Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Religion and Culture in North America, 1600–1700

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In 1607, the first permanent British colony was established in Jamestown in the Chesapeake Bay region by the Virginia Company, a joint stock company that received a charter from King James I and sold shares to raise funds. The colonists, led by Captain John Smith, settled at the mouth of the James River. Early years were difficult; the colonists faced conflicts with natives, starvation, and difficulties finding stable sources of food and support. Experiments with tobacco proved successful and the exportable commodity became Virginia's main source of revenue, providing many of its landowning gentry a comfortable lifestyle throughout the next century and beyond. Half of the settlers in the southern colonies came to America as indentured servants—laborers working on four- to seven-year contracts to repay an agency or person for passage across the Atlantic. Once free of their contract, they were given a small tract of land in the colony. The exception to this rule was African slaves.


The first emigrants to New England brought books with them and continued to import printed materials directly from London.

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Lord Baltimore of England founded the colony of Maryland. He was Catholic and drew up a charter allowing the establishment of churches of all religions. By the third quarter of the seventeenth century, Virginia and Maryland had established a strong economic and social structure; they were agrarian societies with expansive farmlands along the region's rivers. The planters of the tidewater region, using abundant slave labor, had large houses, an aristocratic way of life, and a desire to follow the art and culture of Europe. Less wealthy German and Scots-Irish immigrants settled inland, populating the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia as well as the Appalachian Mountains. Those on the frontier built small cabins and cultivated corn and wheat.

The Mid-Atlantic region was the second area of North America to be settled by European immigrants. In 1609, the Dutch East India Company sent Henry Hudson to explore the area around present-day New York City and the river north. His claims led to the establishment of a colony named New Netherlands. Its capital, New Amsterdam, looked like a Dutch town, with its winding streets, canals, brick houses, and gabled roofs. The Dutch focused on the fur trade, exchanging European-made metal utensils with the local Iroquois who controlled the industry. To finance settlement, rich Dutch gentlemen who agreed to transport fifty people to America received enormous estates along the Hudson. These "patroons" ruled their lands like feudal lords, and grew immensely wealthy from the labor and crops of the tenant farmers who settled on their land (52.77.46). In 1664, the British took control of New Netherlands and the name of the territory was changed to New York. The Dutch settlers were able to retain their properties and worship as they please. The Colonial Dutch style of art and life remained pervasive in New York throughout the eighteenth century (09.175).

In 1611, William Penn, a wealthy Quaker and friend of King Charles II of England, received a large tract of land west of the Delaware River. Penn encouraged other European religious dissenters to emigrate by promising them religious freedom. Quakers, Amish, Baptists, and Mennonites settled along the Delaware River. The middle colonies remained more tolerant of nonconformity than New England and the South. Pennsylvania grew rapidly. German farmers, mostly from the Rhine region, settled in the countryside of Pennsylvania, establishing prosperous farms and the industries of weaving, shoemaking, and cabinetmaking. In the early eighteenth century, large numbers of Scots-Irish also settled in the rural areas of Pennsylvania, supporting themselves with hunting and farming. By 1685, Pennsylvania's population was almost 9,000. Within a hundred years, its main city, Philadelphia, had 30,000 inhabitants.

New England was the third region to be settled. Religious dissenters actively sought to reform the Church of England. A group of these "Separatists" (later known as "Pilgrims") left England for Holland, then looked to the English land claims for a settlement where they could establish their own religious experiment. Their ship, the Mayflower, landed in Plymouth. A larger and more prosperous group of 900 Puritans, led by the lawyer John Winthrop, emigrated in 1630. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, centered in Boston, ruled itself rather than be governed by company directors in England. Most of the settlers came over as whole families, and tried to re-create, as closely as possible, their lives in England.

Not all the English emigrants adhered to the Puritan lifestyle. When Massachusetts banished the young minister Roger Williams for his unorthodox views, he purchased land from the Narragansett Indians in the area around Providence, Rhode Island. This colony instituted the separation of church and state and freedom of religion (L.2001.53.4). At the same time, other areas were settled along the Maine and New Hampshire coasts and the Connecticut River valley.

The first New Englanders built towns of tightly clustered houses and small gardens. Homes were two-room dwellings (one room upstairs, one down) anchored by a single fireplace and chimney (Hart House). Few settlers were able to take more than a chest or box with them across the Atlantic Ocean, so nearly all the furnishings for their new life were made by hand with local materials (10.125.685). Immigrant craftsmen continued to make furniture that carried on the decorative tradition of their homeland (1995.98). By the 1700s, many villages had grown into thriving communities and houses had commonly doubled in size and accommodation (Hart Room; 36.127).

Education was very important to the early colonists. From the very beginning, institutions of learning were established in New England, from town-subsidized grammar schools to universities. The first emigrants to New England brought books with them and continued to import printed materials directly from London, including works of history, classical literature, science, and theology, as well as volumes of pattern books for silversmiths and furniture makers, and prints that were copied for needlework patterns.

David Jaffee
Department of History, City College and Graduate Center, CUNY