Life In Colonial Times

Life in colonial times was a challenge. Read how men, women, and children lived and survived in these early times.

Living in colonial times may sound exciting. Perhaps you have wished you could have lived in those days. As you learn about the early colonists and what they faced, your appreciation for the founders of this country will grow. It took brave hearts, determination, and the desire to fulfill a dream.

The first permanent English settlement was made up of a group of men who were "gentlemen". They called the settlement Jamestown in honor of King James. They came hoping to find gold--instead they found sickness, heat, hunger, hard labor, and Indians. These were men who were not used to work. They had to learn to work with their hands in order to survive. It was May of 1607.

The first dwellings the colonists had were probably forked posts supporting thatched roofs with branches woven together for the sides. These were then covered with mud. There may have been a hole in the center of the roof for the smoke from the cooking fires to escape. Eventually they built one room cabins from notched logs and filled the chinks with "wattle and daub"(a mixture of mud and straw). In some places they lived in caves for a long period of time.

Furniture was quite crude--it all had to be cut and fashioned from the forest. The settlers had brought nothing with them. They made tables, chairs, beds, plates, shovels, pitchforks, and many other things from wood. It was a long while before it could be ordered from England. Even when it could be ordered it was only some of the wealthy southern colonists who could afford it.

It wasn't long after the first settlers came that others followed--for various reasons. Some came for religious freedom. Some came as slaves or indentured servants. People came hoping to find great riches. Some were running from their past; others wanted to build a future in a new land. Once they arrived, whatever their reason, they were all faced with the same challenge: survival in an untamed land.

Some of the newer settlers that came to Jamestown were determined to make a success of the colony. After failing to find the expected gold they discovered that the land was rich ---for growing tobacco. They now had an export that would soon make the southern colonies prosperous.

Rather than detail each individual colony we will mainly look at life in general for the colonists. There will be some differences, however, mainly between the northern and southern colonies.

Farming was the main way of life for most of the early settlers. Corn was the main crop and they ate it daily. At times that was the extent of the food that they had to eat. They learned all about corn from the Indians. They learned how to dry it, boil it, crush it, and use it for money. It was used to trade for game and animal furs.

Settlers also used pumpkins in various ways. It could be dried, roasted, or mashed and mixed with cornmeal to make "pumpkin bread".

The settlers hunted for wild game but preferred to barter with the Indians for meat. It was difficult to preserve fresh meat--salting, smoking, and pickling were methods of preservation used.

Cooking was done in the fireplace (once cabins were built). These were designed for cooking as well as heat. The oven was built into part of the stone fireplace.

The early colonists had no matches. They tried to keep a fire going at all times--no matter what the season. Starting a new fire involved sending someone to a neighbor for some hot coals. When no neighbor was nearby a fire had to be started by striking sparks from a piece of flint and steel and igniting some splinters of dry firewood.

Settlers used pine torches as a popular form of lighting. It was arranged so that most of the smoke went up the chimney. Other light was made by burning fat or wax in some way.

In the northern colonies the settlers made most of the things they needed. They did not have the money or credit to import items from England. The southern colonists exported tobacco and more of them had credit with England and were able to import much of what they needed.

In the North they learned to supply their own needs. Grease was saved--it was used for lighting and making soap.

They learned to use wood in place of iron for many years. Clothing was made in the North, which involved weaving the cloth as well as fitting, cutting, and sewing the garments. In the South they imported garments from England (although some feared catching the bubonic plague from hidden fleas).

In the New England colonies, where the Puritans were, the church was the center of everything. The clergy was in complete political control.

The Puritans believed in punishing sin. When someone was caught in sin they were publically punished. Puritans believed strongly in humiliation. They locked the guilty people in the stocks or the pillory ( a frame with holes for head and hands) with a sign on them describing the sin--where everyone could see it. This was a big event. Schools were let out and people came from all around to see such sights. They would also dunk a person who was a gossip (or guilty of other such sins) from the end of a long log into a pond or lake.

Other more cruel punishment was carried out--not only in the North, but throughout the other colonies as well. The idea was that the criminal should be marked and humiliated. Whipping posts were used, flesh was branded with hot irons, and ears and hands were cut off.

