Colonial America

A portion of a book written by R. Walton, a Richmond Family researcher

Text format has been modified from the original document for convenience of reading on the web page.
Used with permission of the author.

The first emigrants to America were the English. The Puritans came to Massachusetts. They were seeking religious freedom from a monarchy unwilling to acknowledge their basic religious rights. They were the non-conformists that the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud could not tolerate and he convinced both King James and Charles I to take action against them. (His strict measures against the Puritans resulted in his execution in 1645).

Until Queen Elizabeth I, Catholicism was the main religion but, due to more moderate beliefs by Queen Elizabeth, the Anglican Church became largely Protestant. Unfortunately, politics entered the picture when the Puritans sought to "purify" the English Anglican Church of its Catholic tendencies.


We know that thousands of the early colonists came to America seeking religious and political freedom. Many colonists also came seeking a better living than they had in Europe. In England there was widespread unemployment in the 17th Century. Tenant farmers were no longer needed on the large estates as land owners were switching from growing crops to raising sheep which did not require as many laborers. This left many families homeless and travelling around the countryside looking for work. Ship building fell off sharply due to a shortage of lumber. This caused thousands more to be out of work. Even the King suffered from the economic problems of the times. Parliament set his income and he had to finance all of his expenses from this income despite the inflation, not only in England but in the world economy as well. Also, the House of Commons who controlled the Treasury refused the King the power to tax individuals so he was really feeling the crunch. Politically, the English believed strongly in personal liberty and resented the fact that there was no way they could strive to better themselves in England. Adventure was another strong motivation as was the freedom of speech offered in America.

The English government started to encourage emigration to help its government build up the development of new sources for income by conduction various colonizing expeditions to help merchants set up new businesses in America. These merchants convinced dissatisfied English workers to come to the New England colonies being set up to help make this system work.

Actually, the Puritans did much to help in the success of the new ventures because the Puritan elite put strong emphasis on what came to be called "The Puritan Work Ethic. This new life in America was certainly not easy and only the most courageous were able to survive the bitter winters in the north as they tried to build shelters and provide food for themselves and their families.

There were also the problems of the unfriendly Indians and disease. At first, the Indians were friendly and taught the early settlers how to raise corn and tobacco. They taught them how to trap wild animals, fish, make maple syrup and use herbs for cooking and medicine. This was also true of the Indians in Virginia.

Gradually, however, the New England Indians were upset as the colonists moved more and more into Indian Territory and made it harder for the Indians to fish and hunt. As a result, when the French and English War broke out in 1689 many Indians joined the French. This war lasted till 1763! Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were the most successful in dealing with the Indians. William Penn and Roger Williams treated the Indians well and did not take any Indian land without paying for it.

During the Colonial period the colonists were rapidly able to move up in social rank. It wasn't long, therefore, before wealth rather than family such as with the aristocracy in England, was occurring. Colonial aristocracy in the south was made up mostly of the larger rice and tobacco planters. In New England the office holders and rich merchants were the social leaders. Few of the settlers had been aristocrats in England but as they became wealthy they patterned their social lives after the aristocrats of the old country. Even though they were a small group, they controlled the colonial governments and courts, styles of dress, architecture and manners. It was mostly this group who were interested in education and the arts.

Most colonists were middle class freemen who owned property. They were farmers and small merchants. The hard-working, self-supporting farmer was a most important citizen. Below them were the tenant farmers and wage earners in the town. All yearned to own property so they could gain the right to vote.

Those who had come as indentured servants had to work from five to seven years without pay in return for their passage to America. When they became freemen, they frequently received land and could take part in government. Then, of course, there were the slaves who had been brought from Africa to the southern states, against their will, to work on the large plantations.

The New England Puritans did not object to slavery in that they owned the ships that brought these slaves. There were, however, very few slaves in New England because the farms were too small. The slaves that were in New England worked as servants in the houses of the rich people. Whereas women first worked in the fields with their husbands, this changed as the families rose in wealth. The middle class women did their own housework and some became teachers and nurses. there were not as many women as men so it was rare to find an unmarried woman. Both men and women tended to re-marry when spouses died - some four or five times.

As each group of colonists arrived in America they had, first of all, to find some type of shelter for themselves and their families. Some even lived in caves until they could build homes. The climate in the northeast was bitter cold in the winter and there was much snow. "The first homes were simple, rectangular cottages about 16 feet long and 14 feet wide. The walls were rough-hewn timber, the roof was sloped to shed the snow and was thatched with long, tough grass. At first, chimneys were made of logs daubed over with clay, but fireproof, brick chimney's were soon built. Later clapboards were used to cover the rough timber walls and roofs were shingled rather than thatched. Oiled papers or heavy wooden shutters were used for years instead of glass windowpanes."

