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13 American Colonies Timeline: Dawn of the Colonial Era

When the American Colonies were ready to declare their Independence from Great Britain in 1776, the Second Continental Congress consisted of representatives from 13 colonies. However, when were each of the American colonies officially established?

The English established the first American colony at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, and the last was Georgia in 1732. Some, like Connecticut Colony (1662) and Rhode Island (1663), existed long before they received an official royal charter. Others, like Delaware (1704), had their own legislature while sharing a governor with a larger colony.

The American Colonies remained under British control from 1607 to 1776, beginning with the establishment of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 and ending with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Continue reading to learn when English settlers officially established each colony.

North America

The original 13 British colonies emerged along the Atlantic coast of North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, from what is now Maine to Georgia. However, the first permanent European settlement in America emerged in the 16th century, as did the first English attempts at colonizing America.

Prior European Settlement

Before English colonization, the Spanish, French, and Dutch were active in North America. After Christopher Columbus explored the West Indies on behalf of the Spanish Crown in 1492, his brother established the first European settlement in the Western Hemisphere at Santo Domingo in 1496.

Additionally, the Spanish established the first European settlement in what is now the United States at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565 to discourage the settlement of French Protestants in the region.

As a result, most French settlements were much further north, and they eventually established New France around Quebec, Canada, in 1608. Meanwhile, the Dutch settled along the Hudson River, establishing New Netherland in 1613, and the Swedes settled along the Delaware River, establishing New Sweden in 1628.

English Settlement

Minor nobles like Sir Walter Raleigh made the first English attempts to colonize North America in the 1580s with private funds. Unfortunately, these ventures failed miserably, such as Raleigh’s colony on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.

The high risks involved in establishing colonies led brave merchants to pool their resources in a “joint-stock company.” By doing so, they could spread the financial risk among a larger group so that no single individual had to bear the full cost of failure.

In a joint-stock company, stockholders own and operate the company as a business, intending to make money from goods and services. Each shareholder or stockholder owns a piece of the company, their “share” (source).

King James I initiated the first successful wave of English settlements by granting charters to joint-stock companies like the Virginia Company of London and the Plymouth Company. He granted the southern half of the Atlantic seaboard to the Virginia Company and the northern half to the Plymouth Company (source).

Three Types of English Colony

There were three basic types of English colonies: charter, royal, and proprietary. The Crown issued charters for all three, but each had a distinct form of government.

Charter ColonyThe king granted a corporate charter to a company that governed without direct interference from the king.
Proprietary ColonyA proprietor or multiple proprietors chose the governor while proprietors acted as absentee landlords.
Royal ColonyA colony that the king governed directly by appointing the governor and council.

Many colonies began as charter colonies or proprietary colonies before eventually becoming royal colonies.

Most were royal colonies in 1775 except for the proprietary colonies of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland and the remaining corporate colonies of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Meanwhile, Delaware had its own legislature but still shared a governor with proprietary Pennsylvania up to that point.

Land Grants

To encourage settlement of the colonies, the king would grant land to the governing bodies of the colonies, whether through a company, proprietor, or royal governor. 

For instance, the king granted the investors in the Virginia Company control over all lands in the region they called Virginia that professing Christian kings or people, such as the Spanish, did not already own (source).

Thus, investors in the Virginia Company controlled all initial land claims, and then the Virginia Company would distribute the land through land grants. Once the king took over the colony, subsequent land grants came through the royal governor and his council.

Chronological Timeline of Colonies

The following chronological timeline lists each colony’s “official” establishment by date. Many of these colonies had settlers well before receiving an official charter, and some of these colonies absorbed smaller ones with prior charters.

ColonyFirst CharterDateSettlementDateStatus in 1775
VirginiaCorporate1606Jamestown1607Royal
Massachusetts Corporate1629Plymouth
Boston
1620
1629
Royal
MarylandProprietary1632St. Mary’s City1634Proprietary
Rhode IslandCorporate1644;
1663
Providence1636Corporate
ConnecticutCorporate1662Hartford
New Haven
1636
1638
Corporate
South CarolinaProprietary1663;
1691
Charles Town1670Royal
North CarolinaProprietary1663;
1691
Edenton1660Royal
New YorkProprietary1664New Amsterdam/
New York City
1626 (Dutch)
1664 (English)
Royal
New JerseyProprietary1664Jersey City1664Royal
New HampshireRoyal1679Hilton Point (Dover)1629Royal
PennsylvaniaProprietary1681Philadelphia1681Proprietary
DelawareProprietary1704Fort Christina (Wilmington)1628 
(New Sweden)
Proprietary
GeorgiaTrustees1732Savannah1733Royal
source: strategiesforparents.com

The Second Continental Congress was the first to have delegates from all 13 colonies when it first convened in 1775: Virginia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, South Carolina, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and Georgia (source).

