National Army Museum logo

13 Colonies13 Colonies

The New York City waterfront, 1776

01. Vast distances

The 13 American colonies were founded in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Most were created by emigrants escaping religious persecution. From Massachusetts in the north to Georgia in the south, the colonies ran along 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) of coastline and covered an area of over 1.1 million square kilometres (430,000 square miles). The population in the 1770s was 2.5 million. The equivalent of modern-day Manchester in an area the size of Britain, France and Germany combined! Vast distances and rough terrain made travelling overland difficult. Most of the population lived in Atlantic ports, the largest being Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston and Brunswick. The seaboard, the northern lakes and navigable rivers were critical to all trade and transport.

The New York City waterfront, 1776.
Coloured engraving by Balthasar Frederic Leizelt, c1776.

NAM. 1974-03-38

A view of the River Hudson near Stillwater, upstate New York, 1777

02. Diversity

The colonies and their inhabitants were enormously diverse. The lumber, livestock and grain-producing North had little in common with the tobacco, cotton and indigo-producing South. The prosperous coastal townsfolk had more to do with British government than the independently-minded inland settlers. Although most were British Protestants, there were colonists from all over Europe with a variety of religious faiths.

A view of the River Hudson near Stillwater, upstate New York, 1777.
Etching by Barlow, artist unknown, published by William Lane, Leadenhall Street, London, 1789.

NAM. 2004-10-10

Warships and transports crossing the Atlantic, 1760s

03. Far from home

The American colonies were not only vast, they were a long way from Britain. Although the Atlantic crossing could be made in only five weeks, journeys of two months were not unknown. By the end of the 18th century, most colonies were administered by a royal governor, his council and an elective colonial assembly. As royal representatives, the governors controlled the troops in their colonies.

Warships and transports crossing the Atlantic, 1760s.
Line engraving by Canot after D Serres.

NAM. 1971-02-33-494-2

British officers study a map in their billet, 1770s

04. Role of Army

There were about 7,000 British troops in the colonies. Some of these garrisoned the remote forts controlling the Proclamation Line (the divide between Native American and colonial territory) and the main overland routes. The remainder policed the towns and ports. As well as defending settlers from border attacks by Native Americans, smuggling and civil disturbances were the main problems faced by the Army.

British officers study a map in their billet, 1770s.
Engraving by Jean Benait Winkler, after artist C Trrost, published by Carington Bowles, 1776.

NAM. 1969-10-320