British colonization of the Americas began in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia and reached its peak when colonies had been established throughout the Americas. The English, and later the British, were among the most important colonizers of the Americas, and their American empire came to rival the Spanish American colonies in military and economic might.
Three types of colonies existed in the British Empire in America during the height of its power in the eighteenth century. These were charter colonies, proprietary colonies and royal colonies. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), British territories in the Americas were slowly granted more responsible government.
In 1838 the Durham Report recommended full responsible government for Canada but this did not get fully implemented for another decade.
Eventually with the Confederation of Canada, the Canadian colonies were granted a significant amount of autonomy and became a self-governing Dominion in 1867.
Other colonies in the rest of the Americas followed at a much slower pace. In this way, two countries in North America, ten in the Caribbean, and one in South America have received their independence from the United Kingdom.
All of these are members of the Commonwealth of Nations and nine are Commonwealth realms. The eight remaining British overseas territories in the Americas have varying degrees of self-government.
Pre-British colonization of North America
A number of English colonies were established under a system of Proprietary Governors, who were appointed under mercantile charters to English joint stock companies to found and run settlements, most notably the Virginia Company, which created the first successful English settlement at Jamestown and the second at St. George’s, Bermuda.
In 1664, England also took over the Dutch colony of New Netherland, (including the New Amsterdam settlement), which England renamed the Province of New York. With New Netherland, the English also came to control the former New Sweden (in what is now Delaware), which the Dutch had conquered earlier. This later became part of Pennsylvania after it was established in 1680.
There was also an early unsuccessful attempt by the Kingdom of Scotland to establish a colony at Darién, and the short-lived Scottish colonisation of Nova Scotia (New Scotland) from 1629 to 1632. Thousands of Scotsmen also participated in the English colonisation even before the two countries were united in 1708.
British colonies in North America
The Kingdom of Great Britain acquired the French colony of Acadia in 1713 and then Canada and the Spanish colony of Florida in 1763. After being renamed the Province of Quebec, the former French Canada was divided in two Provinces, the Canadas, consisting of the old settled country of Lower Canada (today Quebec) and the newly settled Upper Canada (today Ontario).
In the north, the Hudson’s Bay Company actively traded for fur with the indigenous peoples, and had competed with French, Aboriginal, and Metis fur traders. The company came to control the entire drainage basin of Hudson Bay called Rupert’s Land. The small part of the Hudson Bay drainage south of the 49th parallel went to the United States in the Anglo-American Convention of 1818.
Thirteen of Great Britain’s colonies rebelled with the American Revolutionary War, beginning in 1775, primarily over representation, local laws and tax issues, and established the United States of America, which was recognised internationally with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 3 September 1783.
Great Britain also colonised the west coast of North America, indirectly via the Hudson’s Bay Company licenses west of the Rocky Mountains, the Columbia District and New Caledonia fur district, most of which were jointly claimed as the Oregon Country by the United States from 1818 until the 49th parallel was established as the international boundary west of the Rockies by the Oregon Treaty of 1846. The Colony of Vancouver Island, founded in 1849, and the Colony of British Columbia, founded in 1858, were combined in 1866 with the name Colony of British Columbia until joining Confederation in 1871. British Columbia also was expanded with the inclusion of the Stikine Territory in 1863, and upon joining Confederation with the addition of the Peace River Block, formerly part of Rupert’s Land.
In 1867, the colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Province of Canada (the southern portion of modern-day Ontario and Quebec) combined to form a self-governing dominion, named Canada, within the British Empire (the term “kingdom” was avoided so as to not provoke the United States).
Quebec (including what is now the southern portion of Ontario) and Nova Scotia (including what is now New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island) had been ceded to Britain by the French. The colonies of Prince Edward Island and British Columbia joined over the next six years, and Newfoundland joined in 1949. Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory were ceded to Canada in 1870. This area now consists of the provinces of Manitoba (admitted after negotiation between Canada and a Métis provisional government in 1870), Saskatchewan, and Alberta (both created in 1905), as well as the Northwest Territories, the Yukon Territory (created 1898, following the start of the Klondike Gold Rush), and Nunavut (created in 1999).
English and British colonies in North America
Roanoke Colony, founded 1586, abandoned the next year. Second attempt in 1587 disappeared (also called the Lost Colony).
Cuttyhunk Island, established as a small fort and trading post by Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602, abandoned after one month.
