For centuries, the feudal structure of northern Europe had been based on well-demarcated villages with open-field agricultural land held in common.
The era of enclosure, in which common land was divided into private holdings and the peasantry scattered across the landscape, was beginning to revolutionize the English countryside, shattering old forms of rural life that had previously bound people closely to both the land and the social patterns that land supported.
When the early settlers first sailed for North America, they left England at just the moment when two ancient forms of geographic organization — the manorial town and the parish — were disintegrating.
The first colonists brought with them premodern templates of village organization, and infused them with 17th-century ideas about theocratic utopianism and municipal incorporation, leading to a geographic order in the form of nucleated settlements — they were clustered around a central point, both physically compact and socio-politically bound together. (National Humanities Center)
The physical environment also reinforced their ideological bias for clustered communities: New England was poorly suited for large-scale agriculture, with few opportunities for the mass natural-resource exploitation that had motivated earlier waves of European imperialism in the New World.
In addition, the colonists were well aware of the threat of raids from native confederations and fortified themselves against the Wampanoags, Narragansetts, and Pequots.
For all these reasons, the New England town developed early on as a distinct kind of socio-spatial unit: a political, religious and social community laid out as a single cell: physically compact and institutionally bound together. (Places Journal)
In 1700 Jamestown was 93 years old, Charleston 37 years old, and Philadelphia only 19 years old. There were two Jerseys but only one Carolina, and Georgia wouldn’t be settled until 33 years later.
From 260,000 settlers in 1700, the colonial population grew eight times to 2,150,000 in 1770. (In comparison, the French colonial population grew from 15,000 to 90,000 in 1775, i.e., just 4% of the English total.) In fact, the English colonial population doubled almost every 25 years in the 1700s. (National Humanities Center)
Early Colonial town laws governed not only proper moral behavior, but also decisions about land use, the siting of houses, and the allocation of common resources. Many early settlements were forts surrounded by walls for protection from the natives as well as other colonial powers like France and Spain.
Layout of Towns
The layout of towns or villages differed. Towns typically started on a river – they needed a water source, it was also used to turn the mill. Many were on the coast where the harbor was an important place of trade and business.
Early land records used the phrase “common lands” to signify both ungranted, undeveloped land and shared land that was used for pasture or agriculture. In addition, the term was used to describe open spaces, although public gathering areas were also called greens.
The early central town commons were used for burying grounds and grazing land, in some cases with a pen or “close” for enclosing animals brought in from pasture (also to gather cattle in the event of Indian attack. (National Gallery of Art)
One of the first buildings built in many early colonial American towns was the meetinghouse.
The meetinghouse served both as the church and as the meeting place for the citizens to discuss issues and make plans. Everyone in the town was responsible for helping to build and maintain the meetinghouse.
Larger cities would often have a courthouse where the local judge would oversee disputes and punish crimes. After hearing the evidence and testimony, the judge would quickly make his ruling and any punishments could be carried out immediately.
The church was often the center of the town. Everyone in the town was expected, sometimes by law, to attend church on Sunday. Churches in Colonial America were generally fairly simple buildings.
The houses built by the first English settlers in America were small single room homes. Many of these homes were “wattle and daub” homes. They had wooden frames which were filled in with sticks. The holes were then filled in with a sticky “daub” made from clay, mud, and grass.
The roof was usually a thatched roof made from dried local grasses. The floors were often dirt floors and the windows were covered with paper.
Inside the single room home was a fireplace used for cooking and to keep the house warm during the winter.
The early settlers didn’t have a lot of furniture. They may have had a bench to sit on, a small table, and some chests where they stored items such as clothes. The typical bed was a straw mattress on the floor.
Each colony had a special house where the governor lived. This was usually the largest home in the town. The governor’s home was where town leaders often met to discuss issues and make new laws.
The gaol was the town jail. The word “gaol” is pronounced just like “jail.” People were held in the gaol while they awaited their trials or punishment. Prisoners might include criminals, debtors, and runaway slaves.
The magazine was a building designed to hold the town’s weapons including muskets, swords, pikes, and gunpowder. The magazine was often a stone or brick building to help make it fireproof as it stored the town’s gunpowder.
Most larger towns had a number of taverns. Taverns were places to get a cooked meal and a drink. They were also important meeting places. Men would go to the tavern after work to discuss business and politics. A lot of plans for the American Revolution were made by patriots in taverns across the colonies.
At the center of the town was often a large open square where people could meet and trade goods. Farmers could set up booths to sell produce and small merchants could peddle their goods. Major outdoor events took place at the market square including holiday celebrations and athletic contests.
The coffeehouse was sort of an elite form of the tavern. Only gentlemen were allowed inside the coffeehouse where they would drink mostly non-alcoholic beverages such as coffee, tea, and chocolate. It was a place where wealthy and educated men made business deals and discussed intellectual topics.
Colonial towns had plenty of shops to buy all sorts of items such as shoes, tools, food, candles, clothing, paper, and furniture. Most shops specialized in one area like the wigmaker who made custom wigs or the apothecary who made medicines. (Technological Solutions)
Plymouth Grew Beyond its Bounds
When an early Colonial town became too large to maintain its spatial and social integrity, it would undergo a split, breaking up into separate towns, each with their own full set of religious and political institutions. (Places Journal)
When the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod on November 19, 1620 they did not find a suitable place to place their community until December 19.
They chose a site with a protected harbor and high grounds, suitable for defense, and christened their plantation New Plymouth.
Click the following link to a general summary about early Colonial Towns: