Colonial Work

Farming in the Colonial Work

Colonial Work - Farming in the Middle Colonies

This article provides a Colonial Work providing facts and information at a glance in respect of:

  • Colonial Work - The industries of the 13 colonies
  • Jobs, work and occupations of the colonists in Colonial America
  • Trade and Economic activity
  • Different types of Colonial Work
New England Colonies
Southern Colonies
American Colonies Index

History of the first 13 Colonies and how they became the United States

The colonization of America and the fascinating events that led colonists and patriots down the Road to Revolution

Colonial Work

The people who took the decision to move from their homeland to the uncertainties of life in the New World were looking for a better life in the colonies. The country had not been fully explored so people did not know what the natural resources and raw materials were available in the New World. The one certainty was that America offered vast amounts of land. Land was a commodity in short supply in England. The system of enclosure (fencing in the land) meant there was limited land for the poor and working classes. There were high levels of unemployment in England with little prospects of getting a job. Young, working class men and women turned towards America for a better life - even if they had to give five or seven years of their lives to pay for the journey by the system of Indentured servitude refer to Colonial Women. The second sons of wealthy families, without the prospect of an inheritance, were looking for opportunities to make money. For additional facts and info refer to Colonial Society.

Colonial Work - Land and the Headright System

The Headright System was introduced in 1691. Headrights were given by the London Virginia company that gave 50 acres of land to colonists who paid their own way to Virginia, or paid the way for someone else to go. The prospect of owning land, an impossible prospect in England, was a great incentive to travel to America.

Colonial Work and Jobs
There were many different types of colonial work and jobs. Climate and natural resources determined the colonial work and jobs required in the different regions of the first 13 colonies. A pattern of work, jobs and industries emerged in colonial America and trade and exports were basically divided as follows according to the different regions:

Policies and laws relating to Trade and Exports and colonial work and jobs were dictated by the theory of Mercantilism, the emergence of Triangular Trade routes and the English policy of Salutary Neglect. This article provides an insight into the development of trade and exports and explains why different types of colonial work and jobs emerged in the colonies.

Colonial Work - Farming
So land was the most important commodity in Colonial America. Which explains why most early colonial work related to farming and agriculture. The first colony of America was established at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. By 1774, 3 out of 4 families in the American colonies owned their own farms. A typical farm was 50 to 150 acres consisting of a house, barn, yard and fields. Their types of farms and the jobs and work required to run the farms were dependent on the soil available and the climate. These two factors determined the types of crops that would be successful and led to a great diversity of agriculture in the Northern colonies as opposed to the colonies in the South and the Middle colonies and the colonial work and jobs available in each of the areas.

  • Farming was difficult in New England for crops like wheat because of the poor soil but corn, pumpkins, rye, squash and beans were planted provided a living, jobs and colonial work related to farming
  • Farming was far more suited to the Middle colonies. To such an extent that they are often called the breadbasket colonies because they grew so many crops, especially wheat.
  • The Southern Colonies concentrated on agriculture and developed massive plantations exporting tobacco, cotton, corn, vegetables, grain, fruit and livestock. The colonial work on the plantations were undertaken by slaves

The colonial work and jobs related to farming led to other industries. Crops such as wheat required the building of flour mills where the wheat was ground into flour. The flour was then shipped to England. Many farmers grew cotton and flax, and many colonists raised sheep that produced wool. These materials were used to make different textiles.

Colonial Work for Farm women
The women who lived on the farms were engaged in colonial work and jobs cleaning cooking, growing vegetable, raising children, spinning yarn from wool and knitting sweaters and stockings, making candles and soap and churning milk into butter. Other jobs such as gathering nuts and berries. The berries were used to make jellies and jams. In the early days of Colonial America the women  helped with the planting and harvesting of the crops which added to the colonial work and jobs undertaken by the women who lived on the farms.

Colonial Work - Household Industries
It was very expensive to import textiles from England so small, household industries emerged in the colonies. Cloth made in the home was called “homespun.” Other every day items were required leading to other household industries. Colonial work also included making furniture and also producing timber used to build houses. Other household industries included making alcohol such as beer, whiskey and rum. These household industries emerged as mills and distilleries were built and the alcohol and textile industries were developed. All of these provided more colonial work and jobs requiring even more labor in the colonies.

Colonial Work - The Fur Trade

Another really important aspect of colonial work related to the fur trade. North America had a vast variety of fur-bearing animals and the fur trade was often used to supplement the incomes from the farms - the beaver was the most important. Some colonists were trappers and others were fur traders negotiating trade with the Native Indians.

The fur trade was highly lucrative and the French and English had fought to monopolize the fur trade which led to the Beaver Wars. Beaver skins were used in hat making.