Virginia (1606)

Between 1584 and 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to establish a colony on Roanoke Island, which he named Virginia in honor of Elizabeth I, who never married. The first English settlement in North America was actually in what is now North Carolina, but the settlement attempt failed.

Instead, the first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States was at Jamestown, Virginia, which the Virginia Company established in 1607 through a royal charter they obtained from King James I in 1606 (source).

Mismanagement of the colony by the Virginia Company eventually led King James I to recharter Virginia as a royal colony in 1624. King James I appointed a royal governor and approved the Virginia Assembly in 1627.

Massachusetts (1629)

Originally, the Massachusetts Bay Company was a joint-stock company established in 1628 to trade fish and furs in New England, but it became a vehicle for non-separatist Puritans to establish a religious commonwealth (source).

Led by John Winthrop, the Puritans obtained a charter from Charles I for Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629. The patentees elected Winthrop as governor of the colony before departure and elected to move the management of the charter to the colony itself. Upon arrival in the new world, the Puritans established Boston in 1630.

Image by Chewsty15 via Pixabay

However, they were not the first Puritan settlers in Massachusetts since separatist Puritans established Plymouth Colony in 1620. Later, Massachusetts Bay would absorb Plymouth Colony in 1691 by a royal charter from King William and Queen Mary.

Maryland (1632)

Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore, established the Province of Maryland in 1632 as a proprietary colony with a charter from Charles I. Celcilus’s father, George Calvert, first petitioned the king for the charter, but it passed to Cecilius after his death in 1632 (source).

As a Catholic, Cecilius named the Colony of Maryland in honor of Charles I’s Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria, and it would serve as a haven for Catholics. Later, settlers arrived in 1634 and established St. Mary’s City.

After a band of Puritans overthrew the Catholic governor in 1689, the Lords of Trade temporarily revoked Lord Baltimore’s charter, making Maryland a royal colony from 1692 to 1715. 

However, the Crown restored the proprietorship once Benedict Calvert, the Fourth Lord Baltimore, converted to Anglicanism. After that, Maryland remained a proprietary province until 1776.

Rhode Island (1644; 1663)

Roger Williams was a minister whose controversial views on religious liberty resulted in his banishment from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636. Welcomed by the Narragansett Indians, he established Providence in what is now Rhode Island in 1636.

However, when the neighboring New England colonies formed the New England Confederation and deliberately excluded Rhode Island, Roger Williams had to rush to England to secure a charter for his colony in 1644.

At that time, Parliament was at war with King Charles I during the First English Civil War (1642-1646), so Parliament issued the corporate charter for Providence Plantations and not the king.

As a result, after the restoration of the monarchy, the king declared the charter invalid. Still, Charles II granted a corporate charter to the Colony of Rhode Island in 1663, permitting self-government (source). This charter remained in effect until 1842.

Connecticut (1662)

Connecticut Colony had been around since the establishment of Hartford in 1636, but Connecticut Colony received its first corporate charter from Charles II in 1662.

Prior to that, Dutch traders from New Amsterdam established Fort Hoop in 1633, but Englishmen from Massachusetts Bay under John Steele established the first settlement in 1635. Likewise, English settlers under Thomas Hooker and Samuel Stone came to Hartford in 1636 (source).

In 1639, they established the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which served as their framework of government until 1662. The Fundamental Orders are interesting in that they make no mention of the Crown (source).

While Connecticut managed to get by with this under the Puritan Commonwealth in England (1649–1660), this left them with no real legal standing before the Crown when England restored the monarchy in 1660. As a result, the colony sent Governor John Winthrop, Jr. to secure a charter in 1662 (source).

Another group established the New Haven colony in 1638 in southern Connecticut. However, by 1665, New Haven had merged with Hartford.

