The law looked very different in the early American colonies. The more money you had, the more protection the rules gave you.
However, life was hard for everyone, and sometimes, following the law could make the difference between life and death for you and your neighbors.
The Original 13 Colonies
Before the United States of America existed, there were the 13 British colonies. Although these settlements weren’t always started by the British (New York was originally a Dutch colony), by the late 1700s, these 13 colonies all fell under British rule and had to follow England’s laws:
- Rhode Island
- New York
- New Hampshire
- Massachusetts Bay
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- New Jersey
England ruled all 13 colonies, people often made local laws, especially in early settlements. Settlements like Jamestown were run by the Virginia Company, which funded colonists in return for the natural resources they found, so many decisions aimed to make the colony more profitable for people back in England. Meanwhile, colonies like Plymouth were founded on religious ideals, and laws were based on not only survival but strict moral codes.
- Virginia was named for Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen.”
- People with the most money were usually the first in line to make new rules and had the most power in local debates and decisions.
- Because no one represented the American colonists during lawmaking meetings in England, some began considering revolution.
Indentured Servitude and Slavery
Indentured servants were people who signed a contract with a wealthy landowner to work for free, without many rights or freedoms, for a set number of years. In exchange, the landowner gave them food, shelter, clothing, and transportation to the American colonies. The Virginia Company used this system a lot, especially in the earliest days of their new settlements. Since only landowners had a say in local politics, this meant very few people living in the colonies got to participate in government.
A wealthy landowner first brought African people as slaves to the colonies in 1619. Unlike indentured servants, slaves did not get to choose if they wanted to go to America, they had no promise of shelter and protection, and their masters did not have to give them freedom after a set number of years. Laws protected masters from losing money if servants ran away or didn’t do as they were told, and they turned people into property for slave owners.
- Even kids could be indentured servants.
- Not all indentured servants were really willing; in London, street children were rounded up and forced to make the voyage and serve colonial masters.
- There were black indentured servants who came from England, though they did not always receive equal benefits and punishments.
- Some indentured servants got their own land after their contracts ended.
- Virginia House of Burgesses: This early group of influential men helped make rules and laws for the colony of Virginia.
- Colonial Government of the 13 Colonies: Learn about who picked governors, what governors did, and how the colonies handled everyday social problems.
- Mayflower Compact: Early colonies had to make a lot of their own rules. The Mayflower Compact shows what was most important to the Pilgrims.
- Colonial Government for Kids: This video illustrates differences and similarities between the colonies and their rules.
- The 13 Colonies: In colonial America, where you lived could determine if you were innocent or guilty.
- New England, Middle, and Southern Colonies: Colonists thought very differently about the places we know as states today. Learn how government was divided and how colonists thought about their home.
- Women and Children in Colonial America: What rights did women and children have in colonial America?
- The Role of Women in the Colonies: Discover how women lived in the colonies and what role factors like religion and ethnicity played.
- Colonial Teenagers: Instead of high school, teens had indentured servitude and apprenticeships to look forward to.
- Learning in Colonial Carolina: What did education look like for kids in this colony?
- Children in Colonial America: Life was hard for everyone in the American colonies, including little kids.
- Kids in Jamestown: People didn’t write about them very often, but kids lived at Jamestown, too, and they were busy making history.
- Life as a Child in the 18th Century: Watch this video to learn from kids who live and work as re-enactors about what their historical counterparts did every day.
- Colonial Life: Understanding what people went through to reach America and what life was like helps to explain the colonies’ strict laws.
- Connecticut Colony, Laws, and the Revolution: Colonists depended on people who lived very far away to make fair laws. When the colonists thought they were being treated unfairly, thoughts of revolution arose.
- Indentured Servitude in Virginia: Why did people pay for indentured servants to make the voyage, and why did they eventually stop?
- Indentured Servants, Slavery, and Race: Some indentured servants from England were black, but they served the same contracts as everyone else. It was only later that race became a determinant of a person’s rights.
- Colonial Slave Codes: Slaves came to America very early on, and the laws concerning them were especially strict.
- Colonial People: African Americans: Discover how people of African descent, both slaves and free people, influenced the colonies.
- Making Mistakes and More: Five Elements of an Apprenticeship: What was work like as an apprentice, and what was the point of apprenticeship anyway?
- Colonial America Timeline: When was the first English child born in America? Where were the very first settlements by Europeans? Find out here.
- Colonial Period: Learn more about why people came to the colonies and what they did.
- The 13 American Colonies: Catch up with a quick summary of the how and when of the original 13 colonies.
- Colonial and Early American Food: Today, America is known for hamburgers, hot dogs, and apple pie, but food in colonial times was a bit different.
- Puritan New England: How was Puritan New England different from other areas in the early colonies?
- Jamestown Facts for Kids: Dig deep and find out about this critical settlement that opened up the American colonies for England.