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The thirteen original colonies of colonial America were established during the 17th and early 18th centuries in what is now the eastern United States. The colonies grew both geographically and numerically from the time of their founding to the American Revolution (1775–81).

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Colonial America – 1492: Christopher Columbus

(See Main Article: Christopher Columbus – Historical People}

Christopher Columbus in Porto Santo and Madeira

Columbus set off on his first voyage on 3rd August 1492 with three ships, the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina. On 12th October Columbus sighted land and named the island San Salvador. He had discovered the Bahamas. Believing that he had reached the Indies Columbus called the native people Indians. He explored the island of Cuba and Haiti before returning to Spain.

“Christopher Columbus Wasn’t as Good—Or as Terrible—As You Think”

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Columbus embarked on his second voyage on 24th September 1493. His mission was to discover new territories and colonize them. On November 3rd he saw a rugged island and named it Dominica (Sunday). Columbus spent the next six months exploring and colonizing the area before returning to Spain.

Columbus made two further voyages exploring more of the New World and hoping to find the elusive route to the Orient.

Although he was an experienced and gifted sailor, his management skills were poor and on each return voyage, he was faced with the discontent of the native peoples and those Europeans who had been left to colonize the area.


Colonial America – 1607: Jamestown Colony, Virginia

(See Main Article: Facts about Jamestown Colony, Virginia)

In Colinal America, it was Jamestown Colony Virginia that was the first permanent English settlement in North America. Established on May 14, 1607, the colony gave England its first foothold in the European competition for the New World, which had been dominated by the Spanish since the voyages of Christopher Columbus in the late 15th century.

The development of Jamestown, Virginia, took the opposite path as the northern Puritan Colonies, which had a collectivistic approach to settlement. It began as a distinctly individualistic colony, and only later acquired group cohesion. The early settlement of Virginia was dominated by young, single men. A host of factors, prominent among them Virginia’s (not entirely undeserved) reputation as a disease-ridden deathtrap, served to discourage the kind of family migration that had characterized the Puritan experience. But as the mortality rate declined and the colony’s prosperity became widely known, it became more sensible for entire families to make their homes in the Chesapeake.

Colonial America – 1620: The Pilgrims And The Mayflower

(See Main Article: The Pilgrims And The Mayflower)

“The Pilgrims and Native Americans Were Both On the Verge of Death Upon Meeting. Here’s How They Saved Each Others’ Lives.”

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Richard More: the Shropshire outcast who sailed to riches on the Mayflower | History | The Guardian

In 1607 Walter Raleigh had founded the colony of Virginia in Colonial America and a number of English companies had begun trading tobacco and other products between the colony and England.

One stock company, anxious to protect their business interests in Virginia recruited 35 members of the radical, Puritan, English Separatist Church, who had fled to Holland. The stock company agreed to finance the voyage for them and in return, they would look after the company’s business in Virginia. Other Puritans keen to start a new life in Colonial America joined the voyage.

The Mayflower left the port of Southampton in August 1620 but was forced to put into Plymouth for repairs. The 102 passengers and 30 crew eventually left Plymouth for Colonial America on 16th September 1620 and steered a course for Virginia. The ship was a double-decked, three-masted vessel and initially, the voyage went well but then storms blew up which blew them off course.

Land was sighted on November 9th and the anchor was dropped. A landing party of sixteen men left the ship on November 15th but failed to find a suitable site to establish a settlement. They set sail again and resumed their search. On December 17th they reached Plymouth Harbour and dropped anchor.

On December 21st the first of the Pilgrim Fathers set foot on what would become Plymouth settlement. The harsh winter weather meant that they were unable to build adequate shelter and many of the travelers died during that first winter. Those that survived the winter went on to build houses and defenses. In the late spring of 1621, a native American Samoset Indian offered to show the settlers how to farm the land and become self-sufficient if the men would help them fight a rival tribe. The settlers agreed and the Plymouth settlement flourished.

1628 – 1692: Massachusetts Bay Colony Government

(See Main Article: 1628 – Massachusetts Bay Colony Government)

The Massachusetts Bay Colony Government (more formally The Colony of Massachusetts Bay, 1628–1692) was an English settlement on the east coast of Colonial America in the 17th century around the Massachusetts Bay, the northernmost of the several colonies later reorganized as the Province of Massachusetts Bay. This government laid many of the cornerstones of what would be the official policy of the United States government toward American Indians.

