LIFE IN COLONIAL AMERICA
Haven't you always wondered what it would be like to live in the colonies in America, centuries ago? If you have, then you can stop just wondering, and start knowing. If you haven't wondered, start wondering! Now, join me on this adventure into the past…
Interactions Between Native Americans & Colonists
At first, Native Americans were used as slaves. Christopher Columbus took some Native Americans back to England as slaves. Over time, Native Americans were no longer used for slavery, replaced by Africans. Native Americans showed colonists how to grow corn, trap fish, find wild herbs, use snowshoes, and make fur clothing, canoes, and moccasins. They regarded the colonists either as brothers or gods. Some colonists liked the Native American lifestyle so much that they would not return to the colonies until they were forced to.
Over time, though, the Native Americans found that the colonists were far from gods. The colonists used to buy lands from the Native Americans, which the Native Americans thought was strange; the Native Americans believed that the land owned them, not the other way around. But, as time progressed, the colonists started taking land without paying, pushing the Native Americans farther and farther west. Some tribes resisted the colonists. Most of these tribes were massacred. Other tribes negotiated with the colonists, though they never got great deals.
Then there were tribes that the colonists did not directly kill, but destroyed nonetheless. These were the tribes affected by the diseases the colonists brought. It isn't that America was a disease-free utopia before colonists appeared--it's that they had been separated from Europe, Asia, and Africa for so long. Due to their separation, they did not experience the same diseases, and they did not develop similar immunities, as the colonists had. This caused them to be much more affected by diseases that the colonists brought than the colonists themselves.
Courtship, Marriage, & Families
Back in the day, marriages were more business relations than marriages. Most girls would marry as young as 13. It was disgraceful for a female to be over 25 and yet unmarried. Wealthy children inherited part of the family fortune when they got married. Once their spouses died, people got remarried very quickly, since this is how they could contribute to the colony--by working together. Though marriages differed throughout the colonies, most people, especially women, had been married several times.
Card-playing and dancing were popular wedding activities. When there was more work, women were more equal, but the men were still usually the masters of the marriage. The men owned everything. They had the right to hire out their wife's services, or beat her. Divorce was only allowed if adultery had been committed, so it was illegal for women to run away when they were beaten. Most women ran away anyway, except for the upper-class ones, for fear that they should be deemed "unladylike". In some colonies, runaway wife posters were more common than runaway slave posters!
Families were usually quite large by today's standards. This is because there was so much work to do, so children were valuable assets. The males worked in the fields while the females cooked and watched the small children. Small children did small chores, such as feeding animals and turning the roast. Houses were crowded, with people of many different relations all in the same house. Neighbors were also family, and neighborhoods were as large as 50 miles around.
Religious rituals were very important to colonists. Usually, the only book a family owned would be the Bible. They would read it, and once they finished it, they would read it over, and over, and over. On Sunday, the Sabbath day, there was no jumping, fishing, riding, or dancing allowed. Church officials made sure that everyone got to church, and behaved while they were there. Families were summoned to services by drums, shells, bells, and/or a conch. In the center of New York, there was a cage for boys who had misbehaved on Sabbath day or in church.
The Seating Committee decided where people should sit in the church. They arranged people by social class, gender, and age. In the northern colonies, the sermon lasted two to three hours. The prayer was only a bit shorter. Afterwards, people would go to the noon house to eat and chat. In the southern colonies, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer limited the sermon to 20 minutes. However, people came early to read ads, do business, and discuss tobacco and livestock prices. In the south, after the prayer, people would stroll around the church. The church was usually the only place to socialize, advertise, and party in the entire colony, aside from the tavern, if there was one.
Food & Eating (blech!)
Food was abundant, but it was hard to prepare. Due to this, the food usually tasted quite bad. Since there was very limited knowledge about nutrition, people were usually lean and scrawny. Corn was usually the most important food in a colonist's diet. Foods from the motherland were delicacies. These included coffee, tea, raisins, lemons, and wine. Though these could be grown in America, they were not; these foods were imported from Europe.
Wealthy people could afford to hire a cook. Most families could not, though. Usually, the whole family helped to prepare food. The mother supervised the grinding, hewing, and churning. Due to the lack of refrigeration, vegetables and scraps were kept good by constantly boiling them in a large iron pot. Since cooking was done over a fire, most utensils had long handles to prevent burning. Meat was salted, pickled, smoked, or roasted to preserve it. Root vegetables were buried in the cellar. Fruit was hung from threads in the kitchen to dry. All in all, colonial food wasn't all that good.
Trade & Business
Land trade routes had to be cleared, and ships and ports had to be built, causing trade to get off to a slow start. Eventually, the southern colonies traded tobacco and cotton for food with the middle colonies. Merchants made colonial America a smaller place by exchanging not only goods, but also ideas and news. They were an old-fashioned sneakernet. As roads improved, taverns began to appear, quickly followed by retail shops. People started to get stuff from advertisements for pleasure, not just necessity.
Fun & Leisure (yay!)