One sad series of events of the early colonists involved the Puritans and their "witch hunts". They believed men and women could sell themselves to the devil and receive powers in return. They would blame unusual events, sicknesses, blemishes on people, anyone who seemed a little odd, and many other things on witchcraft. Many were convicted in New England courts and put to death. In 1693 nineteen Salem "witches" were put to death. One of the judges who had helped pass the death sentence on these people later confessed his sin.

The early colonies commonly faced danger. The greatest danger the first year was starvation. The other three remaining dangers were Indians, wolves, and fire.

Wolves, sometimes in packs of as many as five hundred, had to be eliminated. Wolves preyed upon sheep(which were desperately needed for food and clothing) and were also a physical danger. The colonists actually enjoyed wolf hunting as a sport.

Early settlers, for certain periods of time, dwelt peacefully with the Indians. The Indians taught the white men about surviving in the forest, fishing, and hunting. In spite of these things the English believed the Indians to be inferior. The Indians resented the intrusion of the white men on their hunting grounds.

Early settlements always built forts for protection. Entire towns would be built inside the fort. Settlers would move out and build cabins and plant gardens away from the fort in times of peace, only to move back during times of Indian trouble.

Farmers and tradesmen had to be trained to handle a musket. "Train bands" were organized. This provided training and instruction in the use of arms. Training Day was a time of great celebration for the colonists.

Early settlers also learned that fire was a very real enemy. Log chimneys and thatched roofs in the early houses were fire hazards. Towns had various rules about fire fighting. Some posted watchers who watched for fires during the night. Bucket brigades were used to put out fires if one started. This usually only saved the surrounding homes rather than the one on fire.

Childhood in colonial times was not easy. In fact, children in those days did not have much time for play at all. Children had to work hard, study, and be obedient and respectful. Strict discipline could determine the survival of a complete family. A boy was a man at sixteen, and girls often married at the same age.

Boys and girls in those days worked as hard as their mother and father. The boys did all the work that the father did--caring for the animals, cutting firewood, building fires, shoveling snow, getting water, sowing and weeding crops--and then he would go to school! The girls learned all the household chores that her mother did--weaving, sewing, making brooms, candles, soap, doing laundry, knitting, cooking, etc. All girls had samplers(an embroidered picture).

Play time came after chores were done if at all. It seems that girls usually had a doll of some kind. Sometimes these were made of corncobs when there was nothing else to use. Boys had homemade carved toys. Many boys had jackknives from which they could whittle various things.

Children in colonial times dressed like "little adults". Clothes were not designed for children's needs. Babies wore long dresses and petticoats (girls AND boys) even up to five and six years old.

The northern colonist's education consisted of schooling at home, or at a "dame school". This was a group of children that met at someone's home where they were taught reading, writing, and simple arithmetic. Books were hard to find. When actual public schools had their start only boys were expected to attend. Girls were not included until after the Revolution.

Education in the southern colonies was not considered a priority. Some did want to have schooling and established "field schools" (parents would get together and hire a teacher for the white children). Some wealthy families would pay for a private tutor for their children. People in the South were afraid to let their slaves be educated (they were fearful of an uprising). Laws were passed making it illegal for black people to learn to read.

The northern colonies were very strict about doing things just for recreation. They felt that these things took attention away from religion. The southern colonies, on the other hand, enjoyed and encouraged recreational activities.

Children in the South were taught to ride horses at a young age. Activities for boys included hunting, playing cards, and racing horses. People enjoyed attending plays, dances, and parties. They liked to celebrate special occasions--weddings, holidays, etc. Even the slaves were allowed an occasional party to help keep them content.

Life in colonial times was hard. As more people came and the colonies began to prosper things got somewhat easier. Tradesmen and craftsmen came to the towns and things needed for everyday life became more readily available.

It took courageous men and women to succeed in this new land. Yet they did succeed. And they set a precedent for others, with dreams of their own, to follow.

Thanks to the books "Life In Colonial America" by Elizabeth Spears and "Colonial Living" by Edwin Tunis for insights into colonial living.

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