When King James II appointed Sir Edmund Andros over the Dominion of New England, Andros temporarily revoked the charter of Connecticut in 1687. 

Legend has it that Captain Joseph Wadsworth hid the charter in the famous Charter Oak. However, the charter was reinstated in 1689 and served as Connecticut’s state constitution until 1818 (source).

North Carolina (Carolina 1663; North Carolina 1691)

Carolina was one of the first of the Restoration Colonies that Charles II established after returning to the throne. In 1663, he granted eight loyal supporters the proprietary colony of Carolina, which included what is now North and South Carolina.

While South Carolina would become more prominent, the earliest governors of Carolina actually governed from the Albemarle region in North Carolina. It was only after 1691 that settlers began to refer to the separate regions of Carolina as North and South Carolina (source).

By that time, the governor of the southern region would appoint a deputy governor in the northern one. However, North Carolina gained its independence from the governor of Charles Town in 1712.

Subsequently, the Lord’s Proprietors sold North Carolina to George II in 1729, making North Carolina a royal colony (source).

South Carolina (Carolina 1663; South Carolina 1691)

The first English settlement in what is now South Carolina was Charles Town, modern Charleston, settled in 1670 (source). From at least 1691 onward, settlers began to refer to the southern region of Carolina as South Carolina.

Charles Town became the seat of the proprietary government of Carolina, and the South Carolina governor administered North Carolina until 1712.

Eventually, proprietary neglect of South Carolina during the Yamasee War and pirate raids led the inhabitants to overthrow the proprietors. Thus, South Carolina became a royal colony in 1719 (source).

New York (1664)

New York was another one of the Restoration Colonies. Charles II gave his brother, James, the Duke of York, a charter in 1664, granting him the right to force the Dutch to surrender the territory of New Netherland (source).

The English successfully captured New Netherland, renaming New Amsterdam as New York and Fort Orange as Albany.

While the Dutch temporarily recaptured New York in 1673, the Peace Treaty of Westminster returned the colony to English hands in 1674 (source).

When the Duke of York became King James II, he had the Province of New York chartered as a royal colony in 1686. However, two years later, James II added New York to the Dominion of New England in 1688 until his overthrow later that year.

New Jersey (1664)

James, Duke of York, granted part of the New Netherland to Sir George Carteret and Lord Berkley of Straton. In 1665, Berkeley and Carteret established a proprietary government over New Jersey, which Carteret named after his ancestral home, the Bailiwick of Jersey.

Later, in 1674, Berkeley sold the Western portion of Jersey to Quakers, and Carteret agreed to the separation of East and West Jersey in 1676. The two were reunited as the Province of New Jersey as a royal colony in 1702.

New Hampshire (1679)

Charles II established New Hampshire as a Royal Colony separate from Massachusetts in 1679, with its own President and Council (source). Previously, Massachusetts Bay Colony had absorbed New Hampshire in 1641 and the Province of Maine by 1658.

The Plymouth Council for New England, established by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, issued a patent for the Province of Maine in 1622, with part of that province including what is now New Hampshire. Englishmen established a fishing colony there in 1623 (source).

Then, in 1629, Sir Fernando Gorges and John Mason agreed to split the charter, with Mason receiving what became the Province of New Hampshire. While New Hampshire broke away in 1679, Maine remained under the control of Massachusetts during the Colonial Period and only became a state in 1820.

Pennsylvania (1681)

Charles II granted a proprietary charter to his close friend William Penn in 1681 to discharge a debt he owed to Penn’s father. Penn also received the Lower Counties of Delaware from the Duke of York that same year.

Penn was a Quaker, a group established by Geroge Fox that sought truth by looking to an “inner light.” As a member of one of many religious sects that found itself outside the Church of England, Penn envisioned the colony as a haven for fellow religious dissidents. Pennsylvania remained a proprietary province until 1776.

Delaware (1704)

The Delaware River received its name in 1610, based on Thomas West, governor of Virginia and the 12th Baron De La Warr. A Dutch explorer helped the Swedish establish the first permanent settlement there at Fort Christina in 1638 (source).

The Lower Counties of Delaware were part of the Dutch New Netherland territory when they seized it in 1655. Subsequently, the English captured it in 1664, and it belonged to New York until it passed to Pennsylvania in 1682.

