Middle Colonies

We have founded the colonies known as the Middle Colonies: New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

On this map New York is green, New Jersey is blue, Pennsylvania is red. The red area along Delaware Bay was granted to William Penn. The area was a separate grant but administered connected to Pennsylvania during the colonial period. (Later, during the Revolution it will emerge as a separate state of Delaware.)

This is the Middle Colonies part of the Early Colonial Regions Chart. I will be using this chart as I discuss the Middle Colonies: New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.


Middle Colonies






grains, livestock, ship building, shipping

food export

labor: indentured servants, tenants




rural except Philly, NYC

class: master-servant, lord-tenant

Quaker toleration

law & gender: similarities of NY to Upper South and Penn. to New England




Dutch already in NY

German, English singles, except Quaker families

Iroquois, Delaware




NY trade with Iroquois

Penn. Quaker toleration


















Resources and Economy


The region had two major port towns and commercial centers: New York City (or NYC) on the Hudson River system and Philadelphia on the Delaware River system. NYC was the commercial center for the colony of New York and eastern New Jersey. Philadelphia was the commercial center for Pennsylvania and western New Jersey. These were big ship building and shipping centers. Along with fishing and trading out of Philly and NYC the region had successful commercial agriculture on the Delaware and Hudson. The Middle Colonies were a big food producing region: beef and pork, corn and wheat. The region fed itself, Boston and the other New England port towns, and sent  food and timber to the West Indies.
On the map below, NYC is the red dot, Philly is the blue dot, the red arrow is pointing at the Hudson River, and the blue arrow is pointing at the Delaware River.



Most labor was provided by members of the family.

Unlike New England, however, lots of indentured servants will go to the Middle Colonies. For labor they would sometimes need a extra hand on the farm or in the shop. The biggest need for labor was for dockworkers in the shipping operations in NYC and Philly. For most of the male indentured servants the skill to be learned involved an aspect of building or repairing ships. Female indentured servants were domestic or house servants.

There was also tenant farming on the Hudson River. This system had been begun by the Dutch and it was continued after the English took over the colony. The land was owned by landlords who lived in New York City. They were known as the Lords of the Hudson.


New York City and Philadelphia had, like New Englanders, two major trading routes. 1) There was the north Atlantic route. They went across the north Atlantic carrying colonial goods to England and carrying English finished goods to the colonies. 2) There was the coastal and West Indies route. Food went up to New England. They went down the North American coast carrying English finished goods. They took English finished goods and North American timber and food to the West Indies. Then they went back up to North America and back up the coast with West Indies coffee and sugar products.


Unlike New England, NYC and Philly were not just carrying other people's goods charging carrying fees. They were carrying the food produced in their region. Also, the NYC and Philly shippers invested in or fully owned the mills grinding the region's wheat and corn, and sawing the timber. This gave the shippers more profits which they put back into their business building more ships and having indentured servants as shipbuilders and dockworkers. This is going to allow the NYC and Philly shipping operations to grow much faster than those in Boston and the other New England port towns.


Society and Government

In Pennsylvania there will be family farms run and owned by the Quaker and German farmers. There will be family run farms in New York as well, but they will be tenants.


What kind of association do we usually have when we think of tenant farming? Do you think of wealth and prosperity?


We generally tend to associate tenant farming with poverty, do we not? But is it always bad to rent? Does renting always mean one is poor? When you find out that national retail operations often rent the space they have in malls and in other shopping buildings do we feel sorry for them? Do you say, poor Wal-Mart, poor Target, they have to rent.


Tenant farmers are farmers who rent their land. They might be successful commercial farmers.


When we look at colonial New York, and the relation of lords and tenants, in terms of how well the tenants are doing a lot comes down to whether they had good landlords or bad landlords. The good ones only want a percentage of the farm production (certain pounds of flour or head of cattle) per year for rent. Others keep pushing up the rent and evicting if full payment is not made on time. When a lot of the family’s production went to the landlord they were hard pressed and would sometimes delay payment of the rent or refuse to pay all of it. Every once in a while when there were a number of tenants in an area suffering from bad landlords they would rise up. What could the New York colonial government do about a tenant uprising along the Hudson? Normally they would be inclined to call out the militia. But not in this case because the militia along the counties on the Hudson were tenants. The militia members either 1) would be the ones rising up or 2) they could be sympathetic to them knowing they had been hard pressed by their landlords. So the New York colonial government looked to the imperial central government for help. Regular army troops would be sent in to put down the uprising.


