In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Settlement and Region in British America, 1607-1763

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Regionalism and Comparative History
  • Seventeenth-Century Virginia
  • Eighteenth-Century Virginia
  • Maryland
  • Seventeenth-Century New England
  • Eighteenth-Century New England
  • West Indies and Bermuda
  • Dutch New York, New Sweden, and the Dutch West Indies
  • Eighteenth-Century New York
  • Acadia, Newfoundland, St. Lawrence Valley, and Hudson’s Bay
  • Pennsylvania and New Jersey
  • South Carolina
  • North Carolina, the Gulf Coast, and Georgia

Atlantic History Settlement and Region in British America, 1607-1763
Trevor Burnard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0048


When the English ventured overseas in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, they established a variety of colonial settlements that, especially in the 17th century, were bewildering in their political and social diversity. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the heterogeneity of English settlement patterns became less pronounced, as settlers, slaves, and Native Americans worked out accommodations between themselves and between an imperial authority that only fitfully attempted to make colonial settlement patterns uniform. This internal heterogeneity in the British Empire was what particularly distinguished it from other imperial formations, notably the Spanish Empire in the Atlantic. In part because regional differentiation was so pronounced in colonial British America, scholarship has tended, to an extraordinary and possibly unfortunate degree, to be arranged principally around comparing and contrasting different regions. The contrast between how early American history is organized (by theme and region) and how later United States history is organized (by period) is remarkable and serves as testimony to the power of regional difference in continuing to shape our understanding of the early American past. There are other ways of organizing early American history, as is evident in many other articles in this series, but students need to be conscious of the intense effort historians of the English and British Atlantic worlds have made in exploring, comparing, and contrasting distinct regions of early America.

General Overviews

The wealth of scholarship written on the English and British Atlantic worlds—it outstrips in quantity by some margin the amount of scholarship written on any other part of the Atlantic world, with the possible exception of Britain and Ireland—makes the writing of syntheses both essential and also difficult. The works below are works that attempt to be more than textbook accounts of British Atlantic social, economic, and political development. Canny 1998 and Marshall 1998 place British Atlantic development within an imperial context. Butler 2000 examines 18th-century social and political patterns with an eye to the forthcoming American Revolution. Foster 2013 provides an idiosyncratic examination of British North America, excluding the West Indies. McConville 2006 is not a synthesis per se but offers a major challenge to prevailing interpretations, as does St. George 2000, from a postmodern point of view. The best syntheses remain Greene and Pole 1984 and Greene 1988, although these works are now dated and need replacing by a fresh perspective. Each of these works pays particular attention to regional differences in working out underlying developmental processes.

  • Butler, Jon. Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

    Thematically organized synthesis of 18th-century social development that relies heavily upon regional differentiation.

  • Canny, Nicholas, ed. The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. 1, The Origins of Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198205623.001.0001

    Excellent set of essays by leading experts on how Britain became involved with transoceanic exploration and settlement. Organized by theme but also by region, especially with respect to Atlantic settlements.

  • Foster, Stephen, ed. British North America in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Oxford History of the British Empire: Companion Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199206124.001.0001

    An intelligent, if random collection of essays, on British North America from the mid-17th century to the American Revolution. Strong stress upon religion and on the formative role of the American Revolution. Underplays the importance of slavery.

  • Greene, Jack P. Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

    Highly influential synthesis of the best social and political scholarship of the 1970s and 1980s. Makes a provocative regional analysis of how 17th-century regional divergence led to 18th-century convergence around anglicization. Shaped scholarship for twenty years.

  • Greene, Jack P., and J. R. Pole. Colonial British America: Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

    Dated but hugely influential collection of essays on thematic topics, strongly shaped by a regional perspective.

  • Marshall, P. J., ed. The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. 2, The Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198205630.001.0001

    Eighteenth-century follow-up to Canny 1998, which continues seeing 18th-century British America mainly within a regional perspective.

  • McConville, Brendan. The King’s Three Faces: The Rise & Fall of Royal America, 1688–1776. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

    Provides a challenge to republican syntheses of early American history by insisting on the continuing vitality of monarchical sentiment throughout the North American colonies in the 18th century.

  • St. George, Robert Blair, ed. Possible Pasts: Becoming Colonial in Early America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

    Directly engages with postcolonial and postmodern theory to see how the American colonial experience fits within a larger postcolonial critique of colonial societies.

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