The North American Colonial Experience

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright November 2013


In the 1600's a lot of people in western Europe were doing something crazy: They were pulling up stakes from their familiar home villages, towns and farms and spending a lot of their hard earned wealth to go live in... The Unknown -- now known as North and South America. The Spanish and Portuguese headed to South America, and the northern Europeans headed to North America. The iconic first voyages to North America were the 1607 settling of Jamestown in what would become Virginia, and the Mayflower going in 1620 from England and Holland to Plymouth Bay in what would become Massachusetts.

It was crazy, but one curious part of this craziness is that this "pull up stakes and go off into the blue yonder"-feeling is still very much alive and well today. Consider that about two thousand people signed up in 2013 to be considered for a one-way trip to Mars as part of a reality TV project. (Mars One) It is an instinct that only a few people in any community feel strongly, but those few feel it quite strongly, and this instinct endures to this day.

Update: A 16 Nov 13 Economist article about colonial museums in the US, A different story. This talks about how ethnically mixed the early colonial experience was, and how different from the European experience of its day.

The first efforts to exploit this unknown wilderness that was the Americas were disasters and near disasters. But in the end, thanks to the persistent pioneering spirit, constant learning from mistakes, and on-going rapid technology advances, this on-going stream of adventurers and their adventures transformed from totally crazy into the world-changing successes that created the North and South Americas we live with today.

This transformation took time, which means that the nature of the colonizing experience changed a lot over the two hundred years between 1600 and 1800, and the changing didn't stop after that. It transformed from the colonizing experience to the immigrant experience, which has also been changing dramatically over the two centuries reaching from 1800 to present day.

Christopher Columbus was far from the first European to discover America. What made his discovery different was what people around him did when they heard the news. Instead of people saying "...Meh." and doing little, which is what happened when earlier explorers announced their discovery, when Columbus came back millions listened, invested lots of money, and migrated.

(For a modern times analogy, consider what has happened since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969: very little. If this continues, it will be some later "Columbus" who wakes up the exploiting wave that washes over the Moon, and becomes the "remembered person".)

Enter the Crazy Man from Italy

During the 1400's sailing technology in Europe had been steadily improving. This allowed sailing ships to sail in the stormy Atlantic Ocean as well as the relatively calm Mediterranean Sea. Adventurous sailing merchant-types were exploring down the western coast of Africa as well as learning how to master the North Sea and English Channel. And Marco Polo-types were traveling the overland Silk Road through the center of Asia bringing back stories and riches from China far to the east. At the center of this activity were the Renaissance Italians, like Marco Polo. They were the "go to" people if you wanted to explore.

Christopher Columbus was an Italian, an explorer, and a crazy man. The scientists of the Spanish court knew he was crazy. He was saying the world was half the size it really is, and those scientists could measure it well enough to know he was wrong. (The "The earth is flat."-business is comfortable legend, not real.)

But if he was right... if he could sail a modern ship (of that era) west and reach Japan... Wow! The riches! The Spanish would not have to deal with Indian, Arab and Italian middle men to get Chinese silks and Indonesian spices. They would become the middle men.

This was 1492, and the Christian Spanish court had just fought the final of several successful wars to unify Spain and subdue the Moslem Moors among others. This was a civil war in nature which meant there were still a lot of restive people in Spain and the court needed big unifying projects to keep the unrest from growing and rekindling the conflicts. Columbus might be crazy, but if he was right, building prosperous trade was just the kind of project that would grow peace. The king and queen sidestepped their court and gambled on him, and three ships headed west.

Well... he was wrong, and the court scientists were right. Earth is a big planet. But he got lucky, real lucky, and ran into the Caribbean islands before he ran so low on food that the crew mutinied and turned back. This is why Native Americans were called Indians until recently -- Columbus could never publicly admit he hadn't made it to the Far East. In 1502 Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian explorer, working for the Portuguese king, was the first to call this spade a spade, which is where the name "America" comes from.

So, in the early 1500's there was some land, big and mostly unknown, five weeks journey west of Spain and Portugal, and six weeks coming back by sailing far to the north or south before heading east.

"What to do about that?" became the explorer and exploiter question for the wildly ambitious of Europe.

Adding information

Other explorers headed west and brought back reports to the heads of state of the various Western European nations. In 1497 John Cabot, yet another Italian, brought a sketchy report to the King of England of a landmass well north of where Columbus was exploring. His son Sebastian Cabot continued the family tradition and added a lot more information. He was exploring the east coast of North America.

Making Money

The Cabots were not particularly interested in North America. They were looking for a way around it. They were trying to complete Columbus' dream of sailing directly to China. Sadly for them, and many other aspirants, the American continents are big, connected and therefore difficult to sail around. In 1520 Magellan finally found the Straits of Magellan way at the south end of South America. They were tough to navigate in a sailing ship, but it was possible, and he did. From there Magellan's fleet finished circumnavigating the world. They were the first to do so. Alas, the fleet made it, but Magellan did not. He was killed by native islanders during a stop in the Philippines. And further alas, the voyage took three years -- yes, Earth is a big planet.

In the meantime, other adventurers were looking for different ways to make money. Gold, silver and civilized Native Americans were found in Central and South America. Interesting plants were found there, too, such as tomatoes, potatoes and tobacco. All these the Spanish and Portuguese exploited to bring Europeans and European cultures to South America, and bring back riches. Central America and the Caribbean islands turned into the Hemisphere's free-for-all zone -- lots of European nations played there and the times were exciting: Think Pirates of the Caribbean.