The sales of hats made from beaver skins were an extremely important source of income to the British nation and from 1700 to 1770 Great Britain made 21 million hats. Beaver skins were the first great American trade commodity.


D'Orsay Beaver Hat

Colonial Work - beaver pelts and the fur trade

Continental Beaver Hat

Beaver Hat

Beaver Hat

Colonial Work - Mills, Yards and Distilleries
Various colonial work and jobs were created due to the building of mills. Most mills were run by water power. Mills were used for:

  • Grinding grain to make flour - called gristmills  which operated by turning massive millstones for grinding grain
  • Cutting Wood
  • Forging iron
  • Bark mills - Tanneries also emerged to make leather goods such as shoes and saddles
  • Paper making 'mills' which grinded linen rags into pulp

Other establishments were introduced turning household industries into commercial industries - the breweries and distilleries. Distilleries are the names of the places where liquor is manufactured - especially rum which became a major export from the colonies.

Colonial Work - The Textile Industry
Textiles were used to make clothing, bedding, linens, curtains, ship sails and upholstery. Textiles were made chiefly from wool and flax. Cotton was used less often. During the 17th century serge, a durable twilled woolen fabric, was commonly used for bed curtains, upholstery and clothing. Linsey-woolsey, or wincey, was a strong, coarse fabric. The name Linsey-woolsey derives from a combination of linen and wool. Linsey-woolsey, or wincey, fabrics were woven with a cotton warp and woollen weft and another job for colonial work in  Colonial America. However, during the colonial period, less than half of all households had spinning wheels and fewer than 10% owned looms or raised sheep or flax. A loom was a textile machine for weaving yarn into textiles. The Textile industry emerged in Colonial America when men worked on several looms in a factory like environment.

Colonial Work - Hemp
Hemp was a fibrous material obtained from the inner bark of the hemp plant and used to manufacture ship rigging. Farmers were encouraged to raise hemp as a crop and various incentives were offered to its production. Hemp was suited to the terrain of the Chesapeake area. However, hemp had to undergo a painstaking process of cutting, rotting and drying which coincided with the busiest period in the tobacco season. Employing people in the tobacco industry was seen as more cost effective for farmers.

Colonial Work - Tobacco

Tobacco was the first plantation crop in North America. The first plantations were worked by Indentured servants the massive sizes of the plantations needed more and more labor. Colonial work on the tobacco plantations required slaves.  The number of slaves in Colonial America increased from 10,000 in the 1600's to 400,000 in the 1700's. The process of growing tobacco required all year attention. Seeds were first grown in flats and then the seedlings were planted by laborious hoeing in the fields. Tobacco was harvested in the late summer and then had to be dried “cured” in a tobacco house for six weeks. The tobacco leaves were then stripped from the stems and packed into hogsheads (round, wooden casks or barrels) used to hold tobacco for shipment. Tobacco became the biggest of all the trade exports made from Colonial America. By the mid 1700's tobacco

Slaves working in a tobacco plantation

African slaves working on a Southern tobacco plantation in 1670

Colonial Work - Cotton
Cotton plants prosper in dry, hot sunny climates and rich soils. A cotton plant formed bolls containing seeds with many long hairy fibers. The cotton fibers need to be separated from the seeds. This process was so time consuming and therefore expensive that cotton was not grown until 1793 when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. The cotton gin  was a machine that separated the cotton fibers from the seed ten times faster that the slaves could do by hand. The cotton industry boomed in the Southern colonies with the introduction of the cotton gin. Growing cotton as a crop required intensive labor - the plantations of the south increased the number of slaves to undertake the hard, back breaking work. Cotton plants had to be tended, weeds had to be chopped out. Picking took a few months during which time the cotton was put through the cotton gins, then pressed and finally baled before being shipped for market and export. Large-scale cultivation of cotton using slave labor was extremely profitable for the owners of the planatations.

Colonial Work - Timber and Lumber
The rich forest areas of Colonial America enabled Colonial workers to become employed in the associated timber and lumber activities. Great quantities of wood were required in the colonies and for trade exports. Pine, oak, maple, beech, birch, hickory, ash and cypress trees were all plentiful in Colonial America. The timber and lumber industries used the saw mills to produce wooden planks for export to England, which were manufactured into finished goods. Wood was the necessary raw material required for the ship building industries, barrel making and to build the houses in the colonies. Other forest products included resin (used for varnishing), tar (for coating and preserving timber), pitch (used for water proofing), turpentine (distilled pine oil used for cleaning), potash (made from wood ashes and used in soap, bleach and fertilizers).

