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Colonial Period 1607–1776

The challenges that colonists faced and the values they held as they settled on unfamiliar land

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Colonial settlers came to America for many reasons. Some came for religious freedom. Some came to make money. They settled into 13 colonies, areas that are now the states known as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, Georgia, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware. There were other scattered colonies like St. Augustine in what is now known as Florida.

In the early days of the colonial period, the settlers did not know how to live in the wilderness, and they faced many hardships. In Massachusetts, for example, the Plymouth settlers, spent most of their first winter (1620–21) on board the Mayflower. The following winter, the Pilgrims lived on land but in wigwams and sailcloth tents. Many were sick and all were hungry. Nearly one-quarter of them died before a ship from England brought fresh supplies. You can learn more about life at Plymouth by visiting The First Thanksgiving.

In time, the colonists learned how to live in the wilderness — through trial and error and the help of some of the more friendly Native American tribes. By the 1700s, small cities and towns were well established. The colonists slowly developed their own customs and lifestyles. Eventually they began to feel that this new land was now their true home.

Life in colonial America centered around the family. Most people worked, played, learned, and worshiped at home. A large family was necessary in colonial days to get all the work done. The father was considered the head of the household. He made all of the decisions concerning their families and earned money through farming and jobs outside the home. Women worked in the home, raising the children, preparing the meals, sewing clothes, preserving food for the winter, scrubbing laundry, fetching water, and stoking fires.

Most children in early colonial times never saw the inside of a schoolhouse. Instead, colonial children usually learned about the adult world by doing things the way their parents did. But, just because they didn't go to school, their lives were not easy. Children were expected to help with a share of the family's work. Boys helped their fathers and girls did chores at home. By a time a girl was four she could knit stockings! Even with all the work they did, colonial children still found time to have fun. They cared for their pets, played with dolls, shot marbles, pitched pennies, and went fishing. They also played tag, stickball, and blindman's buff. By the time they had reached age 14, most children were already considered adults. Boys would soon take up their father's trade or leave home to become an apprentice. Girls learned to manage a house and were expected to marry young, probably by the time they were 16 and surely before they were 20.

A child's life in colonial America would differ greatly, depending on the time and place in which the child lived. Learn about the range of experiences in colonial America from the diaries of Patience Whipple (Plymouth, 1620) and Catherine Carey Logan (Pennsylvania, 1963).

Colonial Period Timeline
1565: St. Augustine is founded by the Spanish.
1607: Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in North America, is established in Virginia.
1620: Pilgrims reach Plymouth, Massachusetts, aboard the Mayflower; "Mayflower Compact" adopted.
1626: Manhattan Island sold by Indians to New Amsterdam colony.
1638: Swedish settlers establish colony of New Sweden in Delaware.
1681: William Penn receives charter for colony that becomes Pennsylvania.
1692: Salem, Massachusetts, trials sentence 20 "witches" to death.
1718: New Orleans founded by French.
1733: Georgia, last of original 13 colonies, founded by James Oglethorpe.

  • Subjects:
    American History
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