In North America the situation was a lot less dramatic. The Native Americans in North America did not have as much agriculture, infrastructure or population as their southern cousins. The eastern side of North America was mostly primordial, heavily forested, wilderness. The first attractions there were certain kinds of wood for ship building, certain kinds of fish for turning into dried fish for food, and some specialty plant growing such as growing tobacco. These were what brought the first commercial adventurers to the Virginia and Massachusetts areas.

Spreading the Word; Practicing the Word

Commerce and potential riches was one compelling reason to come. There was another: religion and lifestyle. This is what brought the Puritans and Quakers to North America, and Spanish and Portuguese priests and conquistadors to South America. The same instinct that today has many people desiring to "help the poor" powered religious people to "help those poor indians who didn't know better find God." ...the Catholic Christian form of God, that is, in South and Central America.

In North America a different instinct was powering the migration. This was the Protestant Reformation instinct -- the instinct that the Catholics were doing it wrong, and other Protestants too, and "We are going to try living in this primordial wilderness to explore and find the true right way." This was the instinct that was powering the Puritans and Quakers.

Many ways to skin a Cat

"There are many ways to skin a cat."

Nowhere was this more true than the early colonizing of North America. Each of the thirteen colonies that was set up in what became the US was set up for a different reason, and by a different group of people. And around this core there were many other colonies established north in the Canadian areas and south in the Caribbean areas. Here are some thirteen colony examples:

o Massachusetts was established by Puritans eastern England who were disgusted with how religion and politics were mixing in England and Holland.

o Virginia was established by southern English gentlemen who were both adventurous and also unhappy with the religion/political mix in England, but in different ways than the Puritans.

o Yet another unhappy group were the Society of Friends, the Quakers, who established in the Philadelphia region.

o Maryland was set up to be a home for unhappy English Catholics.

And so on...

Adding even more flavors to this mix were the many people that came from places other than England. Religious and politics mixing unhappily and often violently were far from an English exclusive. There were plenty of French, German and Scandinavian malcontents in the 1700's, and many came to North America.

What these colonial areas ultimately had in common was that the people who came learned to prosper in the New World. So much so that by the late 1700's all the colonies were prosperous when compared with their European counterparts.

This transformation from a collection of strange places inhabited by weirdoes in the 1600's, to not quite so strange inhabited by weirdoes who had figured out how to become well-off in the late 1700's, attracted the attention of the English parliament.

"It's taxing time, baby!" they announced, "Time to pull your weight in keeping this British empire going strong."

"Taxation without representation is tyranny." the colonists announced back.

And ultimately these conflicting viewpoints lead to the American Revolutionary War, which lead to the United State of America being formed.

The transformation doesn't stop

Transforming the colonies into a United States nation didn't stop the transforming that was going on. It let the experimenting get even more exciting. Now immigration was mixing vigorously with Industrial Revolution. An iconic figure for this was Ben Franklin: From the Wikipedia article, "A noted polymath, Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat." Whew! That's quite a list, and he had time and attention available to be a nation's Founding Father.

Technologies spread as fast and furiously as new settlers. Here are three examples:

o One of the technologies that spread widely in the early 1800's was the steam engine. From these came railroads and steam ships.

o Another was canals: canal building and operating were mastered. The Erie Canal became famous in this period, and transformed New York state into the nation's most populous and prosperous.

o Yet another was the mechanical cotton gin developed by Eli Whitney. This was the foundation invention that allowed cotton to become King Cotton. It made cotton easy enough to work with that it could displace wool as the fabric of choice for many uses.

And these changes all had surprising social consequences -- surprising as in, "This is letting what happen?" Steamboats and canals opened up the Mississippi River basin to amazing exploitation. The canal and factory combination fueled Upstate New York into a prosperity that allowed it to become the center of the religious Second Great Awakening. And the cotton gin transformed slavery in The South into a social system that had never before been experienced -- something I call Industrial Age Slavery.

Working the kinks out

The changes were huge, and they brought huge prosperity, but they were not all sweetness and light -- far from it. These changes caused lots of arguments and some of the social surprises got really scary. The most famous argument in history books of the 2010's was the slavery issue, but in those times it had lots of competition. How to run factories, how to run immigration, how to run settling the west, how to run importing and exporting were all equally hot national topics, and there were plenty of locally hot topics as well. These issues had special interest groups vigorously fighting for and against them. Tammany Hall was famous as a powerful special interest group in New York City politics.

What made the colonial experience different?

What made the North American colonial experience different from the Western European experience of the same era?

First off, keep in mind that everyone's experience of that era was different. Each region of a European nation had a different experience, and each region of a North American colony had a different experience. So what comes next is some serious generalizing.

In the 16- and 1700's western and central Europe were also undergoing big social changes. In the 1600's a new class of prosperous merchants and sailors was created supporting long distance maritime trade. In the 1700's the Industrial Revolution was shaking everyone in England, France and the German lands as vigorously as it was everyone in the North American colonies.

What was different between the European and American experiences was the mix of resources available and the social environment. In North America there was a lot of untapped resource and little infrastructure to do the tapping. In Europe there was more infrastructure, but some resources were starting to run short.

In social structure the Europeans had existing social structures that had to be accommodated in many ways by those bringing disruptive technologies to the various communities -- the new merchants and industrialists had to keep the peace with the older landed nobility and clerics. In the colonies the existing social structures were as new as the disruptive technologies, it was a lot easier to make changes, and recover and try again when the first tries didn't work out well.


The North American colonial experience was a fascinating series of social experiments. The primordial wilderness of the eastern coast of North America proved to be a wonderful place to mix social experimenting with experimenting in how to apply Industrial Revolution technologies that were being created on an almost daily basis. It was exciting. It was scary. And, most of all, it was an environment that easily said, "OK" to new and different ways of doing things.


--The End--