring the horrors of European urban life to the shores of his New World experiment. Penn determined to design and to administer the city himself to prevent such an occurrence. He looked with disdain on London’s crowded conditions and sought to prevent this by designing a city plan with streets wider than any major thoroughfare in London. Five major squares dotted the cityscape, and Penn hoped that each dweller would have a family garden. He distributed land in large plots to encourage a low population density. This, he thought, would be the perfect combination of city and country. In 1681, he made it happen.

Penn’s selection of a site was most careful. Philadelphia is situated at the confluence of the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. He hoped that the Delaware would supply the needed outlet to the Atlantic and that the Schuylkill would be the needed artery into the interior of Pennsylvania. This choice turned out to be controversial. The proprietors of Maryland claimed that Penn’s new city lay within the boundaries of Maryland. Penn returned to England to defend his town many times. Eventually the issue would be decided on the eve of the Revolution by the drawing of the famed Mason-Dixon Line.

Secondary Source: Painting

Edward Hicks painting this work entitled the Peaceable Kingdom in 1839 depicting the utopian world the Quakers hoped to build in America. In the background Quakers and Native Americans meeting in peace.

With Penn promoting religious toleration, people of many different faiths came to Philadelphia. The Quakers may have been tolerant of religious differences, but were fairly uncompromising with moral digressions. It was illegal to tell lies in conversation and even to perform stage plays. Cards and dice were forbidden. Upholding the city’s moral code was taken very seriously.

Quaker equality did not extend to chattel slavery. In the early days, slavery was commonplace in the streets of Philadelphia. William Penn himself was a slaveholder. Although the first antislavery society in the colonies would eventually be founded by Quakers, the early days were not free of the curse of human bondage.

Early Philadelphia had its ups and downs. William Penn spent only about four years of his life in Pennsylvania. In his absence, Philadelphians quibbled about many issues. At one point, Penn appointed a former soldier, John Blackwell, to bring discipline to town government. Still, before long Philadelphia prospered as a trading center. Within twenty years, it was the third largest city, behind Boston and New York. A century later it would emerge as the new nation’s largest city, first capital, and cradle of the Liberty Bell, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution.


Throughout the early years of the English colonies, most Europeans did not take Americans seriously. American colonists were seen as the chaff of English society, bound for America because they could not make it in England.

Americans were seen as as irrational religious fanatics or crude pioneers. American art literature, and science were snubbed by most cultured Europeans. Benjamin Franklin helped them take notice.

Franlin was born in 1706 in colonial Boston. Apprenticed to his brother, a printer, young Ben ran away to Philadelphia when he was seventeen. The next twenty-five years of his life he made a fortune as a printer in his adopted city.

His Pennsylvania Gazette surpassed all Boston publications in circulation. Poor Richard’s Almanac became a staple for many of the literate colonials. People liked his insights and his dry wit. By the age of forty-two, he made enough money to retire.

Although he gave up active control of his printing business, Franklin kept working. He decided to devote the rest of his life to philanthropic and intellectual pursuits. He established a fire house, library, and hospital for Philadelphia. He founded the University of Pennsylvania.

He became an inventor, developing products as diverse as an efficient wood-burning stove and bifocal reading glasses. Of course, his most famous work was with electricity. In his famed experiment with a kite and key, Franklin proved that lightning was a form of electrical energy. His discovery brought him honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale, as well as fame overseas.

Franklin continued his life as a public servant. Although he was seventy years old when the Revolution began, he served as a delegate to the Continental Congress and as a diplomat abroad. He was received as a celebrity when he traveled through Europe. An ardent patriot, he proved to the world what great ideas could come from the western side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Primary Source: Painting

This painting of Benjamin Franklin, completed in 1767, shows Franklin at the height of his success, ten years before his participation in the American Revolution.


