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The Middle Colonies: New York, Delaware, New Jersey & Pennsylvania

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  • 0:06 The Middle Colonies of…
  • 0:44 New Netherland Becomes…
  • 2:44 Culture of New York &…
  • 4:34 Pennsylvania and Delaware
  • 8:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Learn about the unique identity and diversity of the middle colonies that led America to be called a melting pot. English control of the middle colonies began with the takeover of New Netherland, from which all of the other middle colonies can trace their beginnings.

The Middle Colonies of the New World

The northern and southern American colonies had plenty of differences, but one thing they all pretty much had in common was ancestry. Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, the Carolinas and Georgia were all founded by Englishmen, settled by people of English descent and remained under English control throughout the colonial period. This could not be said of the middle colonies.

The mid-Atlantic territory changed hands many times, and many of the settlers came from different places for different reasons. This revolving leadership and diversity in the middle colonies led a French immigrant to observe that America was a great melting pot.

Unlike the other colonies, the middle colonies were home to a diverse group of settlers
Diversity in Middle Colonies

New Netherland Becomes New York

After more than a decade of scouting and timid settlement, the Dutch West India Company sent a party of colonists to the land they called New Netherland in 1624. They hoped to claim their share of the prosperous fur trade.

But the Dutch West India Company could never attract enough settlers from their country's own small and politically stable population. So the company gave large tracts of private land to people known as Patroons, who could sponsor at least 50 families to come to the colony, clear the land and work it. Farmers came from all over Europe. In the mid-17th century, two events added even more diversity to the population. First, the Dutch lost control of their colony in Brazil, driving many of those settlers to come to North America. Soon after that, they took control of neighboring New Sweden, which was filled with people from all over the Swedish empire. A priest visiting from New France in 1641 noted 18 different languages spoken on Manhattan alone.

Settlers in New Netherland could practice whatever religion they wanted as long as they did so privately. There was even a Jewish congregation - which would have been unthinkable in other colonies. With this diverse, peaceful, well-fed population, the rulers turned their attention to developing urban areas. Before long, New Amsterdam was the most important port on the east coast.

And so it seemed for many years that the thriving colony of New Netherland was permanent. But England believed that John Cabot's exploration in the 15th century gave them a right to the land. In fact, it was where the Pilgrims were supposed to have landed and built Plymouth. So, as soon as England ended its own civil war and the monarchy was restored, King Charles II granted all of the land that included New Netherlands to his brother, the Duke of York. In 1664, the Duke's fleet easily overtook the colony, which was renamed New York.

The Culture of New York and the Creation of New Jersey

Unlike colonists in early settlements, English immigrants to New York didn't arrive in a barren wilderness full of hardships. They arrived in a developed, cultured, thriving community, and they fully expected to continue the lifestyles they had left behind in England. Colonists paid top dollar to import many items from Europe, including things like tea, fabrics and books. Life in New York quickly developed a class structure with merchants at the top and sailors at the bottom. The more imported items the colonists purchased, the more power and money the merchants gained. Even a lot of the farmland along the Hudson River came to be owned by New York City merchants, while the farmers who worked the land were just renters. The Duke and his appointed governor opposed representative government, so most of the population had no voice, which just further entrenched the power of the elite.

In 1663, just before the King gave New York to his brother, he had granted eight of his friends a colony in the south, which they named Carolina. The Duke of York also wanted to please some of these same men, so he decided to pass along a portion of his land, New York, to two of them. The new proprietors named the northern colony New Jersey, and they came up with a plan to make money by renting all of the land. Unfortunately, this plan backfired for two reasons. First of all, the governor of New York had already granted some of that land to other settlers before he had even found out that New Jersey had been created. Two, it was just completely impractical for the proprietors to actually collect the rent. Frustrated, the two owners sold off their claims, resulting in the creation of East and West Jersey for a quarter of a century. In 1702, the territory was reunited as a royal colony.

Pennsylvania and Delaware

Back in England, a young man from an important family converted to the Quaker faith. His name was William Penn. Quakers weren't popular in England or America, and Penn was imprisoned several times. But his father was a rich and powerful man, and the king owed him a lot of money. When Penn's father died, William suggested that the king could give him land in America as repayment of the debt. The king agreed. Penn wanted to create a safe haven for Quakers, and in 1681 he began planning his new colony, which he named Pennsylvania.

Quakers, by creed, are pacifists, and it was important to Penn that his colony be on good terms with all of its neighbors. So, even though his charter made him sole proprietor and owner of all the land, Penn made an agreement with the Lenape Indians to buy the territory from them. He also purchased, or maybe leased, the land where he built Philadelphia from the Swedes. Not wanting his colony to be landlocked, Penn asked the Duke of York if he could also have the lower counties along the Delaware River (which had been part of New Sweden). The Duke granted his request. However, Penn quickly realized that the area was historically, culturally and even linguistically different from the rest of Pennsylvania. In 1701, Penn granted the region a separate colonial assembly, and called the territory Delaware.

Despite Penn's desire to be in harmony with everyone, the proprietor of Maryland disputed his border with Pennsylvania. This argument lasted more than a century, when royal surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon worked for four years establish the borderline. This so-called Mason-Dixon Line later came to represent the cultural divide between the North and the South.

Quaker William Penn
Pennsylvania Freedom

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