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Economic Activities of the Middle Colonies

Economic activity is the backbone of growing a sustainable region. The process allows citizens to engage in, distribute, and consume goods and services. But what were the main economic activities of the Middle Colonies in early history? 

The main economic activities of the Middle Colonies included agriculture and farming due to longer growing seasons and rich, fertile land. Other activities included raising livestock, shipbuilding and logging, iron ore mining, textile production, fur trading, and papermaking. 

Continue reading to learn more about the early history and economic activities of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware — the four Middle Colonies.  

Main Economic Activities of the Middle Colonies 

The Middle Colonies of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware served as the center of distribution and trade in Colonial America. They were also the most fertile agricultural lands, in contrast to the rockier Northern Colonies and the plantation-dominated Southern Colonies. 

Economic activity is the act of producing, buying, or selling products and services (source). 

More specifically, the essential characteristics of economic activity include managing resources that result in the ability to produce goods and services, distribute those goods or services, and thus allow citizens to consume or purchase them (source). 

This may seem more significant in our current economy and world, but this is far from the case. While the resources we use and the goods and services we sell differ from earlier generations, economic activity has been part of the growth of society since the beginning of time.  

In many ways, the Middle Colonies were just that — a middle ground, a more tolerant and diverse location that became the center of a growing nation. And soon, the Middle Colonies would earn a reputation as the breadbasket colonies. 

Image by Jude Infantini via Unsplash

Breadbasket Colonies

With milder winters and summers filled with abundant sunshine and rain, the growing season was longer and allowed for incredibly fertile farming in the Middle Colonies. For this reason, we often refer to these four as the “breadbasket colonies.”   

The Middle Colonies grew more food than anywhere else in the newly growing region, becoming a source of food and grain for nearby colonies and exportation to England.  

Farmers, like today, produced more than they could consume and sold crops and other goods in nearby cities and other colonies, including New York and Philadelphia, both of which became central to trade. 

They stored wheat, the main crop of these colonies, in flour mills where farmers ground it into flour to make bread. Additionally, farmers often ground other abundant grains, including rye and corn. These grains became cash crops for the central states. 


Pennsylvania became a center of agricultural production and a leading food producer, including harvesting wheat and corn and raising cattle for meat and dairy. With a growing manufacturing industry, Pennsylvania also became a hub of homespun textile production, paper making, and shipbuilding.

With a fertile landscape suited for farming, from its inception, Pennsylvania became a leader in agriculture among the breadbasket colonies. Wheat and corn were the most profitable crops, though other crops included rye, hemp, and flax (source).

It wasn’t only agriculture that was prominent in Pennsylvania, however. The colony exported and manufactured goods, too, including iron ore and textiles. 

Since its inception, Pennsylvania also became a safe haven for immigrants suffering from religious persecution in England, one of whom was the colony’s founder, William Penn.

William Penn

William Penn joined the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, at a young age, despite creating conflict with his own father, Sir William Penn. He would soon become a significant contributor and supporter of religious toleration in England, publishing over 40 books and pamphlets and suffering imprisonment four times.

Under this guise, Penn sought a homeland where religious outsiders could live in peace.

After Sir William Penn’s death, King Charles II of England settled a debt with the prominent Anglican family by granting William Penn land south of the colony of New Jersey, which the king called “Sylvania,” Latin for “woods” (source). 

Together, the name “Penn” (after William Penn’s father) and “Sylvania” became the state we know today as Pennsylvania.

Founding the new colony in 1682, William Penn soon set forth key democratic principles that would lay the foundation for the U.S. constitution. 

For instance, religious “outsiders,” including the Quakers and Penn himself, began to institute a system whereby settlers could enjoy full freedom of religion, fair and balanced trials, and elected representatives for positions of power.  

New Jersey

Like Pennsylvania, agriculture was a significant aspect of economic activity in New Jersey, but it centered more on livestock breeding. And conversely, while they mined and manufactured iron in Pennsylvania, it was a larger, more significant industry in New Jersey.

Major raw materials and natural resources allowed for the exportation of agricultural products, including cattle, various grains and rice, and indigo. 

And, because iron ore was a prominent resource, New Jersey was responsible for manufacturing products, including plows, farming tools, kettles, locks, nails, and blocks of iron to export back to England.