New England was not the only destination sought by those fleeing religious persecution. In 1632, Cecelius Calvert, known as Lord Baltimore, was granted possession of all land lying between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Lord Baltimore saw this as an opportunity to grant religious freedom to the Catholics who remained in Anglican England. Although outright violence was more a part of the 1500s than the 1600s, Catholics were still a persecuted minority in the seventeenth century. For example, Catholics were not permitted to be legally married by a Catholic priest. Baltimore thought that his New World possession could serve as a refuge. At the same time, he hoped to turn a financial profit from the venture.

Maryland, named after England’s Catholic queen Henrietta Maria, was first settled in 1634. Unlike the religious experiments to the North, economic opportunity was the draw for many Maryland colonists. Consequently, most immigrants did not cross the Atlantic in family units but as individuals. The first inhabitants were a mixture of Catholic country gentlemen and mostly Protestant workers and artisans. This mixture would surely doom the Catholic experiment. Invariably, there are more poor than aristocrats in any given society, and the Catholics soon found themselves in the minority.

The geography of Maryland, like that of her Southern neighbor Virigina, was conducive to growing tobacco. The desire to make profits from tobacco soon led to the need for low-cost labor. As a result, the number of indentured servants greatly expanded and the social structure of Maryland reflected this change. But the influx in immigration was not reflected in larger population growth because, faced with frequent battles with malaria and typhoid, life expectancy in Maryland was about 10 years less than in New England.

Fearful that the Protestant masses might restrict Catholic liberties, the House of Delegates passed the Maryland Act of Toleration in 1649. This act granted religious freedom to all Christians. Like Roger Williams in Rhode Island and William Penn in Pennsylvania, Maryland thus experimented with laws protecting religious liberty. Unfortunately, Protestants swept the Catholics out of the legislature within a decade, and religious strife ensued. Still, the Act of Toleration was an important step toward religious freedom in America.


The reach of Enlightenment thought was both broad and deep. In the 1730s, it even prompted the founding of a new colony. Having witnessed the terrible conditions of debtors’ prison, as well as the results of releasing penniless debtors onto the streets of London, James Oglethorpe, a member of Parliament and advocate of social reform, petitioned King George II for a charter to start a new colony. George II, understanding the strategic advantage of a British colony standing as a buffer between South Carolina and Spanish Florida, granted the charter to Oglethorpe and twenty like-minded proprietors in 1732.

Oglethorpe led the settlement of the colony, which was called Georgia in honor of the king. In 1733, he and 113 immigrants arrived on the ship Anne. Over the next decade, Parliament funded the migration of 2,500 settlers, making Georgia the only government-funded colonial project.

Oglethorpe’s vision for Georgia followed the ideals of the Age of Reason, seeing it as a place for England’s “worthy poor” to start anew. To encourage industry, he gave each male immigrant fifty acres of land, tools, and a year’s worth of supplies.

Oglethorpe’s vision called for alcohol and slavery to be banned. However, colonists who relocated from other colonies, especially South Carolina, disregarded these prohibitions. Despite its proprietors’ early vision of a colony guided by Enlightenment ideals and free of slavery, by the 1750s, Georgia was producing rice grown and harvested by slaves.


The Scotch-Irish were another group of people who left a hard life behind in England. Presbyterians from Scotland, the moved to Ireland to be free from the Church of England, but ended up in conflict with the mostly Catholic Irish. Persecuted everywhere they went, they developed a society imbued with a warrior, and fiercely independent spirit.

Scholarly estimate is that over 200,000 Scotch-Irish migrated to the Americas between 1717 and 1775. As a late arriving group, they found that land in the coastal areas of the British colonies was either already owned or too expensive, so they quickly moved inland to the mountainous interior where land could be obtained cheaply. Here they lived on the first frontier of America. Early frontier life was challenging, but poverty and hardship were familiar to them. The term hillbilly has often been applied to their descendants in the mountains, carrying connotations of poverty, backwardness and violence. This word has its origins in Scotland and Ireland.