I think these things are important for us to know. We have certain images of colonial America. We usually think of Puritans. This is not one of the images we grow up in America learning about: tenant uprisings on the Hudson River being put down by the army.


Most of the colonies had legislative assemblies. Most began fairly representative since most colonists were property owners (or were indentured servants who would soon be voting property owners). This was best seen in Virginia, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. But on this subject, again, there will be differences between the colonies. In New England, the colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire added another requirement for voting beyond property ownership: being a member of the Congregational Church. (One also had to be a member of the Congregational Church to hold political office.) But New York differed the most from those we have so far discussed. New York was one of the most elitist colonies. The colony did not allow tenants to vote. So most of the people in the colony, from the tenant family farms on the Hudson, did not vote for representatives. Political power was in the hands of the Lords of the Hudson and the merchants and shippers of NYC.  

We have already discussed the Quaker toleration in Pennsylvania. Because of toleration and the diversity in the region the area was very different from what we saw in Puritan New England.

Law & gender: the region splits on this subject with NY similar to the Upper South and Pennsylvania similar to New England. Like the Upper South, New York will develop a good dower for widows. With religion important the Quakers in Pennsylvania will agree with the Calvinists in New England that the sin of adultery breaks the marital contract and this should be observed by the state. So divorce developed in Pennsylvania. Also, like the New England Calvinists, the Quakers will place great importance on the husband in the family and will not develop the dower and in a divorce will pass the property of the coverture, and custody of the children, to the husband.



Ethnicity and Migration


English indentured servants came over single as in the Upper South. The Quakers and most of the Germans came over in families. They sold out in Europe and paid their way over.


This is the category that really sets the Middle Colonies apart from the other regions. The region had the most racial and ethnic diversity. As we have noted earlier, when the region became part of the English empire, there were Dutch living in New York. As the English moved into New York City, from the beginning there were at least two languages being spoken in the streets: Dutch and English. In Pennsylvania, along with English Quakers, given all of the Germans that came in, again, in the streets of Philadelphia we start with two languages being spoken: English and German.

Think about being in Europe outside England and you want to go to a colony in the English empire. Where would you want to go? Would you want to go to the very English colonies of Virginia or Maryland? Would you want to go to the very English New England? Or would you rather go where there are different sorts of people? We will find more people from different parts of Europe in the  Middle Colonies than any other region. Philadelphia was the favorite port for people migrating to America.  


Inside the region there will also be a large Indian presence. Unlike the Upper South and New England, the Indians are not driven out.


Colonist-Indian Relations

Because of Quaker toleration, the Delaware will have most of Pennsylvania.


The Iroquois. On the map below you can see the word “Iroquois” on both sides of Lakes Erie and Ontario.

The Iroquois traded with the French at Montreal—the blue dot on the map—on the St. Lawrence in Quebec. They traded originally with the Dutch at Albany, the red dot on the map. The Dutch saw how large this Indian force was and left them everything beyond Albany. When the English took over they agreed with the Dutch assessment. This was not like the small tribes in VA and MD or New England. They would not be able to easily defeat and drive out the Iroquois. So they traded with them at Albany. Colonial New York was never large. By the Revolution colonists had only settled about 50 miles north of Albany.

At Albany the Iroquois traded furs for English and colonial finished goods. The main thing the Iroquois wanted: guns.

The Iroquois were different from the other Indian tribes and nations with which the English colonists had had contact. They were a confederation or league formed by five Indian nations among those that spoke the Iroquois language. The five nations were the Mohawks, Senecas, Oneidas, Onondagas, and Cayugas. Later the Tuscaroras join the league. 

As was typical of the Eurocentric view, Europeans thought that the Iroquois league had formed after the combined European threat of the French moving up the St. Lawrence and the Dutch moving up the Hudson. The French and Dutch thought that it had come about out of defense. The English continued to believe this though the Iroquois themselves gave a different history. Research by archeologists and Indian historians have since confirmed the Iroquois oral tradition, not the colonial view of the French, Dutch, and English. The league or confederation had formed before the French, Dutch, or English ever settled in North America. It was not defensive but offensive. A group of Indian nations speaking the same language got together and said let us quit fighting each other. We should team up and fight other Indians. They emerged as the most powerful Indians in the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes area. After the Europeans came they were able to successfully play off the French and Dutch and then the French and English. By the end of the century they would be compromised above the Great Lakes by the growing power of French Quebec but they remained strong and continued to be dominant in much of New York and northern Pennsylvania.