Home building was a community effort and quite a social event due to scarce labor. Folks helped each other and shared tools. The tools they used generally came from England and many of them resemble tools carpenters still use today. There is an excellent book called "The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725" written by Abbott Lowell Cummings and published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. For anyone seriously interested, this book is the most comprehensive of any I looked at pertaining to this topic. It is well-written, very detailed and informative.

As colonists became more affluent, they built houses more like the middle-class houses they had known in England. Eventually, more elaborate houses were built as colonists climbed the social ladder and had the money for these elegant homes - many of which still exist.

Furniture was mostly home made unless one was wealthy enough to be able to import furniture from England. Early homes did not have clothes closets but used large, homemade chests or hung clothes on pegs. Early beds did not have mattresses - only leaves or reeds covered with a comforter. Later on feathers and rags came to be used as mattresses.

Rugs, curtains, sheets or mirrors were rare in 17th century homes. The fireplace was the center of family life and essential for heat and light. "In the evening the entire family gathered round the fire - the women and older girls spinning or sewing and, as life became less difficult, there was time to do more elaborate sewing, quilting and needlework. The men and boys spent their evenings mending tools or carving new ones. Not only did they make ax handles, shovels and plows (if they were farmers) but also broom sticks, butter paddles, plates, spoons, and cups for household use.

Some folks had candles brought from England, some housewives made their own candles from fats, cooking grease or bayberries. Candlelight was used by rich and poor alike. Oil lamps became popular as the whaling industry developed. Electricity came MUCH later.

Colonial families could not go to a super market to buy their food and meat. Hunting and fishing provided meat and fish which could be eaten fresh or, more often, salted or smoked for later use. Vegetables were raised and canned for winter use and, eventually, fruits were grown in orchards and preserved as jam or used for pies. It was difficult to keep fresh food because there was no electricity for refrigerators or freezers. Each family produced practically everything it ate. Fortunately, water was plentiful and safe to drink in colonial times. Chocolate, coffee and tea came later. Beer was popular as was ale and rum.

You are probably familiar with the kinds of clothing worn in colonial times because of movies and television which often depict life during this time. We have seen pictures of the Pilgrims and the Puritans and their homespun clothes and the fine clothes worn by the upper classes. As the mill towns, such as Lowell, Massachusetts grew and employed thousands of young people, ready made clothing became much more available. The wealthy still had their dressmakers but everyone else could now go to a clothing store for their wearing apparel if they did not need or wish to do their own sewing any longer.

Gradually, as religious disapproval of dancing, card playing and other forms of amusement decreased, people began to enjoy life more. Theater became very popular and even the Puritans came to celebrate Christmas. Weddings were gay events and funerals were also occasions for feasting and drinking.

"Most of the colonists believed that disease was caused by the devil. Thus they relied on magic potions to prevent or cure sickness. Medical standards were poor and there were few doctors or nurses. Even doctors would accuse patients of being bewitched if a cure didn't work. Epidemics caused many deaths and there was a high infant mortality. About half of the children died before they were two years old."

As for religion, most folks assume New England worshipped as Church of England (Episcopal). Not so, the official state church in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire was Congregational! Religion played an important part in the lives of the colonists. The early New England Meeting House was not only a church but also a meeting place for town meetings and other public gatherings. These Puritans were mostly middle-class businessmen and country gentlemen from England who had been most jostled by the deep social changes and increased living costs in England. But the conservatism and shrewdness that were transplanted to all of New England were amplified in Massachusetts by exceptionally zealous, theocratic leaders. The only religious freedom they sought was their own; they severely persecuted Quakers, Baptists or anyone else who differed from their norm. Moral codes were strictly enforced and church attendance was expected. Despite all this, nearly all the colonists were superstitious. Witchcraft was punishable by death. This hysterical oppression known as witchcraft delusion lasted well into the mid-1700's and even later. Until they became better educated, people were still accused of "being possessed of evil spirits" and were put to death for witchcraft.

