A painting of black people playing musical instruments.

Unidentified artist, “The Old Plantation,” ca. 1790-1800, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, via Wikimedia

Whether they came as servants, slaves, free farmers, religious refugees, or powerful planters, the men and women of the American colonies created new worlds. Native Americans saw fledgling settlements turned into unstoppable beachheads of vast new populations that increasingly monopolized resources and remade the land into something else entirely. Meanwhile, as colonial societies developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fluid labor arrangements and racial categories solidified into the race-based, chattel slavery that increasingly defined the economy of the British Empire. The North American mainland originally occupied a small and marginal place in that broad empire, as even the output of its most prosperous colonies paled before the tremendous wealth of Caribbean sugar islands. And yet the colonial backwaters on the North American mainland, ignored by many imperial officials, were nevertheless deeply tied into these larger Atlantic networks. The Atlantic World connected the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

Events across the ocean continued to influence the lives of American colonists. Civil war, religious conflict, and nation building wracked seventeenth-century Britain and remade societies on both sides of the ocean. And at the same time, colonial settlements grew and matured and developed into powerful societies capable of warring against Native Americans and subduing internal upheaval. Patterns established during the colonial era would echo for centuries. And none, perhaps, would be so brutal and so destructive as American slavery.