Pennsylvania governed Delaware until it received its own assembly in 1704, though its ties to proprietary Pennsylvania remained close, sharing a governor until 1776.

Georgia (1732)

In 1732, King George II granted a charter to establish the colony of Georgia and named James Oglethorpe and 20 other trustees to govern the colony. Georgia was unique in that it was the only American colony to depend on annual subsidies from Parliament (source).

Subsequently, the Trustees called for the election of Georgia’s first assembly in 1750. However, when Parliament failed to pass a subsidy for the colony in 1751, the Trustees negotiated to turn the colony over to the Crown before the charter expired. As a result, Georgia became a royal colony in 1752.

New England Colonies Facts

The New England Colonies included Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. The region received its name from Captain John Smith, who wrote about his explorations there in A Description of New England (1616).

The rocky soils and cold climate of New England meant that agriculture was not as important as fishing, forestry, and mercantile interests. 

Religious Freedom

Also, while the focus of the other colonies was primarily economic, the New England Colonies were particularly focused on religious freedom. To learn about the economy of New England, read “Economic Activities of the New England Colonies.”

Puritans

It was a group of separatist Puritans who opposed the religious practices and authority of the Church of England that founded Plymouth Colony in 1620. 

After receiving a charter from the Virginia Company, they set sail aboard the Mayflower to the New World. However, when winds blew them off course, they landed at Cape Cod, where their charter did not apply (source).

As a result, they formed an agreement, which they called the Mayflower Compact, to serve as a form of government.

In contrast, a group of non-separatist Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Under John Winthrop, their goal was to establish a Christian commonwealth and make Boston a “Shining city on a hill.”

Roger Williams

The establishment of Congregationalism as the official religion of the colony led to objections from men like Roger Williams, who argued that political magistrates had no authority over the individual’s spiritual life (source).

When they banished him from Massachusetts in 1636, he went on to found the colony of Rhode Island and established what many believe to be the first Baptist church in America. 

Anne Hutchinson

A woman named Anne Hutchinson also ran afoul of the magistrates, but this was largely due to her opposition to religious works and her inner light view, which resembled Quakerism. 

When the magistrates banned her, she fled with a group led by William Coddington to what is now Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and they established a democratic government.

For more on the development of New England, read “Economic Activities of the New England Colonies.” For an article on the Early Republic, read “Causes of the War of 1812: A Timeline.”

Middle Colonies Facts

The Middle Colonies include New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. The Middle Colonies were highly diverse, both ethnically and religiously. 

The Melting Pot

Apart from English Anglicans, Puritans, and Quakers, other ethnic groups included Dutch Calvinists, Germans Lutherans and Mennonites, as well as the Scots-Irish Presbyterians and some Swedish Lutherans.

The Dutch and Swedes were the first European settlers in the Middle Colonies, with New Sweden centering around Delaware and New Netherland around New Amsterdam, what is now New York. The English took over these territories in 1664.

The Middle Colonies became the breadbasket of North America, with its fertile soil able to produce abundant crops of wheat and corn. For further information, read “Economic Activities of the Middle Colonies.”

Southern Colonies Facts

The Southern Colonies include Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland were the first Southern Colonies, while the others came after the English Civil War.

Cash Crops

Image by Gian Schauer via Pixabay

The Southern Colonies focused on producing cash crops, meaning crops they sold for profit instead of feeding themselves. The Chesapeake colonies focused on tobacco, while the Carolinas and Georgia grew rice and indigo. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

The economic focus on producing cash crops required large plantations, and the planters of the Southern Colonies imported large numbers of African slaves.

Final Thoughts

English colonists established the American colonies from the early 17th to the early 18th century. The first Southern Colonies were Virginia (1607) and Maryland (1632). In New England, English Puritans established Massachusetts Bay Colony (1630), while Rhode Island (1644; 1663) and Connecticut (1662) branched off from Massachusetts.

The Restoration Colonies included the Carolinas (1663) in the South and  New York (1664), New Jersey (1664), and Pennsylvania (1681) in the Middle Atlantic. Charles II also granted New Hampshire its own charter in 1679, removing it from the control of Massachusetts.

As part of Pennsylvania, the Counties of Delaware obtained their own legislature in 1704, and the last British colony was the Southern Colony of Georgia, established in 1732.