Colonial Work - Shipbuilding
The shipbuilding industry was extremely important, especially to the New England Colonies. The first ships built in the American colonies were built for fishing but trade was also conducted by water which led to the real boom in ship building. Shipyards sprang up all along the coast of New England. The abundance of timber and lumber made shipbuilding cheap in the colonies. The Navigation Acts encouraged the ship building industry. Many different types of colonial work and jobs were related to the ship building industry including carpenters, joiners, sail makers, barrel makers, (for transporting the products), painters, caulkers (they sealed joints making ships water-tight) and blacksmiths. There were 125 colonial shipyards by the year 1750.

Colonial Work - Fishing and Whaling

The coastline of the Northeast Atlantic coast gave rise to many opportunities for a fishing industries. The coastal waters gave rise to whaling. Whale oil was a valuable resource as it could be used in oil lamps and for making soaps.

Spermaceti was a white waxy substance produced by the sperm whale used in candles and ointments. Ambergris was an extremely valuable substance found in whales and used for the production of medicines and perfumes.

Whaling was so profitable that, despite its dangers, many hundreds of ships were used for the whaling industry. Other colonial work and jobs were undertaken by fishermen in the coastal areas of all the colonies but especially in New England. There were many different types of fish including cod, mackerel, herring, halibut, hake,  bass and sturgeon.



Colonial Work - Staves and Headings for making barrels
The colonial work and jobs related to 'Staves and Headings' were an extremely important, but often overlooked, trade item. Staves and Headings were wooden items used in barrel making. The barrel parts made from wood were called the 'Staves and Headings'. The staves were the narrow strips of wood that formed the sides of a barrel. The headings were the lids of the barrels. Staves and Headings were one of the top ten exports to England and were used by the barrel makers (coopers) in England. The barrel hoops were a circle of iron. Several hoops were used to hold the barrel together and one of the many uses of the iron exported to England. Barrels were used for transporting products, rum, flour, fruit, hardtack (bread), salted meat and fish. Some barrels were made in the colonies due to the English policy of Salutary Neglect but the basis of  Mercantilism was to supply raw materials to England for their workers to make finished goods - finished goods have a higher value than raw materials.

Colonial Work - Iron Making
The early colonists discovered that iron ore was in abundance in Colonial America. The manufacture of iron was seen as one of the most valuable resources of Colonial America. Virginia and then Maryland were the first colonies to export iron to England but iron making eventually became the mainstay of the Middle Colonies.  To produce iron, the Ironworks required  two main elements:

  • A source of iron ore
  • Wood to make charcoal to fuel the furnace

The forests provided the wood and the iron ore was in abundance. A large labor force was required to facilitate iron making and slaves were also employed in manufacture of iron. Iron making was one of the first non-agricultural industries. Iron was used to make barrel hoops, anchors and chains for the ships, wagon wheels, plows, tools, spikes, kettles and nails. Large blocks of iron were exported to England to enable their workers to make these finished goods.

A Reverberatory furnace OF 1647 used to melt iron

A Reverberatory furnace of 1647 used to melt iron

Colonial Work - Horses
Horses were a profitable livestock commodity that could be used for trade and export. The soil in New England was not well suited to farming so horse breeding was seen as an economical use of hilly and infertile land. Many different breeds of horses were brought to America by the colonists. Horse breeding developed from using these original breeds of horse including the jennet, small pacing horses, the strongly built Andalusian breed, the hardy barb horse, coach horses, the black Friesian breed and the fast Arabian horse breeds.

Colonial Work - Indigo
Indigo was a non-edible plant that was historically grown on plantations. Different blue shaded dyes were obtained from the leaves of the indigo plant from ranging from bright blue to violet and purple. A variant of the indigo plant is native to South Carolina and Georgia. The English encouraged the American colonists to produce indigo as it was highly dependent on Spain and France for this dye.

Colonial Work - Rice

Rice was a particularly difficult crop to cultivate but  the colonists mastered its culture with the example of rice cultivation in Africa provided by their African slaves. The English and European colonists had no practical experience of rice crops and the production of rice required its workers to possess knowledge of the land and how to cultivate. The slaves provided sufficient labor force to produce the demanding crop. In Delaware alone swampland covered over 30,000 acres. The swampland first had to be cleared. Sowing the rice seedlings was generally undertaken by female slaves who trampled the seeds into the swampy soil with their bare feet. The rice was harvested and then the rice was removed from the hulls in a winnowing basket. By the 1690's and rice became the mainstay of the colonies of Georgia and South Carolina. The cultivation of highly lucrative rice quickly spread to all of the Southern colonies and became one of the top ten trade exports to England. 

Colonial Work

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