A New Society
Though deeply rooted in England, the North American colonies quickly developed into distinctive societies. The experience of carving out new homes from what they regarded as a wilderness shaped new perspectives among the colonists. The economic imperatives of a colonial society wrenched many colonists from traditional ways. Over time, the populations of some of the colonies became increasingly diverse, challenging habits formed in villages back home.A Plantation Economy in the South
Beginning in Virginia and Maryland along Chesapeake Bay, a plantation monoculture developed. Tobacco became the foundation of the economy. The concentration on one cash crop led to boom or bust cycles, following the vagaries of the market. Planters competed for fertile land, especially along rivers, which made it easier to get crops to market.
Set apart from each other, plantations became largely self-sufficient. This helped discourage the growth of large towns. Because tobacco cultivation eventually exhausted the nutrients in the soil, there was a constant demand for new land, leading to conflict with the Indians.
America soon came to be seen as a land of opportunity. The heroine of Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) is transported to Virginia as an indentured servant. In the New World she finds success and security.
Tobacco was also a labor-intensive crop. The earliest planters tried to force Indians into service, but they resisted and fled into the interior. Planters then turned to indentured servants, people who had sold themselves into service for a fixed period of time, usually seven years, in return for passage to America and the promise of some land at the expiration of their term. The supply of indentured servants was never equal to the demand for labor. In 1619, a Dutch ship carrying African slaves made a fateful landfall in Virginia, selling part of its cargo in exchange for supplies. Gradually over the course of the seventeenth century, slavery became increasingly important to the plantation economy.
An economic pattern similar to the Chesapeake developed farther south in the Carolinas. Here the chief staple crop was rice. A class of wealthy planters established themselves at Charleston, trading in rice, indigo, and naval stores from nearby forests. The planters quickly became dependent on slave labor. By the early eighteenth century, slaves outnumbered whites by a two-to-one margin in South Carolina.A Diversified Economy in the North
Though the first settlers in New England came looking for a land where they could practice their Puritan religion without royal interference, they could not ignore the practical necessities of life. Soon they were supporting themselves and prospering by harvesting a variety of natural resources. The soil and climate of New England did not lend themselves to the plantation monoculture of the southern colonies. Family farms raised enough food to feed the population and provide a surplus that could be sold in the south or in the sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean.
To market their agricultural surplus, the New Englanders quickly took to the sea, engaging in commerce with Europe and other colonies. Many New Englanders made a living exploiting the fisheries of the North Atlantic, catching and drying rich crops of fish that fed slaves in the south as well as Europeans observant of meatless Fridays. Taking advantage of their extensive forests, the New Englanders became major shipbuilders as well as shippers. They were soon a major force in the Atlantic trade routes.
The middle colonies of New York and Pennsylvania followed a similar economic path. Initially, New York was chiefly supported by the fur trade with the Indians. New York City gradually grew in importance as a port. Pennsylvania flourished because of a bountiful agriculture. The Quaker merchants of Philadelphia became the wealthiest men in English America.