British Settlement in North America

British settlers arrived on the shores of North America in two groups. First, in the early 1600s, English entrepreneurs built a colony at Jamestown in Virginia to look for riches in the New World, following the example of the early Spanish settlers in South America. After many setbacks, the Virginia colony grew into a prosperous commercial venture. At about the same time, another group of pious British settlers arrived in Massachusetts. This group was looking for religious freedom that had been denied them in England.

Many historians have identified the two groups of British settlers as the source of an enduring tension in the American identity. Driven by a religious fervor, the New England settlers wanted to build a community in the rocky soil of Massachusetts that would set an example for the whole world. John Winthrop, the leader of the Puritans who settled in Boston, described their mission in a famous sermon, “We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” The Massachusetts Bay Colony enforced a rigid code of laws based on the Bible, harshly punishing adulterers and suspected unbelievers.

The Virginia colonists, in contrast, were much more concerned with turning a profit. While the dour clergymen of Boston tried to enforce public virtue, the first act of the Virginia legislature in 1619 was to regulate tobacco prices. The rest of the original thirteen colonies reflected the mixed motives of the British. Pennsylvania became a haven for persecuted quakers. New York started as a short-lived Dutch trading colony conquered by the British in 1664. The separate groups of British colonists initially felt little kinship with one another, but a common resentment of heavy-handed British rule helped bring the thirteen colonies together.


  1. The colony of Maryland was founded in 1634 as a safe haven for British Catholics, whose religion had fallen out of favor in England after the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.
  2. Several other European powers established short-lived colonies in North America. Swedish settlers founded Delaware in 1638, but their colony lasted only a few years. The state of Vermont was first settled by the French, briefly became an independent country in the eighteenth century, and in 1791 became the fourteenth state to join the Union.
  3. The religious persecution suffered in Europe by many American colonists didn’t stop them from mistreating religious dissidents in the New World. The Massachusetts Puritans, who had fled from England, hanged several Quakers in Boston for defying orders to leave the commonwealth.

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