In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section British American Port Cities

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals

Atlantic History British American Port Cities
Kenneth Morgan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0094


British American port cities were an important part of the social, economic, cultural, and political fabric of North America and the West Indies in the early modern period. Although relatively small by today’s standards—no North American port city had a population greater than 25,000 by 1776—these multilayered maritime communities were essential cogs in the wheels of coastal and transatlantic commerce. Merchants, retailers, wholesalers, agents, shopkeepers, manual laborers, and seamen all formed part of the population of these port cities. These populations differed in their ethnic and racial composition, in social status and income, and in residential patterns and living standards. The port cities themselves varied considerably: some were extensive sites for shipbuilding and its associated trades, some mainly served as shipping points, and some were connected to thriving agricultural hinterlands. Most North American regions were dominated by one particular port. Boston was the leading port in Massachusetts and throughout New England, New York City was the hub of New York’s trade, Philadelphia dominated the Delaware Valley’s seaborne commerce, Baltimore emerged by the time of the American Revolution as the chief port on the Chesapeake Bay, and Charleston was the focal point for ships and trade throughout the Lower South. These ports were situated where transaction and distribution costs could be concentrated in one trading center. The West Indian sugar islands were not sufficiently large to have more than one main port each. Apart from Kingston, Jamaica, and Bridgetown, Barbados, these island ports were little more than small towns before 1800. The main published studies dealing directly with these ports are cited in this article. Few scholars specialize in the history of British American ports, however, and even fewer publish works on colonial urban history. Therefore, interesting work on port cities is often done by scholars primarily concerned with other analytical questions, such as social structure, race, and consumption.

General Overviews

There is no satisfactory, up-to-date overview of British American port cities, either using original sources or synthesizing secondary literature. Instead, one has to sample a handful of books and articles that provide varied introductions to the development of these urban centers. Nearly all of the main studies of this sort exclusively cover North America rather than the Caribbean. Bridenbaugh 1971a and Bridenbaugh 1971b are written by the first academic historian in the 20th century to attempt broad studies of North American port cities. Carl Bridenbaugh’s books include much descriptive and illustrative material drawn from newspapers and town records, but they lacked a quantitative dimension. His interpretations have now been superseded in more-specialized studies, but they are still worth mining for information. The major modern book to provide an overall assessment is Nash 1979. Gary B. Nash is especially concerned with economic fluctuations in the urban economies of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, paying close attention to the working and living conditions of servants, slaves, and other poor people. His book could be read as an economically determinist tome linking material conditions to the growth of political consciousness immediately before the American Revolution, but the author would deny this and would claim that he was not influenced by Marxist ideas. Carp 2007 has individual essays on political mobilization in British American port cities in the 1760s and early 1770s. Fries 1977 discusses the original plans and designs of North American cities. Price 1974 is the best study of the occupational structure of North American ports. Earle and Hoffman 1976 links the urban system of the South, such as it was, to the growth of staple crops. Crane 1998 is the main study of the role of women in British American port cities. Rockman 2007 is a review article on the main themes covered by historians of early North American cities.

  • Bridenbaugh, Carl. Cities in Revolt: Urban Life in America, 1743–1776. New York: Knopf, 1971a.

    Continues the approach to North American cities found in Bridenbaugh 1971b. Has a good bibliography. Bridenbaugh is concerned with the social and institutional history of cities rather than the sources of their growth or their relationship to one another. An evaluation of this and of Bridenbaugh 1971b is in Benjamin Carp, “Cities in Review,” Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life. Originally published in 1955.

  • Bridenbaugh, Carl. Cities in the Wilderness: The First Century of Urban Life in America, 1625–1742. New York: Ronald, 1971b.

    Bridenbaugh spent a quarter of a century researching town life in colonial British North America. This pioneering study is historiographically important but based on qualitative rather than quantitative sources. It is still useful as a reference source for information on Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Originally published in 1938.

  • Carp, Benjamin. Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195304022.001.0001

    Considers how city dwellers in British North America dealt with matters of home rule, independence, and social change in the context of mobilization for the American Revolution. Individual chapters analyze different locations where political mobilization occurred: Boston’s waterfront, New York’s taverns, Newport’s religious meetinghouses, Philadelphia’s statehouse, and Charleston’s town houses.

  • Crane, Elaine F. Ebb Tide in New England: Women, Seaports, and Social Change, 1630–1800. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

    An investigation of the changing status of women in four New England port towns in which women outnumbered men: Boston, Salem, Newport, and Portsmouth. Argues that women became more dependent and less autonomous over time in terms of their legal, educational, economic, and religious roles. Influenced by present-day notions of the feminization of poverty.

  • Earle, Carville, and Ronald Hoffman. “Staple Crops and Urban Development in the Eighteenth-Century South.” Perspectives in American History 10 (1976): 7–78.

    Considers the variable progress of urban centers in North America south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Places each city within its economic context, especially in relation to tobacco, wheat, and the Atlantic economy. Argues that new urban networks in the South were directly connected to the growth of commodity exports.

  • Fries, Sylvia Doughty. The Urban Idea in Colonial America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1977.

    Examines the goals and expectations associated with the founding of colonial North American cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, and Savannah. The design concepts, the city plans, and the forms these cities took are discussed.

  • Nash, Gary B. The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674182899

    The best monograph on the history of three major North American port cities—Boston, New York, and Philadelphia—from the early 18th century through the American Revolution. Argues that these seaports were at the cutting edge of change and that socioeconomic inequality directly affected political consciousness. A reevaluation of the book, thirty years after its publication, appears in a roundtable discussion in the October 2009 edition of Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 133 (October 2009).

  • Price, Jacob M. “Economic Function and the Growth of American Port Towns in the Eighteenth Century.” Perspectives in American History 8 (1974): 123–186.

    Classic article that discusses the occupational structure of Boston, Newport, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston and the marketing conditions of the trades that dominated those port cities. It also considers the retardation of town and port growth around the Chesapeake Bay.

  • Rockman, Seth. “Work in the Cities of Colonial British North America.” Journal of Urban History 33.6 (September 2007): 1021–1032.

    DOI: 10.1177/0096144207304070

    A recent review article that covers urban workers, the diversity of the urban laboring population, and the importance of slavery to the functioning of the urban economies of British North America.

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