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Historical Background

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Colonials and Patriots
Historical Background

Population Growth and Territorial Expansion

Although firmly established by 1700, the Colonies exhibited few portents of the phenomenal growth that lay ahead. Fewer than 300,000 colonists occupied the scattered settlements along the Atlantic coast. In the middle and southern Colonies, where the coastal plain extended far inland, settlement had just begun to spill beyond the fall line (head of navigation by seagoing vessels) toward the foothills of the Appalachians. Seventy-five years later, 2-1/2 million Americans blanketed the eastern seaboard and, here and there, had pushed even beyond the mountain barrier.

Ten to twelve soldiers were billeted in huts like this, when Washington's army spent the winter of 1779-80 in Jockey Hollow, near Morristown, N.J. This log hut, chinked with clay and held together by nails and wooden pegs, was reconstructed on the site of one of the original structures at Morristown National Historical Park. (National Park Service)

A high birth rate explained part of the population increase, for strong sons and healthy daughters were an obvious answer to the problem of the scanty labor supply. Vastly more important was a flood of immigration, part voluntary and part involuntary, that attained its greatest volume after the Peace of Utrecht in 1713. Rhineland Germans, Scotch-Irish, French Huguenots, Swiss, Irish, Scots, and Spanish and Portuguese Jews—all sought new lives in a new world.

The French Huguenots achieved disproportionate importance among the newcomers, even though few in number, because of their comparatively high level of culture and wealth. Essentially urban dwellers, they were attracted to the more thickly settled areas. Almost every colonial city had its Huguenot contingent, but the real stronghold of the Huguenots was Charleston, S.C. By the middle of the 18th-century, French influence had stamped itself upon the dress, manners, and architecture of Charleston.

The Germans settled largely in the middle and southern Colonies, and were far more numerous. Attempts were made to guide some of them into industry, but the vast majority preferred to push on to the frontier and become small farmers. Large numbers moved to the Pennsylvania frontier, where they acted as a valuable buffer for the older Colonies to the east. "It has been said that Quaker blood was never shed by the North American Indian," remarked a noted historian; "to this the historians of the German migration reply that the Indians sheathed their knives in the bodies of the German frontiersmen." [2]

Charleston, S.C.: Aerial view of the historic district, looking north from The Battery. St. Michael's Episcopal Church is visible in the right background. (Courtesy, Ronald Reilly Photo Shop.)

The Scotch-Irish were the most aggressive of the frontiersmen. They, too, found their way to the back country of the middle and southern Colonies, chiefly Pennsylvania. Famed as Indian fighters, they helped to protect the older Colonies and, at the same time, because of their fiery temperament and frontiersman's contempt for authority, they made infinite trouble for the governments nearer the coast.

Of the other immigrant groups, the Swiss settled mainly in the Carolinas; the Irish Catholics in Maryland and Pennsylvania; the Scots in Virginia, South Carolina, and Massachusetts; and the Jews in such metropolitan centers as Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Newport, R.I. [3]

Elfreth's Alley, a few blocks from Independence Hall, preserves today much of the genuine atmosphere of the Philadelphia of Benjamin Franklin's time. (Courtesy, Philadelphia Historical Commission.)

These people came of their own free will, but the largest non-English element in the Colonies came involuntarily. By 1775, perhaps a fifth of the colonial population consisted of Negro slaves. The spread of the plantation system in the southern Colonies created a demand for slave labor, and by the close of the colonial period approximately six out of seven slaves resided south of the Mason-Dixon line. Slaves made up 40 percent of the population in Virginia, 60 percent in South Carolina.

Cities and towns reflected the population boom. In 1700, Boston was the colonial metropolis with 7,000 people, and only Philadelphia came close, with 5,000. By 1775, however, Philadelphia's population had risen to 34,000, making her the largest city, and 11 other cities had passed the 5,000 mark. During the same period, colonial towns increased in number by 3-1/2. But the urban centers could accommodate only a fraction of the mushrooming population. The rest turned to the west and pushed beyond the 17-century colonial borders.

In 1700, settlements dotted the seaboard from Penobscot Bay, in present Maine, southward to the Edisto River in South Carolina. They were not continuous, and only in the valley of the Hudson River had they penetrated inland more than 100 miles. Seventy years later, however, settlement had spread down the coast another 150 miles, to the St. Marys River, and inland 200 miles and more, to the crest of the Appalachians. At intervals the restless frontier had swept beyond the Appalachian crest: in the south, to the headwaters of the Clinch and Holston (see pp. 166-168, 228, 229); in the north, up the eastern shore of Lake Champlain and west along the Mohawk Valley, with the lonely outpost of Fort Ontario, on Lake Ontario (see pp. 212-213); in the center—most significantly—past the former French post of Fort Duquesne (see pp. 145-148), and thence 150 miles down the Ohio River.

The westward movement flowed continuously but not evenly. Before 1754 it was slowed by the hostility of Indian tribes angered by the English invasion and incited by French and Spanish agents. In western Pennsylvania, where Indian resistance was weaker than elsewhere, settlement had crossed the mountains before the outbreak of the French and Indian War. But during the next 9 years the frontier line receded to the east side of the Appalachians, and in 1763, with French power crushed, England sought to reserve the trans-Appalachian country to the Indians. The colonists were not to be stopped. Before the outbreak of the Revolution they were firmly established in the upper Ohio Valley.

NPS archeologist
A National Park Service archeologist works with potsherds excavated in the course of the continuing effort to illuminate all aspects of the early history of both Europeans and Indians in North America. (National Park Service)
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Last Updated: 09-Jan-2005