Economic Life In the 17th Century

The colonists' first regular work was raising food for themselves, and throughout the colonial period this was the main occupation of many families. A European company that sent colonists to America, however, expected a return on its investment. There were those among the settlers, also, who hoped to win a fortune in the New World. Consequently, a commercial activities were an important part of colonial life.

Commerce and Industry

In Virginia, tobacco culture was begun in 1612. It proved so profitable that the colony went from near failure to permanent prosperity in only a few years. In Plymouth Colony, fur trade with the Indians was the first successful business. The Dutch, already engaged in the Hudson River fur trade, founded their colony, New Netherland, to expand it. A Swedish colony was settled on the Delaware River to develop the fur trade there.

The New England colonists soon found lumbering to be a profitable business, since England was running short of timber. Iron ore, another valued resource, was discovered, and in the 1640's a successful iron industry was started in Massachusetts. Commercial fishing, which had preceded permanent settlement, continued as an important occupation.

Servants and Slaves

The planters in Virginia were the first colonists to be able to afford servants. The original need was for farmhands to work in the tobacco fields. It was met by paying the passage of new colonists, who signed, or had signed for them by an official, indentures—contracts binding them to work for a certain term of years to repay the planter.

Some of the indentured servants (also known as bondsmen and redemptioners) came to America of their own free will. Those who were forced to come included convicts, blacks sold into slavery in Africa, and persons (especially children) kidnaped by ship's captains. Later, the blacks were sold as slaves in America, generally in the South. Few New England farmers could afford indentured servants, but tradesmen and industrialists often could.


Early transportation in the colonies was largely by water, in broad-bottomed boats called shallops. The Dutch used sailboats on the Hudson and Delaware rivers. The Indian canoe was not generally adopted by the Atlantic coast settlers.

On land, Indian trails were widely used. The first roads were for bringing timber from the forests and tobacco from the plantations to the waterways. Although colonial governments called for the laying out of highways, the road system was not adequate for carriage and stagecoach travel until the 18th century.