Modern history

Diversity and competition in colonial society

As the English colonies in North America expanded, divisions increased between established families living in long-settled regions—whether on rural farmsteads or in urban homesteads—and the growing population of women and men with few resources. Although most colonists still hoped to own their own land and establish themselves as farmers, artisans, or shopkeepers, fewer were likely to succeed than in the past. By 1760 half of all white men in North America were propertyless. This growing class cleavage was accompanied by increasing racial, national, and religious diversity.

Population Growth and Economic competition

After 1700, the population grew rapidly across the colonies. In 1700 about 250,000 people lived in England’s North American colonies. By 1725 that number had doubled, and fifty years later it had reached 2.5 million. Much of the increase was due to natural reproduction, but in addition nearly 250,000 immigrants and Africans arrived in the colonies between 1700 and 1750.

Because more women and children arrived than in earlier decades, higher birthrates and a more youthful population resulted. At the same time, most North American colonists enjoyed a better diet than their counterparts in Europe and had access to more abundant timber, furs, fish, and other resources. Thus colonists in the eighteenth century began living longer, with more adults surviving to watch their children and grandchildren grow up.

As the population soared, the chance for individuals to obtain land or start a business of their own diminished. Even those with land did not always thrive: Farmers living in New England where the soil was exhausted or in swampy frontier regions or in areas already claimed by Indian, French, or Spanish settlers found that owning land did not automatically lead to prosperity. In the South Carolina backcountry, a visitor in the mid-eighteenth century noted that many residents “have nought but a Gourd to drink out of, nor a Plate, Knive or Spoon, a Glass, Cup, or anything.” In the Carolinas and along the Hudson River, many farmers rented land from large landowners, thus ensuring limited profits even in years of relative abundance.

In prosperous parts of Middle Atlantic colonies like Pennsylvania, many landless laborers abandoned rural life and searched for urban opportunities. They moved to Philadelphia or other towns and cities in the region, seeking jobs as dockworkers, street vendors, or servants, or as apprentices in one of the skilled trades. But newcomers found the job market flooded and the chances for advancement growing slim (Figure 4.1).

In the South, too, divisions between rich and poor became more pronounced in the early decades of the eighteenth century. Tobacco was the most valuable product in the Chesapeake, and the largest tobacco planters lived in relative luxury. Families with extensive landholdings and large numbers of slaves grew rich. They developed mercantile contacts in seaport cities on the Atlantic coast and in the Caribbean and imported luxury goods from Europe. They also began training some of their slaves as domestic workers to relieve wives and daughters of the strain of household labor.

The profits from tobacco allowed a larger percentage of southern than northern whites to own land. In 1750 two-thirds of white families farmed their own land in Virginia, and an even higher percentage did so in the Carolinas. Yet small farmers became increasingly dependent on large landowners, who controlled markets, political authority, and the courts. Many artisans, too, depended on wealthy planters for their livelihood, working either for them directly or for the shipping companies and merchants that relied on plantation orders. And the growing number of tenant farmers relied completely on large landowners for their sustenance.


Wealth Inequality in Northern Cities, 1690-1775 During the eighteenth century, the wealth of merchants rose much faster than that of artisans and laborers. By 1750 the wealthiest 10 percent of the taxable residents of major northern cities owned 60 percent of the taxable wealth, while the poorest 60 percent owned less than 10 percent. This gap between rich and poor only increased over the next quarter century.

Source: Gary B. Nash, The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).

Some southerners fared far worse. One-fifth of all white southerners owned little more than the clothes on their backs in the mid-eighteenth century. Thus those with small plots of land could easily imagine what their future would be if they suffered a bad season, a fall in tobacco prices, or the death of a father or husband. At the same time, free blacks in the South found their opportunities for landownership and economic independence increasingly curtailed, while enslaved blacks had little hope of gaining their freedom and held no property of their own.

