New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Vermont
A General Historical Survey
The territory occupied by the Middle colonies is noteworthy for the number and excellence of its harbors and its far-spreading river systems, furnishing not only convenient lodging places along the coast, but available highways to the interior. From thus enabling easy intercourse between all parts of the continent, these colonies and those bordering them on the west were to be the battleground of two great wars and many desperate Indian conflicts.
The Adirondack and Catskill mountains in New York form a slight barrier to the advance of settlement westward, but between these the Mohawk River serves as a gateway through which traders and westward emigrants are led to the Great Lakes and the head waters of the Mississippi basin streams. The whole territory of the Middle colonies formerly possessed great forests and is generally fertile and well adapted to farming. Rainfall is abundant and the climate moderate, though extremely variable.
No other colonies presented such wide range in the nationality, character, purposes and customs of their people. The total population by 1700 amounted to about sixty thousand, of whom two-thirds were of English origin, one-fourth Dutch, and about four thousand divided between French, German, Irish, Welsh, Swedes and Scotch-Irish. English character and English institutions were dominant, but were essentially modified by contact with other peoples.
Social distinctions were clearly evident here as elsewhere. Of peculiar interest were the Dutch landowners of New York, who lived in large and attractive manor houses and ruled their tenants arbitrarily amid elegance and splendor. This landed aristocracy resembled more closely than that of any other colony the landed nobility of Europe. In New York, traders and merchants formed a middle class far below these landowners and not far above the laborers and servants. In New Jersey, Pennsylvania nd Delaware, where grants had conflicted and large estates were disrupted, the landed gentry, though still foremost in social rank, were much less elegant in manner and mode of life than those of New York. Here the station of traders and mechanics was consequently improved.
Slaves in the Middle colonies were comparatively few, numbering perhaps three thousand all told, and were chiefly centered in New York. They were, as a rule, humanely treated. The institution was discountenanced by large bodies of inhabitants, especially the Quakers, and slave importation was gradually restricted. Fear and prejudice twice combined in New York to commit murder in the name of the law when, in 1711 and again in 1741, groundless accusations of conspiracy caused the death of fifty slaves.
Occupations and Professions
Owing to the ease with which a living could be secured from the soil, farming was the chief occupation in the Middle colonies. Grains of all sorts were produced and exported, both to other colonies and to England. The fur trade was of immense importance, especially in north west New York and Pennsylvania. For worthless trinkets and beads the Indians would barter valuable beaver, otter, mink and marten skins, which, when shipped to Europe, were the source of a large income to the colonies. The trade was attractive both for its risks and its returns. The Dutch and English, by careful justice in their relations with the Indian traders, laid the basis for the firm friendship of the Iroquois, which in later times became of the greatest value and importance. Manufacturing was confined to certain isolated localities where glass, paper and course cloths in small quantities were made with crude machines. "Homespun" in the Middle colonies, as in New England, was the chief material of clothing and was made in nearly every household. Intercolonial and European commerce was carried on to some extent, and though New York had not yet attained its primacy as a commercial center, it was the principal port of the Middle colonies. Furs and farm products, especially grains, were the chief exports, and sugar, wines and manufactures were taken in exchange.
The professions were generally respected in the Middle colonies. The law was administered upon clear and simple lines and usually engaged men of learning, character and ability. The science of medicine, especially in the Quaker colonies, had high standing. The clergy, as a rule, was composed of upright, able and earnest men who led in movements for the public good.
Life and Manners The most interesting type of life in the Middle colonies was that of the Dutch, whose thrift, cleanliness and contentment have become proverbial. Their little quaint hoses, picturesque within and without, contained few luxuries, but were simple and cozy and adorned with dainty tile ornament, antique pewter and odd utensils. But in character the people were shrewd and greedy; they were enterprising but stubborn, and led a slow, monotonous, narrow life.
The social customs of the wealthy landowners were brilliant in variety and elegance. They often possessed homes in both country and city, and life was made a continuous round of careless pleasure.
The more southern colonies presented curious contrasts, parallel to those distinguishing the "East" and the "West" in later times. In the vicinity of Philadelphia and the coast, a sober, intellectual and moral tone prevailed from the dominance of the Quakers. In the West reigned the crude, simple, lawless life of the frontier.
Prosperity was general in the colonies and tended to enliven life with varied amusements, such as husking and spinning-bees, dancing parties, horse racing, cock fighting and picnics. Drinking was more common than in New England, and intoxication was more frequent.
New York was the metropolis of the region and possessed a social life of some elegance and polish. Second to New York was Philadelphia, "the Quaker capital," a beautiful city laid out with care, upon simple lines. The houses were plain, neat and substantial. Other towns of importance were Albany, the center of the fur trade; Germantown, a manufacturing center; Newcastle, Delaware and Trenton, New Jersey.
Travel was not encouraged by good roads. The little intercourse was chiefly on horseback or by river. Taverns and inns were to be found in every village and became peculiar social centers, trading places of tales and argument. Mail was carried once a week between the principal cities.
Intellectual, Moral and Religious Conditions
Education was not generally encouraged in any of the Middle colonies. Sectarian schools were established, but soon declined; private schools were often supported by small associations; the Penn Charter School, the only public school in Pennsylvania, was opened in 1698.
Religious toleration was the nominal rule in these colonies, though Roman Catholics were not allowed to hold office except in Pennsylvania. The Church of England was established everywhere except in Pennsylvania, but Congregationalism, Quakerism, the Dutch Reformed Church, Lutheranism and Scotch Presbyterianism, each predominated in some populous communities, while many small sects existed in considerable numbers. Crime was neither frequent nor of high degree; punishments were usually severe and often of a public nature.
Political Organization The Middle colonies were originally proprietary colonies, but all five of them were at some time royal provinces. Local government here, as elsewhere, was in the hands of the people, but the forms differed slightly from those in use in New England and the South. This type of government, known as the county-town or mixed system, arose partly from the proximity of New England on the one hand and the South upon the other, partly from the cosmopolitan charter of the population and partly from the climate and physiography of the country, which made life of necessity a medium between those of the New England village and the southern plantation. In New York the township originally possessed nearly all powers of local government, the county being afterward admitted to a share. In Pennsylvania the evolution was in the opposite direction. Penn had established an exclusive county system, but as population increased and became concentrated the township was admitted to a share of local powers and its sphere was constantly enlarged, till the relation of the two units was one of practical equality. Eventually in both colonies the county was governed by a board of supervisors consisting of one representative from each town, chosen by the freemen. This system with modifications, has been largely adopted by the new states throughout the North and West.
Excerpts from Progress of Nations, Vol. VI, by the National Progress League, (c)1912, Hanson-Bellows Company.