In 1642 Massachusetts set up a public school system and made it unlawful for parents to keep their children out of school. There were, of course, private schools that had been in existence since the early 1630's. Aside from his ministerial and town duties, Rev. William Walton also taught school and tutored to make enough money to support his family. He and all his descendants down through the generations were great believers in at least eight years of education for both their sons and daughters. B.F. Walton, father of E.A. Walton, was able to finish high school due to the fact he could not work in his father's blacksmith shop because of a physical condition resulting from Infantile Paralysis. His good fortune in being able to graduate from Bowditch High School, in Salem, enabled him to become a teacher. In those days a college education was not necessary for teaching. "In the early schools books were scarce and paper expensive so children were taught reading and spelling from 'hornbooks' which were thin pieces of flat wood about 5" long and 2" wide with short handles. Covering the board was a sheet of paper on which the lesson was lettered -usually the alphabet and the Lord's Prayer. The hornbook had a string through the hole on the handle and could be carried around the child's neck or fastened to his belt. When the hornbook was completed, the child graduated to a primer and, eventually, to the Bible." When it came to discipline in the schools, birch switches were frequently used for punishment if this was needed for disobedience. Actually, this practice went on far too long - well into the early 20th Century. Due to poor travel conditions most colonists had better communication with England than with the other American colonies. Trails were poor, there was danger of Indians, etc. What few travelers there were, at first, walked on narrow paths and later rode horseback.

"Freight was carried on pack horses or in clumsy two-wheeled carts drawn by horses or oxen. In winter, home-made sleds were used. By 1654 the 'Common Road' from Boston to Providence, R.I. was opened and later this was extended to New York City and called 'The Shore Road'. Then came the famous colonial highway the Boston Post Road between Boston and New York City." Today, U.S. Route 1 is still frequently called the Boston Post Road as one heads north to Boston from NY, although with all the Interstate Highways, Rt. 1 carries mostly local traffic these days.

Stage wagons and stage coaches were introduced in the 1700's. Water travel was common since most early settlements were located on the ocean or near a navigable river. Canoes were used at first. In 1631 a ferry was established in Massachusetts. These ferries were used to cross all large streams. Shallops and sloops, which carried passengers and freight between the colonies, were large enough to sail in the ocean near the coast and small enough to travel on the rivers. Inns or taverns were built along the more traveled routes - but were a far cry from today's modern motels.

There were no newspapers until 1704 when the "Boston News-Letter" was started. By 1760 most colonies printed at least one paper of its own. Books were scarce and there were few libraries. In 1639 the first post office was established in Massachusetts and in 1672 postal service between Boston & N.Y. was begun. Manufacturing developed slowly since food, clothing and shelter were the most critical items in early colonial times. But as the population grew and technology enabled mass production of goods needed, there were great manufacturing centers started which thrived into the 20th Century.

The fishing trade grew as did the whaling industry, then lumbering, shipbuilding, and ironmaking. Iron ore was mined in many states. The first successful ironworks was built in Lynn, MA on the banks of the Saugus River in 1643. The company was under the auspices and influence of John Winthrop, Jr., son of Gov. Winthrop with an English capital from London of 1000, and skilled workmen imported for the purpose. Braintree was the next place an iron works was set up but this facility was not nearly as successful. A very abundant amount of iron ore was then discovered in Taunton, bordering on the Two Mile River as well as other locations in Taunton. This led to the founding of the first iron works in the Old Colony, in Taunton in 1652. The leading citizens of Taunton interested in the enterprise, formed a stock company, inviting capitalists in other places to join them in carrying the project into effect without the aid of English capital - and they succeeded. The Taunton Iron Works were in business for 224 years.

Finally about 1876 the old buildings were demolished and today little remains of the ancient Taunton Iron Works, the oldest successful iron manufacturing plant in New England. Coined money was scarce so barter was the most common way of trading. A mint was set up in Massachusetts in the latter half of the 1600's and small coins were issued. Clocks and watches were scarce since they had to be imported until they were mass-manufactured in the latter part of the 18th Century. Time was told by the sun or sundials. Indoors hour-glasses were used. Soon after 1700 clocks were made by blacksmiths and skilled artisans. Tall grandfather clocks were very popular.

Politically, in early colonial times, there were three types of English colonies:

l. The Charter Colony founded on land granted to a company and governed by it.

2. Royal Colony which was under the rule of the English King.

3. Proprietary Colony which was owned and controlled by one or more persons. In most cases, the corporate and proprietary groups later became royal colonies.

In Plymouth - until 1691, the Pilgrims chose their own leaders as agreed to in The Mayflower Compact. Then in 1691 their colony became part of the royal province of Massachusetts Bay. Generally, a Governor and Council were chosen by the King.

There were often disagreements among the colonies until the New England Confederation was formed in 1643. This lasted till 1684. From then until 1783, when England signed a treaty of peace, there was much political unrest and this led to the Revolutionary War. This treaty acknowledged the independence of the 13 colonies which had combined to form a new nation - the United States of America.

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