Increasing Diversity

Population growth and economic divisions were accompanied by increased diversity in the North American colonies. Indentured servants arrived from Ireland and Scotland as well as England. Africans were imported in growing numbers and entered a more highly structured system of slavery, whether laboring on southern farms, on northern estates, or in seaport cities. In addition, free families and redemptioners from Ireland, Scotland, the German states, and Sweden came in ever-larger numbers and developed their own communities and cultural institutions. There were also more colonists who had spent time in the Caribbean before settling on the mainland, and the frontiers of British North America were filled with American Indians and French and Spanish settlers as well as European immigrants.

As the booming population increased the demand for land in the colonies, diverse groups of colonists pushed westward to find territory that either was not claimed by others or could be purchased. In Pennsylvania in the early eighteenth century, Moravian and Scots-Irish immigrants settled in areas like Shamokin that were dotted with Iroquois, Algonquian, and Siouan towns, negotiating with Indians to obtain farmland. At the same time, Delaware and Shawnee groups moved into Pennsylvania from New Jersey and the Ohio River valley and negotiated with colonists and the colonial government to establish communities for themselves. All along the Pennsylvania frontier, the lines between Indian and immigrant settlements blurred, and neither Indian chiefs nor colonial authorities seemed able to demarcate clear boundaries. Still, many communities prospered in the region, with white settlers exchanging European and colonial trade goods for access to Indian-controlled orchards, waterways, and lands (Map 4.1).

In the 1720s and 1730s, however, a flood of Scots-Irish settlers arrived in Pennsylvania when bad harvests and high rents caused them to flee oppressive conditions back home. The new immigrants overwhelmed native communities that

MAP 4.1

Frontier Settlements and Indian Towns in Pennsylvania, 1700-1740 German and Scots- Irish immigrants to Pennsylvania mingled with Indian settlements in the early eighteenth century as Delaware and Shawnee groups pushed east from New Jersey. In the 1720s and 1730s, however, European migration escalated dramatically in the fertile river valleys. In response, once- independent Indian tribes joined the Delaware and Shawnee nations to strengthen their position against the influx of colonists.

Source: At the Crossroads: Indians & Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier 1700-1763 by Jane T. Merritt. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Copyright © 2003 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Used by permission of the publisher.

had welcomed earlier settlers. The death of William Penn in 1718 exacerbated the situation as his sons and closest advisers struggled to gain political and economic control over the colony, but this did not halt the flow of white settlers into the region. Indeed, as Indians were pushed to the margins, more diverse groups of European settlers moved into frontier territories.

Expansion and Conflict

As more and more colonists sought economic opportunities on the frontier, conflicts erupted regularly between earlier British and newer immigrant settlers as well as among immigrant groups. In Pennsylvania, Dutch, Scots-Irish, and German colonists took each other to court, sued land surveyors, and even burned down cabins built by their immigrant foes. For longtime British settlers, such acts only reinforced their sense that recent immigrants were a threat to their society. In 1728 James Logan, William Penn’s longtime secretary, complained that the “Palatines [Germans] crowd in upon us and the Irish yet faster.” For Logan, these difficulties were exacerbated by what he considered the “idle,” “worthless,” and “indigent” habits of Scots-Irish and other recent arrivals.

Despite their disparagement of others, Anglo-Americans hardly set high standards themselves, especially when negotiating with Indians. Even in Pennsylvania, where William Penn had established a reputation for (relatively) fair dealing, the desire for Indian land led to dishonesty and trickery. Colonial leaders’ success in prying more territory from Indians, however, also resulted from conflicts within the Iroquois Confederacy. Hoping to assert their authority over the independent-minded Delaware Indians, Iroquois chiefs negotiated with Pennsylvania officials in the 1720s, claiming they held rights to much of the Pennsylvania territory. Colonial authorities then produced a questionable treaty supposedly drafted by Penn in 1686 to claim that large portions of that territory had already been ceded to settlers. James Logan “discovered” a copy of the treaty deed that allowed the English to control an area that could be walked off in a day and a half. The Iroquois finally agreed to this Walking Purchase, giving Pennsylvania officials the leverage they needed to persuade the Delawares to allow them to walk off the boundaries. By the time the Delawares acquiesced in the fall of 1737, Pennsylvania surveyors had already marked off the “shortest and best course,” which allowed them to extend the boundaries by at least thirty miles beyond those set in the original, and questionable, treaty.