For fun, children played games such as tag, hopscotch, cat's cradle, and marbles. Children in America still play these games today. Children also played with dolls made with corncobs. Husking bees helped to reduce the amount of work by introducing some fun into it. At husking bees, people husked corn while chatting with each other. Another thing that worked on the same principle as a husking bee was a house or barn raising. At these, people helped build houses or barns.
Women had lots of hard work to do and little fun, so they had quilting bees. Quilting bees sometimes lasted for days. At quilting bees, cloth was carefully cut out and stitched together to make very cool quilts. Fairs were a great place to do business and have fun. At fairs, people bet on horses, set dogs on bulls, and had rooster fights. They also tried to catch greased pigs! Wealthy people held balls. They hired musicians and dancers. In the winter, fun indoor activities were dancing and playing cards. And, of course, the outdoor ones of ice-skating, sledding, and sleighing!
Literacy, Education, & Learning
Children who lived in large towns had a better chance of going to school than those who did not. Wealthy people sent their children to the local minister or a learned relative for schooling. In the northern colonies, parents paid the teachers with goods. Later, these colonies held lotteries to finance the schools. In the southern colonies, plantations were so isolated that a few neighbors would hire another neighbor as a teacher. There was no concept of "public school" in the southern colonies.
In New England, children learned everything from religion to reading, except for arithmetic, from the New England Primer. In the southern colonies, a Bible usually served the same purpose. In all the colonies, children learned math from the single arithmetic book that their schoolmaster had. The school itself was usually a gloomy, one room house. Children wrote with ink on tree bark. All in all, though, education was better in the northern colonies, resulting in higher literacy rates. In the northern colonies, 90% of males could write their names, compared to 40% in the southern colonies. 40% of females could also write their names in the northern colonies, compared to 25% in the southern.
Death & Associated Rituals
In the colonies, death was a normal thing. Just an old friend, back to visit again. In 1775, the average life expectancy in the colonies was 36 years for females and 34 years for males. Funerals were extremely social events. Very expensive items were given to all guests that attended. In Boston, it was illegal to have a funeral on a Sunday due to the fact that children following the funerary procession were too noisy. In the northern colonies, graves were on family land. Eventually, cemeteries developed by the town meetinghouses. In the southern colonies, people were buried by trees in the same place where their ancestors had been buried.
Small Farm Lifestyle:
Most colonists depended on farming for their livelihood. These colonists were wasteful farmers. They cleared forests and mined the soil. Once they had exhausted the resources, they moved to new land. The family was the jack-of-all-trades. They ate, lived in, and wore only what they grew or made. Due to this, only rudimentary homemade tools were used. Plows were scarce. If someone had a plow, they would usually do the plowing for all their neighbors, too. What the family grew or made and did not use was sold or traded in the town. Shipping goods to other colonies was very expensive, so it was reserved for larger farms. The soil in the northern colonies was boulder-filled. There was an early frost. In the south, many slaves died from working in disease-filled swamps. Cattle grazed and hogs roamed around until November, when they were slaughtered.
The frontier was then defined as the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys and the Great Lakes. Most of the frontiersmen were German, Scottish, Irish, or Jewish. They had come to America and found the existing settlements "too crowded", so they had moved inland. The frontier life was hard, but there was peace and a sense of freedom along with that. This made the frontiersmen more confident and independent than the townspeople. Frontiersmen, who were sometimes called squatters, farmed all of the land available to them. They also got food by hunting and trapping. When they felt that settlements were getting too close to them, they moved farther inland.
Slaves & Slavery
Quite contrary to the first Native Americans that the Europeans encountered being slaves, the first Africans in America were indentured servants. Indentured serventry is a temporary legal status. An indentured servant works for a couple of years for someone without any pay in exchange for something, such as the voyage to America. Businesses expanded, though, and people found that slaves were less expensive than indentured servants in the long run. Before slavery started in America, slaves were usually considered part of the family. Some of them were eventually released. But the colonists started a new form of slavery, in which they treated the slaves worse than they would livestock.
The colonists bought many, many slaves, especially in the southern colonies. Then they began to fear a possible rebellion due to the fact that the slaves outnumbered them significantly. Due to this, they made restrictive laws: slaves couldn't legally get married, sue, carry weapons, or stay out after curfew. Slaves worked 10-12 hours a day. Household slaves had it a little easier. Families were broken up. Rebels would avoid chores, escape, and/or kill their masters. If they were caught, they would be hanged or have their heads impaled with poles as an example to all the other slaves.
Many colonists were middle-class indentured servants. Wealth was not as important as a fresh start for these people. In the northern colonies, the son of an indentured servant had all the same opportunities as the son of his father's old master. In the southernn colonies, a few families controlled thousands of acres of land. The wealthy did band together, though, to create an elite upper-class. Frontiersmen regarded townspeople as "swindlers". Townspeople thought of frontiersmen as "savages", just like they thought of the Native Americans, who they expected to stay on the frontier. Slaves were considered a threat if free. The clothes you wore would determine your social class.
That's all folks! If you actually read this entire writeup, verbatim, give yourself a pat on the back!