The first trickle of Scotch-Irish settlers arrived in New England. Valued for their fighting prowess as well as for their Protestant dogma, they were invited by Cotton Mather and other leaders to come over to help settle and secure the frontier. In this capacity, many of the first permanent settlements in Maine and New Hampshire, especially after 1718, were Scotch-Irish and many place names as well as the character of Northern New Englanders reflect this fact. The Scotch-Irish brought the potato with them from Ireland. Although the potato originated in South America, it was not known in North America until brought over from Europe. In Maine it became a staple crop as well as an economic base.

Secondary Source: Photograph

The Great Smoky Mountains of Georgia. These backcountry hills and valleys became the home to the Scotch-Irish and continue to be the center of Appalachian culture.

In the early to mid-1700s, the primary points of entry for the Ulster immigrants were Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New Castle, Delaware. The Scotch-Irish radiated westward across the Allegheny Mountains, as well as into Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The typical migration involved small networks of related families who settled together, worshipped together, and intermarried, avoiding outsiders.

Most Scotch-Irish headed for Pennsylvania, with its good lands, moderate climate, and liberal laws. By 1750, the Scotch-Irish were about a fourth of the population, rising to about a third by the 1770s. Without much cash, they moved to free lands on the frontier, becoming the typical western squatters, the frontier guard of the colony, and what the historian Frederick Jackson Turner described as “the cutting-edge of the frontier”.

Because the Scotch-Irish settled the frontier of Pennsylvania and western Virginia, they were frequently in conflict with the Indian tribes who lived on the other side of the frontier. Indeed, they did most of the Indian fighting on the American frontier from New Hampshire to the Carolinas. They also became the intermediaries who handled trade and negotiations between the Indian tribes and the colonial governments.

Historian Colin Woodward has made the argument that it is more useful to think of America as a collection of regions, defined by their shared history and values, rather than as a collection of states. He believes that the founding of the original English colonies still shapes the way Americans in different parts of the country think today.

In Woodward’s view, New England, and the region to the West settled by the New Englanders who moved west tend be more comfortable with government regulation since Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were both ordered society, structured around religious, rule-based leadership. They value education and the sacrificing individual desires for good.

New York City, Woodward wrote is the most sophisticated society in the Western world. Just as it was in the days of Dutch settlement, it is hub of global commerce. It is also the region most accepting of historically persecuted populations and diversity.

The land stretching from Pennsylvania to the west, lands first settled by the industrials, tolerant Quakers are “pluralistic and organized around the middle class.” Unlike New Englanders, they tend to dislike government intrusion and ideological purity is not a priority.

The coastal regions in the English colonies of Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Delaware tend to respect authority and value tradition because of the hierarchical society of the colonial plantation life.

The region from the Appalachian Mountains and into the West is home to the descendants of the Scotch-Irish settlers who still value individual liberty. They are “intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers” in Woodward’s view. Just as fierce as ever, they are overrepresented in America’s armed forces.

Finally, the enduring social separation and racial prejudices of the Deep South trace their roots to the caste system established by the planters from Barbados who duplicated their slave society in South Carolina.


Historians like Colin Woodward make a strong case for the enduring legacy of our English forbearers. However, it is hard to ignore the fact that 400 years have passed since John Smith or John Winthrop walked the shores of America. How many generations of people had new ideas, and new ways to living in between? Moreover, how many other people came to America with their own ideas – Germans, Russians, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Indians, Pakistanis, and so many more? The first English settlers were all Christian, albeit of differing sects, but since that time Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus have all make America their home. Certainly, those faiths have left their mark on America’s identity.

What do you think? Do colonial differences still matter today?



BIG IDEA: There were a variety of other English colonies that grew up between New England and the Chesapeake colonies around Jamestown. These were often more focused on trade and more tolerant of differences. In the interior, non-English groups settled who also left their mark on the nation.

New York was first founded by settlers from the Netherlands. They came to trade for beaver. Like the English colonies in the Chesapeake and Deep South, they had a society with a rigid social hierarchy. However, the Dutch were traders and people from many countries came to New Amsterdam. The Dutch were not in America for long. When the English took control of the colony they renamed it New York, but the cosmopolitan, pluralistic, trading-based tradition lives on.