1754 – 1763: French and Indian War

(See Main Article: French and Indian War)

The French and Indian War took place between 1754 and 1763 and is also known as the Seven Years’ War. This conflict formed part of a larger struggle between France and Great Britain to expand their empires. Although Great Britain won this war with massive gains inland in North America, it also cost them dearly as it led to more conflict, ultimately resulting in the American Revolution.


1765: Stamp Act

(See Main Article: How Did the Colonists React to the Stamp Act?)

When Patrick Henry presented a series of resolutions against the Stamp Act—the first direct tax on the American colonies—in the Virginia House of Burgesses in May 1765, he aimed to defend and preserve the traditional rights of Englishmen. Henry’s verbal assault on the Stamp Act was not a radical cry for equality or democracy; it was not influenced by the wave of “liberal” thought sweeping Europe in the eighteenth century. Virginians, according to the resolves, retained “all the liberties, privileges, franchises, and immunities, that have at any time been held, enjoyed, and possessed by the people of Great Britain . . . as if they had been abiding and born within the realm of England.” Henry insisted that by imposing a direct tax, the Parliament violated the “ancient constitution” of British common law, because the colonists were not and could not be represented in London. This led to the battle cry, “No Taxation without Representation!”

1773: Boston Tea Party

(See Main Article: What Was The Boston Tea Party)

“Did America Switch from Tea to Coffee Due to the Boston Tea Party?”

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Colonial America

The Boston Tea Party is considered to have been an important event in American History, one that greatly contributed to the American Revolution. On December 16, 1773, demonstrators destroyed an entire East India Company Tea Shipment as part of a political protest to tea taxes and the Tea Act. The tea cargoes from three ships were all offloaded and dumped into the water of the Boston Harbor, ruining the tea.

Taxation Without Representation

The main issue demonstrators had was that the British parliament was unfairly taxing them for tea (which the Americans consumed on a great scale). They believed that local authorities should decide on taxes, not the British parliament where the Americans were not represented. Tea used to be smuggled into the colony due to hefty tea taxes, but the Tea Act of 1773 gave the East India Company a monopoly over tea sales. Protesters were unhappy about this and the way Britain has been treating the colonies.


What is Federalism and How Does It Work?

(See Main Article: What is Federalism and How Does It Work?)

What is Federalism?

Federalism is a political system through which two or more governments have shared authority over the same geographical area. Most democratic countries in the world are governed by a federal system, including Canada, the U.S., Australia, India and Argentina. Even the EU is a federal system, although one of the very few examples where the members of the “upper houses” in the federation are not appointed or elected, but are delegates of the respective governments.

According to ushistory.org,

In creating a system built on Federalism, the founders were reacting to both the British government and the Articles of Confederation. The British government was — and remains — a UNITARY SYSTEM, or one in which power is concentrated in a central government. In England, government has traditionally been centralized in London, and even though local governments exist, they generally have only those powers granted them by Parliament. The national government is supreme, and grants or retains powers to and from local governments at its whim.

1774: The First Continental Congress

(See Main Article: Battles of Lexington and Concord)

    1. September: VA and Mass sent out a call for a Continental Congress to meet in Philadelphia. 12 of the 13 colonies sent representatives.
    2. The Congress endorsed the Suffolk Resolves, declared that Britain had no right to tax the colonies, and agreed to meet again in May 1775 to reassess the situation.
    3. The Congress also agreed to boycott British goods beginning in December 1774. Imports from Britain dropped 97% from 1774 to 1775, hurting the British economy.
    4. General Gage dissolved the Mass. legislature. They reconvened to the west, where he had little real authority.
    5. Gage began to hear rumors that the colonists were stockpiling weapons and gunpowder at the town of Concord.  He began planning a mission to seize the weapons and gunpowder.
    6. Gage also heard that two of the key rebel leaders, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, were staying in Lexington, which was on the road to Concord.

Colonial America


Colonial America – 1775: Battles of Lexington and Concord

(See Main Article: Battles of Lexington and Concord)

“Key Battles of the Revolutionary War, Part 9: Sidetrack Episode — the Declaration of Independence”

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The Battles of Lexington and Concord were of minor military significance but of world-historical importance in the modern era. They were the first military engagements of the Revolutionary War, marking the outbreak of armed conflict between Great Britain and its thirteen colonies on the North American mainland.

