Origins of the English Colonies That Became States

British colonies 1763-76

There were many English colonies founded and abandoned during the colonial period. This essay looks at the origins of the original 13 states as colonies.

By the 1630s, numerous British colonies were strung along various parts of coastal America, North and South. From Guyana to Jamestown to Newfoundland the British had established colonies in the New World. Virginia Colony had been made a royal colony in 1624, Guyana and Newfoundland had mixed results, and New England had established a Puritan presence in the New World. Virginia and New England have been discussed elsewhere, so the remainder of the thirteen states that would become the United States are discussed here.

Colonies That Became States:

New Hampshire

During the 1630s, heavy-handedness among the colonial leaders at Massachusetts Bay as well as the great influx of immigrants created unrest among the inhabitants of that colony, but there was always motivation to expand. Former Governor of Newfoundland Colony John Mason applied for and received permission to form a colony north of Massachusetts that he named New Hampshire. The Abenaki peoples, who lived in longhouses much like other native peoples of the region, hunting, fishing, and farming for a living, occupied most of the area.


In 1632, a grant was given by Charles I, whose wife was a French Catholic, to Lord Baltimore (Cecil Calvert) across Chesapeake Bay from Virginia and to the north of Jamestown. Baltimore named the colony Maryland for the last Catholic queen of England, Queen Mary, who had preceded Elizabeth I. In the relatively unrestricted environs of the New World, it was impossible to prevent Anglican and Presbyterian planters from migrating to Maryland. Basically a tobacco colony by 1649, it was in that year that the Maryland colonial legislature passed the Toleration Act, an agreement to not have an official religion for the colony.

Rhode Island

In 1636, Roger Williams, a member of the Salem Colony in Massachusetts, was becoming increasingly troubled by the lack of separation the Puritans there had from the Anglican Church and the government of England. He also felt that the Native Americans should be treated fairly and their land purchased from them instead of it simply being occupied and taken from them. This put him on the bad side of colonial leaders and he moved to Narragansett Bay. There he purchased some land from the Indians and started Providence Plantations, which would become the colony and state of Rhode Island. The well-known Puritan dissenter Anne Hutchinson also found sanctuary at Providence Plantations. Residents drew up a Constitution that assured separation of church and state, fair purchase of Indian lands, and religious freedom (for Christians).


Thomas Hooker was the first minister of Cambridge, Massachusetts and a well-regarded theologian and preacher. In 1636, he became troubled by the heavy-handed rule of John Cotton and the anti-democratic views of Massachusetts Bay leadership in general and left for the Connecticut River valley. He and about 100 followers founded the town of Hartford and established Connecticut Colony. The “Fundamental Orders,” or Connecticut constitution, established a representative colonial legislature with voting rights for all property holders.

New York

After the English Civil War, the British Empire was in need of expanding its search for resources and markets as well as a need to gain some control over its own commerce. The result was a series of wars with the Dutch known as the Anglo-Dutch Wars. Scattered across the middle half of the 17th century, these wars had mixed results for the belligerents. One was the assumption of control in New Netherlands – the Hudson River valley – in 1664.

New Jersey

King Charles II turned this colony over to his brother James, the Duke of York. James renamed the colony New York and the community on Manhattan Island the same. A similar fate befell New Jersey; Charles designated the newly acquired colony to proprietors and aristocrats John Berkeley and George Carteret. These men had in their minds to create a feudal colony for themselves, but met with little success. The freedom that colonists experienced in the New World was not conducive to subjugation to that degree.

New Jersey divided into two sections, East Jersey, associated with good farmland in the north and access to the Atlantic. West Jersey was primarily pine barrens and what is today the southern half of the state. In West Jersey, a constitution was drawn up known as the “Laws, Concessions, and Agreements.” This included the use of the secret ballot, trial by jury, and local officeholders as opposed to appointees from Britain. The two Jerseys were rejoined in 1702 when they became the single royal colony of New Jersey.


Carolina Colony was a grant from Charles II to eight of his allies in the House of Lords. Like the proprietors of New Jersey, they hoped to set a feudal-style realm where colonists would produce wealth for the owners’ estates. Colonies in the New World proved difficult to control, however. In the southern part of the colony along the coast, trade in Native American slaves who were sold in the Caribbean market was common. Naval stores such as pitch pine and masts were also an early commodity. But it was rice that brought southern Carolina into the plantation complex system of slave-produced staple crops. This worked out quite nicely from the planters’ point of view with the founding of Charles Town on one of the best harbors on the East Coast. Eventually known as Charleston, it became one of the major port cities in the British Empire and later the United States.

The northern part of the colony was less fertile, being comprised of sandy coastal plain and swamps. Only the Albemarle River valley proved attractive to planters. The less productive parts of the region attracted people on the run looking for a place to hide. Escaped slaves, Indian refugees, and white fugitives formed maroontowns or hid out in smaller groups or by themselves. Eventually, white yeomen farmers and Scots-Irish cattle herders established a presence in the north. The more wealthy southern section split off in 1719 and both eventually became royal colonies, owned by the King.


Before it was known as Pennsylvania Colony, the lower Delaware Valley was settled by Swedes. It was briefly controlled by the Dutch, the Duke of York, and finally “given” by King Charles II to William Penn the Younger as a proprietary colony to pay back a debt to William Penn the Elder, a Quaker merchant. Translated literally as “Penn’s Woods,” Pennsylvania became known for its Quaker devotion and benevolent attitude toward the Indians. A famous treaty between William Penn and the Delaware (Lenni Lanape) leader Tammany in 1673 established good relations which were maintained for several generations. Eventually, the colonists’ land hunger and wars of empire between the English and French poisoned Indian-White relations and the region became the scene of a generations-long bloody contest for control of the land.


The region of the mouth of the Delaware River and the western shore of Delaware Bay was eventually given its independence from Pennsylvania in 1702. Known as the “Three Lower Counties Upon Delaware” before that time, Delaware Colony was “owned” by the Duke of York and William Penn alternatively before becoming independent. After independence, a colonial assembly was formed at New Castle and, freed from the Quaker influence, it became part of the plantation complex along with Maryland and Virginia.


Finally, Georgia was something of an anomaly. It was not created until after a new royal family had occupied the British throne: the German House of Hanover, characterized by the Georgian kings. In 1732, James Oglethorpe proposed to King George II the he establish a colony in America for the purpose of “reforming” debtors. People who had borrowed money but could not repay were imprisoned until someone saw fit to pay their debts and indenture them until the debt was paid. Georgia Colony also served as a buffer between the valuable South Carolina colony and the threatening Spanish presence in Florida. There was no legislature, no land ownership, no buying and selling of commodities, and no blacks allowed in the colony.

The coastal plain of Georgia colony and the Savannah River valley were both ideal for growing rice, however, and planters soon began moving into the area. Open slave auctions began to be conducted at the port town of Savannah and by 1752, Oglethorpe returned the land to the King, his experiment having failed.

There were many other colonies that either failed or were swallowed up by those that became the original thirteen that formed the United States. Each was very different from the other, and New England, the middle colonies, and the South were each very different from each other regionally. These differences would be exacerbated after independence from Britain, and a blood civil war would be fought before a lasting modicum of unity could be achieved.