The Middle Colonies — New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania — created a unique environment of early settlement by non-English Europeans, mostly Dutch and German. English men and women were the smallest minority. These immigrants came mostly in family units that preserved a balanced sex ratio.
The Middle Colonies were the most ethnically and religiously diverse of the thirteen original colonies because of the influence of their Polish, English, Dutch, French and German origins. In this atmosphere of religious tolerance, New Netherland and New Amsterdam became the commercial center of the eastern North American colonies.
The Middle Colonies had the highest ratio of churches to population of the three sections of colonial America. Small congregations of Dutch Mennonites, French Huguenots, German Baptists, and Portuguese Jews joined larger established congregations of Dutch Reformed, Lutherans, Quakers, and Anglicans to create a unique religious society. African Americans and the indigenous Indians, with religious traditions of their own, added further variety to the Middle Colonies.
The Middle Colonies had more agriculture than the New England Colonies, where the soil was rocky and infertile, making farming very difficult. In the Middle Colonies, the soil was soft and pliable, and the area became known as the “breadbasket” of the thirteen colonies, because of their large grain export. Shorter winters meant that they could grow a larger variety of crops—maize, wheat, rye, potatoes, peas, and flax
There were many brick buildings in the Middle Colonies, due to the amount of clay along the riverbanks. The Dutch built houses that were two-and-a-half to three stories high with steep roofs. Many people had their shops and homes in the same building. Homes in the country were made of logs and chinked with moss or mud.
Food and Drink
Corn was one of the main foods eaten in the colonies. Many ate a form of pudding called cornmeal mush every day of the year. Johnny cake, bread made with cornmeal, was also popular. Vegetables were used to make soups and stews. Pies were made from gathered raspberries, strawberries, and cherries.
The Middle Colonies were full of fish, oysters and lobsters. For meat, they killed wild game. Boar was the game of choice. Wild turkeys roamed everywhere and were ripe for the picking.
Since water was sometimes impure, all members of the family drank milk and whiskey, which was made from corn, rye, wheat, and barley. The whiskey was often mixed with spices, milk, and sugar to improve the taste.
Clothing was homemade. Flax produced linen, and forest products were used to dye the cloth. Yellow came from butternut tree bark, and red from the roots of the madder herb. Blue was extracted from the flowers of indigo plants, and brown came from the hulls of black walnuts. Deerskin was used for breeches, shirts, jackets, and moccasins.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to claim and settle lands between the Connecticut and Delaware Rivers, a region they named New Netherland. The colony was highly aristocratic, with large feudal estates along the Hudson River. These grand estates, called patroonships, were granted to stockholders who promised to have fifty adults living on the estate within four years. This approach to colonization met with little luck because volunteers for serfdom were hard to find.
Although not as strict as the Puritans, the Dutch Company ran the colony in the interests of the stockholders—with little tolerance for free speech, religion, or democratic government. Peter Stuyvesant, the governor sent by the Dutch West India Company, was in absolute control of the colony’s government, but the inhabitants showed nearly total indifference to his leadership.
During a time when the Netherlands and England were experiencing hostilities, King Charles II granted his brother—James, the Duke of York—a charter for the region between Maryland and Connecticut, which included New Netherland. As was the case in New Netherland, many of the original thirteen colonies were settled as proprietorships, in which the crown granted individuals or a group of partners a charter to develop the colonies.
An English fleet soon set sail to seize the Dutch colony, and in 1664, they threatened to take over New Netherland. Governor Peter Stuyvesant couldn’t get anyone to defend the colony, and the Dutch surrendered without firing a shot. The colony was renamed New York in honor of the Duke of York, and the colony slowly acquired an English character.
Existing as a colony of Great Britain for over a century, New York declared its independence on July 9, 1776, becoming one of the original 13 states of the Federal Union. The next year, on April 20, 1777, New York’s first constitution was adopted.
Soon after the Duke of York conquered New Netherland, he granted the land between the Hudson and the Delaware Rivers to two of his friends, Sir George Carteret and Lord John Berkeley. The new territory was named New Jersey in honor of Carteret’s native island of Jersey.
To attract settlers, the two men offered land on easy terms and established freedom of religion and a relatively democratic government. The new colony grew rapidly. Several of the migrants were New England colonists who were leaving the already overworked soil of their own colonies. The two proprietors split New Jersey with a diagonal line into East and West New Jersey—Carteret taking the east side.
In 1674, Berkeley sold West New Jersey to a group of Quakers, who were formally known as the Society of Friends, were a religious group in England. They were being persecuted, killed, and imprisoned for their beliefs. They refused to pay taxes to support the Church of England, were unwilling to bow to any person of higher authority, and refused to surrender their right to worship as they pleased. They were deeply devoted to their beliefs, opposed warfare, and resorted to passive resistance whenever confronted.
But the English government was willing to put up with the Quakers in the American colonies, as long as they expanded the English presence on the Atlantic Coast. The Quakers eventually acquired East New Jersey in 1680 when Carteret died. The acquisition of New Jersey gave the Quakers a place where they could practice their religion in peace. Then in 1702, the crown reclaimed and combined East and West New Jersey into a single royal colony.