Fought on April 19, 1775, the battles of Lexington and Concord ruin British political strategy of ending colonial opposition to the Intolerable Acts and seizing weapons of rebels. Revolutionary leaders such as John Adams considered the battle to be a point of no return: “The Die was cast, the Rubicon crossed,” he said.

Colonial America – 1776: The Declaration of Independence

(See Main Article: When Was the Declaration of Independence Written?)

Colonial America

The Declaration of Independence, which became one of the most important documents in American history, wasn’t written on a single date, but rather over a period of time between June 11 and July 4, 1776. The document is an announcement that the thirteen American colonies now regard themselves as sovereign, independent states, no longer part of the British Empire. By the time Congress voted on independence, the document was already drafted.

“Key Battles of the Revolutionary War, Part 9: Sidetrack Episode — the Declaration of Independence”

For the full “History Unplugged” podcast, click here!


Congress decided to order a draft declaration on June 11, 1776 and appointed a committee of five men to do so: Robert R. Livingston, Tomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. How exactly the drafting process proceeded is unclear, as the committee didn’t leave any minutes of their meetings. They had however decided that Jefferson was to write the first draft. Apparently they initially wanted to appoint Adams, but he insisted that Jefferson do the writing. Somewhere over the next 17 days Jefferson created the first draft, drawing inspiration from George Mason’s draft of the Declaration of Rights of Virginia and his own draft of the planned Virginia Constitution.

1776: Battle Of Trenton

(See Main Article: Battle of Trenton: Location, Facts and Summary)

Colonial America

The Battle of Trenton was a small but crucial battle during the American Revolutionary War. It happened on the morning of December 26, 1776, in Trenton, New Jersey.

Colonial America – The Battle of Trenton
  • The Americans’ (with 2400 soldiers) march toward Trenton began at 4 AM.  As the soldiers marched, many left trails of blood from their bleeding feet.
  • About 2 miles (3 km) outside the town, the soldiers were startled by the sudden appearance of 50 armed men, but they were American. This small group had attacked a Hessian outpost earlier.  Washington feared the Hessians would have been put on guard, and shouted at their leader, “You sir! You sir, may have ruined all my plans by having them put on their guard.”
  • In fact, the 50 men actually helped Washington. The Hessian commander Rall had been warned about a possible American attack, but he thought the first raid was the attack and that there would be no further action that day.
  • Washington’s army reached Trenton around 8 AM.
  • The Hessians were completely surprised.  Most were asleep when the Americans arrived.
  • They tried to form lines, but the American cannons were already pouring devastating fire into the Hessians. (Part of the American artillery was commanded by a young captain named Alexander Hamilton).  American musket fire also decimated the Hessians. Much hand-to-hand fighting occurred.
  • Within an hour, the Hessians surrendered.  The Americans had suffered only two deaths (due to exposure, not gunfire) and five wounded.  One of the wounded was a young lieutenant named James Monroe.
  • 22 Hessians were killed (including Col. Rall), 83 were wounded, and 800-900 surrendered and became prisoners.  At least 500 Hessians escaped.

Colonial America – 1777: Battle of Brandywine Creek

(See Main Article: Battle of Brandywine Creek)

The Battle of Brandywine Creek was fought between the American Continental Army of General George Washington and the British Army of General Sir William Howe. It was an early battle in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), taking place on September 11, 1777.

