Comparing Settlement Patterns: New Spain, New France, and British North America

The Spanish, French, and English all established major colonial settlements in North America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Settlement revolved around plantations and mining in New Spain, the fur trade in New France, and tobacco and the family farm in British North America.

New Spain

The Spanish were the first Europeans to establish large settlements. At its greatest extent in 1795, New Spain included Mexico, Panama, and most of the United States west of the Mississippi River, with hundreds of towns and cities. The Spanish established large projects to exploit available resources, including sugar plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean, and gold mines in Mexico.

The new government regulated everything from transatlantic commerce to the makeup of individual settlements. The Law of the Indies from 1573 decreed that all Spanish settlements be modeled on the plan of a Spanish village. Some land was available for common use, but officers and the nobility were given private land outside the city. Access to water for irrigation was strictly regulated. Amerindians also used irrigation to grow their crops and the Spanish incorporated this knowledge.

New France

The first French colony, Acadia, was founded in 1604, followed by Quebec. By 1660 there were 3,000 people living in New France. The French claimed (in modern geographical terms) most of the U.S. Midwest, Louisiana, and Canada, but there were fewer colonists than in the English and Spanish settlements.

French settlement was based on the fur trade, based on a balanced exchange with the Native Americans. The Native Americans taught the French settlers how to survive, viewing them as a better ally than the British.

In the new colony, class distinctions were not as sharp as in France, since everyone was reliant on others for survival. The plots of land were large, and settlers had a good chance of becoming prosperous.

The French established plantation-based colonies for sugar and food, including in modern-day Haiti.

British North America

English colonies in British North America eventually became the United States. In Virginia and the Carolinas, the colonies used a plantation model. Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware operated on a family-farm model.

The English failed to find gold and silver in their American colonies. The colonists grew large quantities of tobacco even though it was labor intensive. Plantation owners relied on indentured servitude and African slave labor to do the work. By 1660 there were 24,000 colonists – eight times the population of New France.

Settlement focused on the family farm and town life. Each family received 100–150 acres to farm. As towns grew, they operated as trading hubs. Boston thrived as a seaport.

Native American populations helped the English settlers stay alive, giving them supplies and teaching them how to survive. The English did not treat the Native Americans well in return, and the Native Americans and colonists were almost constantly at war.

Source: Comparing Settlement Patterns: New Spain, New France, and British North America
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