Pennsylvania was also founded as a colony for religious dissidents from England. The Quakers were a group who believed in pacifism and equality. They were persecuted in England but William Penn, a wealthy Quaker obtained land from the king as a refuge for his fellow Quakers. They founded the town of Philadelphia, treated Native Americans with respect, and guaranteed religious freedom for residents of their colony. Pennsylvania played an important role in later years as a meeting place between North and South with its tradition of openness. The Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia to write the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

During the colonial era, the most famous American was Benjamin Franklin. He was an author, publisher, and scientist who made his home in Pennsylvania.

Maryland was founded as a haven for Catholics who were persecuted in England. Although it was founded as a home for a particular religious group, like Pennsylvania, it offered religious freedom for all people. Maryland is next door to Virginia and developed a slave and tobacco-based economy like its larger neighbor.

Georgia was first founded as a home for poor people back in England who were in debtor’s prison. Over time, George came to resemble South Carolina in its social structure and economy.

While English settlers dominated the coastal regions of America and the government of the colonies, other groups also made the trip across the Atlantic. German settlers and Scotch-Irish avoided the coasts and moved inland, making their home in the Appalachian Mountains. These people were fiercely independent, distrustful of the wealthy and those in government, and have left an enduring mark on American culture in states such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and to a lesser degree on their neighbors.

In fact, historian Colin Woodward argues that much for American life is influenced by the people who first settled the 13 Colonies.  New Englanders operate with a collective mindset and trust in government.  Southerners by contrast are more distrusting of government and are more comfortable with a greater degree of difference between social classes.  The descendants of the Scotch-Irish, and the tolerant settlers of Pennsylvania form a boundary in the middle.



Quakers: Also called the Society of Friends, a religious group that believed in total equality and were pacifists. Their leader, William Penn, founded Pennsylvania as a haven in America.

William Penn: Quaker leader who established Pennsylvania as a haven for his followers.

Benjamin Franklin: The first truly famous American. He was a printer, scientist and politician.

Lord Baltimore: Cecelius Calvert. He founded Maryland as a haven for his fellow Catholics. The largest city in Maryland is named after him.

James Oglethorpe: Founder of the Georgia colony as a home to debtors.

Scotch-Irish: A group of immigrants from the borderlands of England who settled mostly in the interior regions of American, especially in the Appalachian Mountains. They are well known for their individualism and resistance to government control.

Hillbilly: Derogatory term for uneducated, poor people who live in the Appalachian Mountains.

Colin Woodward: American historian who argued that colonial differences continue to affect politics and regional identity.


Anglican Church: The official Church of England. It is a protestant church created by Henry VIII when he wanted a divorce. In America, it is called the Episcopalian Church.

John Calvin: French protestant minister. The Pilgrim Separatists and Puritans in England followed his teachings. They were all known as Calvinists.

Separatists: English followers of John Calvin who wanted to leave the Anglican Church. They included the Pilgrims.

Puritans: English followers of John Calvin who wanted to fix problems with the Church of England. They founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony and were led by John Winthrop.

Pilgrims: English Separatists who founded the Plymouth Colony. They lived in the Netherlands briefly before coming to American on the Mayflower.

Tisquantum: Also called Squanto. He was a Native American who had learned English and helped the Pilgrims survive.

Massasoit: Native American leader of the Wampanoag Tribe who saw the Pilgrims as potential allies against the Wampanoag’s traditional enemies.
William Bradford: Leader of the Puritan colony of Plymouth.

John Winthrop: Puritan minister and leader who described the colony as a “city upon a hill.”


First Thanksgiving: Celebration held in the fall of 1621 in Plymouth to celebrate the harvest. It was attended by both Pilgrims and their Native American friends.

Great Migration: Nickname for the mass immigration of Puritans to Massachusetts beginning in 1630. Approximately 14,000 Puritans moved to America.


Maryland Act of Toleration: Law passed in Maryland granting religious freedom.


Poor Richard’s Almanac: Annual book published by Benjamin Franklin. It included useful information about when to plant crops, as well as pithy advice from Franklin.

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