Founded earlier than Pennsylvania in 1664 by Lord Berkley and Sir George Carteret, New Jersey also promised a government based on representation and religious freedoms. People sought these freedoms and hoped to avoid the suffering, turmoil, and persecution that existed elsewhere. 

New York

Economic activities in New York focused similarly on farming and agriculture with the addition of other crops that included rice and indigo, a plant that settlers could use to produce a deep blue dye.

Indigo production in New York wasn’t quite as successful as elsewhere, however, and given its modest success, the crop became more prosperous in some of the Southern Colonies over time (source). 

New York produced wheat and grain with more lucrative success. And raising cattle became a main economic activity for the colony as well. 

As far as manufacturing, New York focused on shipbuilding and iron. Additional economic activities included fur trading, timber trading, and shipping.

New York was a central breadbasket colony, given its surplus of crops, especially wheat. In addition, because of its proximity to the ocean, the economy continued to grow and diversify to include fishing, and the growth of the merchant port of New York allowed for the expansion of distribution networks.

Like the other Middle Colonies we’ve mentioned thus far, New York prided itself on diversity. Colonists from continents across the world immigrated to this new land they would soon call home.  

Duke of York

The King of England, Charles II, gifted the Dutch Colony of New Netherland to his brother, James, the Duke of York, by secret royal patent (source).

Once known as the “New Netherland,” when inhabited by the Dutch, England sent a fleet to conquer the region, renaming it “New York” in 1664.

The area was under much upheaval from political instability and ethnic tensions, and these problems did not immediately subside with the Duke.


What is now Delaware was once the colony of New Sweden. In that sense, Delaware was one of the earliest of the Middle Colonies since Dutchman Peter Minuit and the New Sweden Company founded it in 1638.

In 1610, English explorer Samuel Argall named the Delaware River after Virginia’s governor Thomas West, Lord De La Warr. The Dutch and Swedes entered the region around 1615, but the Swedish built the first permanent settlement at Fort Christina in 1638 with help from Minuit, a former director of New Netherland (source).

The Dutch captured Fort Christina in 1655, and it was part of the territory James, Duke of York, captured in 1664. Subsequently, the Lower Counties on Delaware became part of Pennsylvania in 1682.

The area was less diverse than the other three Middle Colonies but represented many of Dutch, English, and Swedish origin.

In Delaware, the economy was much more “mixed,” primarily supported by massive forests, and developed a thriving lumber industry. The colony both traded and shipped lumber while also profiting from agriculture and farming, producing grains, rice, and, like New York, indigo.

Natural Resources 

As we’ve learned, natural resources in the Middle Colonies were plentiful and included fertile farmlands, timber from surrounding forests, and iron ore. Each of these resources resulted in the growth and development of a thriving economy. 

The soil of this area resulted in highly fertile farmlands and a thriving agricultural industry.

Fertile Farmlands

With farmlands that contained such fertile soil from surrounding rivers and melting glaciers, the Middle Colonies were, as we’ve previously stated, a major exporter of wheat and other grains (source). Farms ranged in size from 50 to 150 acres, many of which were incredibly prosperous.

Farmers were able to grow plentiful staple crops, crops that they both needed and could then export. With such fertile soil and an abundance of sunshine and rain during the warm summer months, the area was much more fertile, and the growing season was a lot longer than that of northern New England. 

Moderate Climate

The Middle Colonies enjoyed a mild climate and warm temperatures throughout the summer. It was with such a moderate climate that the growing season was longer and resulted in a surplus of crops, most especially grain. 

To the north, winters were longer and temperatures colder. To the south, the opposite was true, with much hotter summers and less rain. Thus, in these Middle Colonies, the climate supported an agricultural industry that could thrive due to such fertile farmlands and moderate temperatures.

Major Exporter of Wheat

Because the Middle Colonies could produce more than they needed, especially wheat, they became a major exporter of grain and food products. The grain was ground into flour, stored, and used for bread-making at home and abroad.

The colonies began selling the grain to other colonies for them to utilize, as well as shipping out of the ports of New York and Philadelphia. The exportation of wheat was an important economic activity, if not the most important of the Middle Colonies. 

