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Colonization and Settlement

The colonial era in American history is essential in setting the framework for all the eras to follow. Nearly two centuries of colonization on the continent and in the Caribbean provide three distinct groups to study: Europeans, indigenous peoples,  and Africans brought to the colonies as enslaved persons. The varying reasons for departure from Europe set the stage for how different colonies came into being and interacted with each other. Violent conflicts, importation of disease, and dispossession of native lands were all results of Europeans’ interactions with the indigenous populations. The importation of enslaved people also led to an economic structure in some colonies that became, in their minds, reliant on the continued existence of slave labor.

Government structure and political life had distinct characteristics in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South as they groped their way toward mature political institutions. Economics were affected by geographic location and the local natural resources, adding to regional differences, and sometimes, divisions. Religion and politics were often influenced by the European nation who colonized the area – French, Spanish, Dutch, or English. Religion was a defining characteristic of some colonies, as opposed to the economic reasons for which others were established. Ideas of religious freedom, denominationalism, and the Great Awakening all impacted daily life. 

Learn more in the National U.S. History Content Standards.

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Petition of the Meherrin to the Governor, 1723

Indigenous Virginians and the English colonists conceived landownership in different ways. Tribal members did not "own" land individually, but lived in small communities and hunted, planted, and gathered food or other materials in the larger…

Paramount Chief Powhatan Presents Deer-Skin Mantle to Captain Christopher Newport, Photograph, date unknown

This photograph shows a deerskin mantle that was believed to have been presented by Paramount Chief Powhatan (whose given name was Wahunsonacock) to Captain Christopher Newport of the Virginia Company in 1608. The mantle is embroidered with shells…

Portrait of Thomas West, Baron De la Warr

Thomas West (1576–1618), the twelfth Baron De La Warr, was appointed by King James I in 1606 to be part of the royal council that oversaw the Virginia Company of London. He monitored the situation in the Virginia colony from England and may have…

Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of Virginia, 1755

The Fry- Jefferson map was first published in 1753. It was, at the time, the most comprehensive map of 18th Century Virginia. Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson were two of the most successful surveyors in the Virginia Colony. They collaborated and…