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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. In each colony, settlement revolved around some sort of trade – plantations and mining in New Spain, the fur trade in New France, and tobacco and the family farm in British North America. There were many similarities in their approaches to settlement, but also significant differences.

New Spain

The Spanish were the first European to establish large settlements in the Americas. By the 1570s, the Spanish had established roughly 200 cities and towns in the New World. At its greatest extent in 1795, New Spain included Mexico, Panama, several Caribbean islands, and most of the United States west of the Mississippi River. In these territories, the Spanish established large projects to exploit available resources. Throughout the sixteenth century they established 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, which was passed in 1573, decreed that all Spanish settlements be modeled on the plan of a Spanish village.

Outside this grid was farm and grazing land. 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 crop and the Spanish incorporated this knowledge into their practice.

New France

The French colonized North America later than the Spanish; the first French colony, Acadia, was founded in 1604, and Quebec was founded in 1608. The French slowly established more colonies along the St. Lawrence River and in other areas where they traded. By 1660 there were about 3000 people living in New France. While by the eighteenth century the French claimed (in modern geographical terms) most of the U.S. Midwest, Louisiana, and Canada, its colonists were never as numerous as the English and Spanish.

At first, French settlement was based upon the fur trade and, to a lesser extent, fishing. Trade with the Native Americans gave the French an endless supply of furs. The trading relationship between the French and the Native Americans was balanced The Native Americans taught the French settlers how to survive. In comparison with the British, the French remained on equal terms and were a more attractive ally.

As in New Spain, the French colony’s settlement patterns reflected French custom. In New France, the land was in the shape of a long, thin rectangle, and one side bordered the St. Lawrence River.

There were differences between life in France and life in the new colony. Class distinctions were not as sharp; everyone was reliant on others for survival. Since the plots of land given out were relatively large, settlers had a good chance of becoming prosperous.

The French established plantation-based colonies for sugar and food. The most important French colony was Saint Domingue, modern-day Haiti.

British North America – Virginia and New England

English colonies in British North America – what would become the United States – followed two very different settlement models. In the southern colonies in Virginia and the Carolinas, the colonies used a plantation model. The settlements of New England and the Middle Colonies – Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware – operated on a family-farm model.

The English hoped that they would find gold and silver in their American colonies. But the colonists found no precious metals when they arrived. Soon the colonists began growing tobacco, which they quickly produced in large quantities.

Tobacco was very labor intensive: it took nine months of work each year to cultivate. Plantation owners therefore relied on indentured servitude and African slave labor to do the work. The strong demand for tobacco in Europe kept the colony running, and the population grew quickly. In the 1650s three more colonies were established, and by 1660 there were 24,000 colonists – eight times the population of New France.

Settlement in New England differed from the Virginian model. Its focus on the family farm and, especially, on town life, resembled French and Spanish settlement patterns in many ways. The Puritans who settled in Massachusetts built their settlements around the center of the town. Pastureland was located outside these clustered settlements. Each family received 100–150 acres to farm. Twenty thousand settlers arrived in New England in the 1630s and 1640s, and as towns grew they began to operate as trading hubs. Boston, the first settlement in the colony, quickly thrived as a seaport, and the settlers began to move westward and establish other colonies.

As in New France, Native American populations helped the English settlers stay alive; Native Americans gave supplies to the new arrivals and taught them to survive. Unlike the French, however, the English did not treat the Native Americans well in return In New England, the Native Americans and colonists were almost constantly at war.


Source: Comparing Settlement Patterns: New Spain, New France, and British North America
www.saylor.org, CC-BY 3.0

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