Shipbuilding Industries

The shipbuilding industry was profitable because of the resource of lumber prominent throughout the Middle Colony regions. Given this surplus and wide abundance of wood, shipbuilding was integral in allowing for the exportation of goods via ships constructed from lumber. 

Initially, shipbuilding was important for fishing alone, but once settlers facilitated trade via water routes, the demand for shipbuilding only grew. These ships were integral to the growth of this blossoming region to reach new areas with exports and trade purposes.

Large Plantations

While we recognize the Southern Colonies most for large-scale plantations and the use of slaves, the Middle Colonies certainly shared in the plantation and agricultural growth that drove the economy. 

A large part of the labor force included slaves who worked these plantations and, sadly, had little to no rights. Plantations were important for crop growth in the Middle Colonies and ranged dramatically in size, depending on use.

Families lived on these large plantations, and they included residences, barns, silos to store wheat and grain, and vast open flatlands. Notably, the Quakers were some of the earliest abolitionists. 

To learn more about southern plantations and the use of slave labor, please read “Main Economic Activities of the Southern Colonies.”

Fur Trade

The fur trade was also a part of the economic activity of the Middle Colonies. Settlers harvested a variety of furs that, in exchange, they could sell for necessary goods, including blankets, clothing, and cloth. One of the main furs was beaver fur. 

The fur trade was most prominent in both New York and New Jersey, and many people depended on fur trading as a main source of income. 

The Native American Iroquois were a significant part of the fur trade and became involved with the early settlers as well as Dutch and British merchants. The Iroquois traded fur for other items such as firearms, iron tools, blankets, and other things (source). 

Unfortunately, this resulted in the “Beaver Wars,” as the American Indians and settlers fought over maintaining new trapping and hunting grounds.

Textiles Production

Textile production began as soon as settlers arrived in the region, though most textiles included homespun fabrics and coarse cloth that they produced in small amounts from cotton, linen, and wool. 

The industry was less successful than the agricultural industry, though it still held a place in economic activity among the Middle Colonies. 

The British government established the colonies as sources of raw materials and exportation of goods to England for textile production. Most often, textiles were utilized and produced in small amounts from wool and flax, and settlers used these textiles for various purposes at home. 

Navigation Acts

It’s important to remember that the colonies were under British rule, and while an ocean away, England felt the purpose of the colonies was to build and sustain British power.  The Navigation Acts were a way to do just that.

These “acts” were a series of laws that restricted colonial trade. The British Parliament stated that only English ships could bring goods to England, and they prevented North American colonies from trading with other European nations (source).

Some viewed the economic impact as minimal, but the Navigation Acts certainly resulted in a burden on the Middle Colonies as well as the other initial nine colonies of the New England and Southern regions. 

Their purpose was to avoid anti-British feelings and sentiments, though these acts ultimately resulted in a lot of negative feelings toward the British and became part of the reason for the American Revolution. 

Cultural Regions in Colonial America

There were three main, distinct cultural regions in Colonial America, including the New England colonies, the Southern Colonies, and, as we’ve covered here, the Middle Colonies. 

The New England colonies differed from the Middle Colonies significantly in their landscape. With rocky soil, colder temperatures, and long winters, agriculture was not as prominent, and the area relied more heavily on fishing and whaling.

The Southern Colonies did enjoy fertile lands and coastal plants, but crops differed significantly in this region and included tobacco, rice, and indigo. Wealthy plantation owners controlled the land and relied on the slave trade as a main source of labor. 

And finally, the Middle Colonies became what we know as the breadbasket colonies, with major production and exportation of grains and wheat. This article was written for

Together, these three distinct regions would propel the region toward a growing economy that resulted in sought-after independence from Britain. Read “13 American Colonies Timeline: Dawn of the Colonial Era” for an overview.

Final Thoughts

Economic activities in the Middle Colonies sustained the region as it continued to grow and eventually sought independence from Britain.

The main economic activities in this region were primarily agriculture and food production, given the more moderate climate and immensely fertile farmlands.

Known as the breadbasket colonies, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Delaware became a hub of wheat production and exportation, among other natural resources that were both utilized at home and traded with other colonies and England.