By the mid-eighteenth century, the different regions of the British colonies had developed distinct economic and social orders. Small farms tilled by family labor and geared primarily to production for local consumption predominated in New England and the new settlements of the backcountry (the area stretching from central Pennsylvania southward through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and into upland North and South Carolina). The backcountry was the most rapidly growing region in North America. In 1730, the only white residents in what was then called “Indian country” were the occasional hunter and trader. By the eve of the American Revolution, the region contained one-quarter of Virginia’s population and half of South Carolina’s. Most were farm families raising grain and livestock, but slaveowning planters, seeking fertile soil for tobacco farming, also entered the area.

William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians. Penn’s grandson, Thomas, the proprietor of Pennsylvania, commissioned this romanticized painting from the artist Benjamin West in 1771, by which time harmony between Indians and colonists had long since turned to hostility. In the nineteenth century, many reproductions of this image circulated, reminding Americans that Indians had once been central figures in their history.

In the older portions of the Middle Colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, farmers were more oriented to commerce than on the frontier, growing grain both for their own use and for sale abroad and supplementing the work of family members by employing wage laborers, tenants, and in some instances slaves. Because large landlords had engrossed so much desirable land, New York’s growth lagged behind that of neighboring colonies. “What man will be such a fool as to become a base tenant,” wondered Richard Coote, New York’s governor at the beginning of the eighteenth century, “when by crossing the Hudson river that man can for a song purchase a good freehold?” With its fertile soil, favorable climate, initially peaceful Indian relations, generous governmental land distribution policy, and rivers that facilitated long-distance trading, Pennsylvania came to be known as “the best poor man’s country.” Ordinary colonists there enjoyed a standard of living unimaginable in Europe.

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