While extending colonial boundaries provided more land for hungry settlers, the rapid expansion of the colonial population ensured that conflicts would continue to erupt. Indian and British authorities repeatedly argued over treaty rights, boundary lines, and the power to cede or purchase land. Meanwhile migrants and immigrants on the Anglo-American frontier claimed land simply by taking control of it, building houses, and planting crops. This led to conflicts with local Indian communities that still considered the territory their own, with English officials who demanded legal contracts and deeds, and among immigrants who settled in the same area.

Immigrants also introduced greater religious diversity into the British colonies. But in Pennsylvania, several religious groups sought friendly relations with local Indians in order to secure land and trade goods. Some early immigrants, such as William Penn’s Quakers, accepted Indian land claims and tried to pursue honest and fair negotiations. German Moravians who settled in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1740s also developed good trade relations with area tribes, shared in burial rituals, and acquiesced when the local Iroquois chief demanded the services of a blacksmith to make and repair guns. Meanwhile Scots-Irish Presbyterians settled along the western frontier and established alliances with Delaware and Shawnee groups there. These alliances were rooted less in religious principles, however, than in the hope of profiting from the fur trade when area Indians pursued new commercial partners after their former French allies became too demanding.

As tensions escalated between English and French authorities in the region, conflicts intensified among the various immigrant and religious communities and with Indians. Although colonists had disagreed many times before over policies toward native people, the dramatically different visions of Indian-settler relations rooted in distinct religious traditions magnified these differences and made it more difficult to find common ground. Growing religious diversity also created sharper boundaries within and between colonial communities. German Moravians and Scots-Irish Presbyterians in Pennsylvania established churches and schools separate from their Quaker neighbors, while Puritan New Englanders remained suspicious of Quakers as well as other Protestant sects. Moravians and other German sects also flourished in Georgia and the Carolinas, and nearly all sought to isolate themselves from the influences of other religious and ethnic groups.

Some religious groups were isolated as much by force as by choice. While most early Irish immigrants were Protestant, by the early eighteenth century more Irish Catholics began to arrive. Then in 1745 some forty thousand Scots who had supported the Catholic monarchs in England prior to the Glorious Revolution (see chapter 3) were shipped to the Carolinas after a failed rebellion. As traitors to the crown, they were doubly marginalized. But even long-settled Catholics, like those in Maryland, were looked on with suspicion by many Protestants. Jewish families also multiplied, founding the first American synagogues in Newport, Rhode Island; Savannah; Charleston; and Philadelphia. Although only a few hundred Jewish families resided in the colonies by 1750, they formed small but enduring communities in a number of seaport cities, where they developed a variety of mercantile ventures and practiced their faith.

Africans, too, brought new ideas and practices to North America. Transported by force to an unknown land, they may have found religious faith particularly important. Enslaved blacks included some Catholics from regions long held by the Portuguese and a few thousand Muslims, but many Africans embraced religions that were largely unknown to their Anglo-American masters. Even those planters who allowed Protestants to minister to their slaves discovered that many Africans and African Americans retained beliefs and rituals handed down across generations.

As religious affiliations in the colonies multiplied, they reinforced existing concerns about spiritual decline. Moreover, spiritual differences often exacerbated cleavages rooted in nationality and class. And they heightened concerns among many well-established families over the future of British culture and institutions in North America.


• How and why did economic inequality in the colonies increase in the first half of the eighteenth century?

• How did population growth and increasing diversity contribute to conflict among and anxieties about the various groups inhabiting British North America?

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