In 1631, the first settlement was attempted in Delaware by Dutch traders led by Captain David Pietersen de Vries. By 1632, the party had been killed in a dispute with the local natives. In 1638, Peter Minuet led a group of Swedish settlers to the Delaware River area under a grant from the New Sweden Company. These Swedish settlers brought the log cabin design to America.
The most important Swedish governor was Colonel Johan Printz, who ruled the colony under Swedish law for ten years, from 1643 to 1653. He was succeeded by Johan Rising, who upon his arrival in 1654, seized the Dutch post, Fort Casmir, which the governor of the Colony of New Netherland had built in 1651.
Rising governed the Swedish Colony from his headquarters at Fort Christina until the autumn of 1655, when Peter Stuyvesant came from New Amsterdam with a Dutch fleet, subjugated the Swedish forts, and established the authority of the Colony of New Netherland throughout the area formerly controlled by the New Sweden.
In 1655, the Dutch gained control of the land from the Swedish. The Dutch restored the name of Fort Casmir and made it the principal settlement of the Zuidt or South River as contrasted with the North or Hudson River. In a short time the area within the fort was not large enough to accommodate all the settlers so that a town, named New Amstel (now New Castle), was laid out.
In 1682, Delaware was awarded to William Penn, but a long dispute ensued between William Penn and Lord Baltimore of the Province of Maryland as to the exact area controlled by Penn on the lower Delaware. On October 27 of the same year, William Penn landed in America and took possession from the Duke of York’s agents as Proprietor of the lower Counties.
The dispute continued between the heirs of Baltimore and Penn until almost the end of the colonial period. In 1776 at the time of the Declaration of Independence, Delaware not only declared itself free from the British Empire, but also established a state government entirely separate from Pennsylvania.
While a student at Oxford, William Penn was attracted to the Quaker faith. He supported the belief that religion should involve a personal relationship with God, and that there was no need for an established church. He also rejected the ideas of rank and hierarchy, fancy dress, and tipping the hat in deference to superiors.
When his father died, Penn inherited a large estate, including £16,000 his father had loaned the King. In 1681, King Charles II settled the claim with Penn by granting him rights to the land north of Maryland and west of the Delaware River. The King named the land Pennsylvania, meaning Penn’s Woods.
Penn was eager to establish a refuge for fellow Quakers in Pennsylvania. When he assumed control of the area there were already several thousand Dutch, Swedish, and English “squatters” on the land, making it easier to populate the area. Penn marketed the new colony so he could attract a heavy flow of immigrants. He published glowing descriptions of the colony in various languages.
Penn promised substantial land holdings and by the end of 1681 he had encouraged a thousand immigrants to settle in Pennsylvania, and in October he arrived himself with 100 more. Pennsylvania grew rapidly because it was the best advertised of all the colonies, and no restrictions were placed on immigration to the colony.
The relationship between the Quakers and Native Americans in the region was amiable because of the Quakers’ friendliness and Penn’s policy of purchasing land from the Indians. He also tried to protect the Indians in their dealings with settlers and traders. Penn even went so far as to learn the language of the Delaware Indians, and for nearly fifty years the two groups lived in relative harmony.
Philadelphia, meaning the City of Brotherly Love, grew up at the junction of the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. It was a carefully planned city, organized on a strict grid pattern with wide tree-shaded streets, substantial brick and stone houses, and busy docks. Soon after the settlement of Philadelphia, the first migration of Germans to North America took place, creating the city of Germantown. These were the Pennsylvania Dutch, from the word Deutsch, which means “German” in the German language.
The colony was liberal and included a representative assembly elected by all of the landowners of the colony. Penn guaranteed freedom of worship to all residents, and there was no tax-supported church in Pennsylvania. He hoped to show that a government could run in harmony with Quaker principles and still maintain peace and order, and that freedom of religion could thrive without an established church.
The Quakers’ business skills and the rich soil enabled the colony to export grain and other foodstuffs after just a short time. Cottage industries such as weaving, shoemaking, and cabinetmaking also helped the colony thrive. Within just a few years the colony had over 2,500 people. By 1700, only the well established colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts were larger.
In 1682, the Duke of York granted Penn the colony of Delaware, which was the area between Maryland and the Delaware River. The colony was named after Lord De La Warr. Delaware was closely associated with Pennsylvania for many years, and in 1703 it was granted its own assembly. From then until the American Revolution it had its own assembly but remained under the governor of Pennsylvania.
The English middle colonies shared several common features. They tended to be urban and were linked by trade and commerce early on. Unlike Puritan New England or the Anglican South, there was no dominant religious group, resulting in relative tolerance among groups from Quakers to Lutherans, to Dutch Reformed and Catholics.
The area became a refuge for a variety of dissenters and religious misfits. The English authorities were willing to tolerate the religious dissention in return for the development of profitable trading centers. The cities along the coast of the middle colonies were maritime centers with ships that brought supplies from Europe and returned to Europe filled with grains, furs, and lumber for shipbuilding.
Culturally, the settlers in the middle colonies thought of themselves as Europeans and tried as much as possible to replicate the lifestyles, social relations, and cultural traditions of their homeland. Like many first-generation migrants, they saw themselves as expatriates who just happened to live outside the mother country, rather than immigrants who were intent on making something different.
The English now ruled a stretch of land that ran from Maine to the Carolinas.