Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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Thirteen Colonies (Article 5)

By Judy Leithe

European countries had been exploring North and Central America as early as the 13th and 14th centuries. The Spanish and French governments had already enriched their coffers with gold, silver, and fur pelts taken from the New World. By the early 1600s, England also recognized the need to stake its claim in North America. To accomplish this aim, the British government established joint stock agreements with London businessmen, encouraging them to invest in formally colonizing strategic areas along the east coast.

Thus, the Virginia Company of London sponsored three ships to carry 105 passengers to North America. In 1607, they founded the first British colony and named it Jamestown, after their sovereign, King James. Located on Chesapeake Bay, in present day Virginia, the settlement began to experience serious problems, including inclement weather, food shortages, brackish “fresh” water, and difficulties in trading with the 14,000 Algonquian natives.

The first governor of Jamestown was Captain John Smith. He was known to have a high opinion of himself, and some felt he was too much of a taskmaster. However, his experience as a soldier and explorer taught him that discipline was essential if the colonists were to survive in Jamestown. Smith and a scouting party were captured by Algonquian braves, and most of the Englishmen were killed. However, when braves were about to kill Smith, Pocahontas, the 14-year-old daughter of Chief Powhatan, begged that his life be spared. Pocahontas later married Englishman, John Rolfe.

Before returning to England, in 1609, Captain Smith befriended Chief Powhatan and was able to establish a trading system with the Algonquians. By 1614, Jamestown began to flourish due to the colonists’ success at planting tobacco and exporting it to Europe.After exploring North America, from Chesapeake Bay to Maine, Captain Smith authored several books and maps. In his best-known book, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, published in 1624, Smith describes in great detail his adventures and expeditions in the New World.

Thirteen colonies eventually emerged up and down the east coast of North America. After the 1607 founding of the Virginia Colony and during the next 126 years, an additional twelve colonies were established under British rule. They included: New Hampshire – 1622; New York – 1624; Massachusetts – 1630; Maryland – 1632; Connecticut – 1635; Rhode Island – 1636; Delaware – 1638; North Carolina – 1653; South Carolina – 1663; New Jersey – 1664; Pennsylvania – 1681; and Georgia – 1733. By the 1750s, more than 2,000,000 people inhabited the colonies.

England had become accustomed to lucrative commerce between themselves and the colonies: raw materials were purchased from their colonial subjects, and in turn, the colonists had to purchase most of their finished goods from England. On top of high-priced British goods, the British government extracted heavy taxes from the colonists on all of their merchandise, from clothing to paper and, famously, tea.

The colonists also suffered greatly under the brutish rule of their British governors and their heavy-handed soldiers. However, even though they were subjects of the English Crown, the colonists were developing a sense of self-rule as they carved out a living in this new, uncharted land. In Colonial North America, in the 1700s, there arose a collection of courageous individuals who were willing to challenge the tyrannical rule of the King of England and change history, forever. 

Let’s begin by exploring the lives of four of the Founding Fathers: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. With a closer look at their lives as young boys, we learn what it was like to grow up in colonial America in the early part of the 1700s. And, how as young men, their self-determination and sense of honor brought them together with other Patriots in securing and developing the democratic republic of the United States of America.