Colonial America

Howe Moves His Army
  • By the first week of March 1777, Washington became convinced that Howe was going to move his army to Philadelphia.
  • But Howe did nothing in March, April, May or early June.  He began to move in mid-June. He was hoping to draw Washington out of his fortified position into open battle.  Washington did not take the bait.
  • In July, Howe’s army began to move, and on July 23, they set to sea.  But it was not clear exactly where they were going.
  • On July 30, the British fleet was sighted off Delaware Bay.  This made it obvious that Howe’s target was Philadelphia.
  • On August 25, Howe disembarked a light infantry unit at the mouth of the Elk River, just 30 miles south of Philadelphia.  It took Howe a week to offload all of his troops and supplies. Altogether, he has about 15,000 soldiers.
  • They moved slowly, reaching the Brandywine River (half the distance to Philadelphia) on September 11. There they met Washington and 10,000 Continental troops.  Washington’s army had marched quickly from New Jersey.
Battle of Brandywine Creek: Afterward
  • On the way to meet Howe’s army, Washington’s army marched through Philadelphia.  There they were joined by the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette, a 19-year old French nobleman, offered to serve in the army without pay.
  • Washington reached Brandywine Creek on September 9 and spread his army out on the high ground behind the river, on either side of the main road that crossed the river.
  • On the morning of the 11th, a brigade of Hessians attacked right across the river bridge, while two others, under Howe and Cornwallis, moved northward to cross the river at a couple of fords and got behind the Americans.  Washington left his right flank unanchored.
  • Washington’s lines held a long time but eventually collapsed.  Darkness and exhaustion prevented the British from following up.
  • Battle of Brandywine Creek death toll: British lost 89 dead and 400 wounded.  Americans lost 200 dead, 40 prisoners, and 400 wounded (including Lafayette).
  • Howe stopped for two days and did very little.  Washington fell back to a new position behind the Schuylkill River, attempting to shield Philadelphia from Howe’s army.  He received 3100 reinforcements.
  • On the 15th, Washington re-crossed the Schuylkill, wanting to attack again, but a thunderstorm prevented an attack.
  • Washington sent Alexander Hamilton to Philadelphia to warn Congress to evacuate the city.  They moved to York, PA.

1777: Valley Forge

(See Main Article: Valley Forge: The Great Trial of the Revolution)

Colonial America

Valley Forge history recounts one of the darkest moments in the Revolutionary War. The site itself was the third of eight military encampments for the Continental Army’s main body which General George Washington commanded.

Valley Forge History
  • Washington needed to put his army into winter camp.  He wanted to stay close to Howe’s army and protect the Congress in York.
  • He chose a site on the west side of the Schuylkill River and was 25 miles NW of Philadelphia called Valley Forge.
  • The army began setting up camp on December 19, 1777.
  • They had to construct their own huts because the site had a little natural cover.
  • Worse, the Continental Army’s commissary head and quartermaster general resigned.  It was hard to find anyone competent to replace them.
  • The army had to cope with the frequent lack of supplies.  Washington constantly wrote to Congress, but he got little relief.  Some men were nearly naked. Others had mismatched and inadequate clothing.
  • The men lived mainly on “firecake,” a thin bread made of flour and water that was baked over a campfire.  The cry “No meat! No meat!” was frequently heard.
  • Middlekauff (420): “Pork which had been purchased in New Jersey remained there to spoil for lack of wagons.  In Pennsylvania, private contractors shipped flour to New England, where prices were better, while Washington’s soldiers had short rations.  And a number of farmers around Philadelphia preferred to sell to the British in the city, who had hard cash than to accept Washington’s promises of payment.”
  • Washington was forced to allow occasional foraging (something he had not allowed previously).
  • By February, half of Washington’s army was gone.  As many of 1100 deserted to the British Army. Many of the ones who remained were sick and unable to serve.  Although there was plenty of grumbling, there was no mutiny.
  • John Laurens (an aide of Washington’s and the son of the president of Congress) wrote. “We have some as brave individuals among our officers as any who exist.  The men in the ranks are the best crude materials for soldiers, I believe, in the world, for they possess docility and patience which astonish foreigners. With a little more discipline, we should drive the haughty Briton to his ships.”

1789 – What is The Tennis Court Oath And How Did It Get Its Name?

(See Main Article: What is The Tennis Court Oath And How Did It Get Its Name?)

The Tennis Court Oath was a pledge that was signed in the early days of the French Revolution and was an important revolutionary act that displayed the belief that political authority came from the nation’s people and not from the monarchy.

The pledge thanks its name to the place where it was signed. On June 20, 1789, the Third Estate, representing the commoners in the Estates General, found themselves locked out of their regular meeting place and saw it as a ploy from the King to disband them. The 576 members moved their meeting to a tennis court in Saint-Louis, Versailles and signed an oath that they would not stop meeting up until they have written a new constitution for France. As the Third Estate didn’t have the right to act as a National Assembly, this pledge is seen as a revolutionary act.

This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Revolutionary War. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to the Revolutionary War

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"Colonial America: From Columbus To The American Revolution" History on the Net
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