We probably all remember the little school room ditty about how, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Columbus was not the first and he would not be the last. Exploration of the New World had been happening for a while by then. It would continue for several more decades before the first permanent European settlement would be founded in 1565 at what is now St Augustine, Florida. Within one hundred years, dozens of other European settlements were established as colonists crossed the ocean for economic opportunities and religious freedom. By the close of the 17th century there would be more than 234,000 settlers up and down the eastern seaboard from Georgia to Maine.
Jamestown, the Virginia Colony and Beyond
Jamestown, known as the first colony in the British Empire, was established in 1607, in Virginia. It took several attempts at colonization before success was achieved. Of the 6,000 colonist who came to the settlement between 1607 and 1624, more than 2,500 died of disease, exposure, starvation or attacks from the natives.
Many of the settlers were English aristocrats, but there was also a large number of indentured servants who, in exchange for passage to the New World, agreed to work for upwards of seven years for their landed masters. Though primarily an English settlement, German and Polish colonists were recruited early on in order to provide diversity of trade and craft to the developing community.
Once success was achieved with the settlement of Jamestown, the newcomers began to spread out, taking up land, planting crops and creating new settlements. In 1624, Virginia became a royal colony and by 1634, King Charles I divided it into eight counties in order to better govern the growing colony.
Around that same time, in 1632, Charles granted a charter to Lord Baltimore to establish another colony in nearby Maryland. In an attempt to gain settlers, they were offered 50 acres of land for each person they brought to the colony – settler, servant or slave. Similar to Virginia, tobacco quickly became a profitable crop.
Other European countries got in on the action around the same time. The Dutch settled up and down the Hudson River starting in 1624 and then branched out into part of Delaware in 1631. The Swedes sent a group of settlers to the same area in 1638. Conflicting claims to land set the settlers up for conflict in the coming decades – natives, English, Dutch, French, Spanish.
By 1650, it is estimated that there were more than 23,000 European settlers in the area. That number tripled over the next thirty years as settlers spread throughout Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, Delaware and New York.
The Mayflower and the Settling of New England
In 1620, the Mayflower arrived in the New World from Plymouth, England with 102 passengers on board. Mostly English Puritans and Separatists, almost half of them would be dead before that first winter was over. Those that survived are credited with creating the oldest, continuously inhabited English settlement in what would become the United States.
A year later a second ship arrived with 37 new settlers for Plymouth Colony. A year and a half after that another two ships arrived carrying 96 passengers. In the first ten years following the landing of the Mayflower the majority of the 800 colonists arriving in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colony were from England. Unlike the settlement of Virginia, Maryland and New Amsterdam, the majority of New England colonists immigrated for religious reasons rather than economic reasons. Most of them were middle class, skilled craftsman and merchants, rather than nobility.
Religious conflicts within the colony led some settlers to leave, founding Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine and New Hampshire in the process. By 1700 these collective colonies had a total population of more than 106,000 people.
One of the largest land grants during that century was given to William Penn by King Charles II in 1681 – what we now know as Pennsylvania and Delaware. A Quaker and a visionary man, Penn had a plan for his property, a “Holy Experiment” that included providing a safe haven for those of the Quaker faith who had been persecuted and imprisoned in England and Wales and were being kicked out of New England. His plan for religious freedom attracted others and within 20 years there were more than 18,000 settlers in Pennsylvania.
Some came for economic freedom, some came for religious freedom. Some came voluntarily, others came forcibly. Some came and dropped down deep roots that remain in those same communities almost 400 years later. Some moved on almost immediately and their descendants continued their established pattern of western expansion. Regardless of why they came, these are the founders of our nation.
A lot of research has been done into the lives of the original settlers of New England, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Amsterdam. Volumes have been written about these gateway ancestors. And, in fact, there are many organizations that have done extensive research to track the descendants of these original settlers.
Not sure if your family was in the New World prior to 1700? Check out just a few of the great resources available on Ancestry.com that could help connect you with your colonial ancestors.