Virginia Company, chartered 1606 and became the Virginia Colony in 1624 London Company Jamestown, Virginia, founded 1607 (briefly abandoned in 1610)
Bermuda, islands located in the North Atlantic, first settled in 1609 by the London Virginia Company; administration passed in 1615 to the Somers Isles Company, formed by the same shareholders. Known officially as the Somers Isles, they remain today a British overseas territory.
Citie of Henricopolis, founded in 1611 as an alternative to the swampy Jamestown site and was destroyed in the Indian massacre of 1622.
Popham Colony, founded 1607, abandoned 1608
Society of Merchant Venturers (Newfoundland) Cuper’s Cove, founded 1610, abandoned in the 1620s
Bristol’s Hope, founded 1618, abandoned in the 1630s
London and Bristol Company (Newfoundland)
New Cambriol, founded 1617, abandoned before 1637.
Renews, founded 1615, (abandoned in 1619)
St. John’s, Newfoundland, chartered by Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1583; seasonal settlements ca. 1520; informal year-round settlers before 1620.
Plymouth Council for New England Plymouth Colony, founded 1620, merged with Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691
Ferryland, Newfoundland, granted to George Calvert, 1st Baron Baltimore in 1620, first settlers in August 1621
Province of Maine, granted 1622, sold to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1677
South Falkland, Newfoundland, founded 1623 by Henry Cary, 1st Viscount Falkland
Province of New Hampshire, later New Hampshire settled in 1623, see also New Hampshire Grants
Dorchester Company Colony, (Dorchester Company planted an unsuccessful fishing colony on Cape Ann at modern Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1624)
Salem Colony, later Salem, Massachusetts, settled in 1628, merged with Massachusetts Bay Colony the next year
Massachusetts Bay Colony, later part of Massachusetts, founded 1629
New Scotland, in present Nova Scotia, 1629–1632
Connecticut Colony, later part of Connecticut founded 1633
Province of Maryland, later Maryland, founded in 1634
New Albion, chartered in 1634, failed by 1649–50, not to be confused with Nova Albion on the Pacific coast
Saybrook Colony, founded 1635, merged with Connecticut in 1644
Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, first settled in 1636
New Haven Colony, founded 1638, merged with Connecticut in 1665
Gardiners Island, founded 1639, now part of East Hampton, New York
Province of New York, captured 1664
Province of New Jersey, captured in 1664 divided into West Jersey and East Jersey after 1674, each held by its own company of Proprietors.
Province of Pennsylvania, later Pennsylvania, founded 1681 as an English colony, although first settled by Dutch and Swedes
Delaware Colony, later Delaware, separated from Pennsylvania in 1704
Province of Carolina Province of North Carolina, first permanent English settlements in late 1600s (nearly a century after the failed Roanoke Colony; see Albemarle Settlements), became separate colony in 1710-12.
Province of South Carolina, first permanent English settlement in 1670, became separate colony in 1710-12.
Province of Georgia, later Georgia; first settled in about 1670, formal colony in 1732
Nova Scotia, site of abortive Scottish colony in 1629; British colony 1713, but this did not permanently include Cape Breton Island until 1758.
Province of Quebec, which had been called Canada under French rule. Canada was by far the most settled portion of New France. Britain gained complete control of French Canada in 1759–1761, from the events within the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War; France ceded title with the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Became Canada East in the Province of Canada, which also included Ontario (Upper Canada) as Canada West, from 1841 to 1867.
East Florida and West Florida, acquired from Spain in 1763 in exchange for returning Cuba, taken from Spain in 1761; the Floridas were recovered by Spain in 1783.
Island of St. John, separated from Nova Scotia 1769, renamed Prince Edward Island in 1798
New Brunswick, separated from Nova Scotia in 1784
Ontario, separated from Quebec in 1791 as the Province of Upper Canada until 1841, when it became Canada West in the Province of Canada.
Province of Canada combined the colonies of Quebec (Lower Canada) and Ontario (Upper Canada) from 1841 to 1867.
Colony of Vancouver Island, founded by the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Victoria in 1843. Received royal charter for the Island as a colony in 1849, and merged with the colony of British Columbia in 1866.
Colony of the Queen Charlotte Islands, founded in 1852, merged with the Colony of Vancouver Island in 1863.
Colony of British Columbia, aka the Mainland Colony or the Gold Colony, founded in 1858 from the New Caledonia fur district and the remnant of the Columbia fur district north of the 49th parallel (see below). The colony was expanded with the addition of most of the Stikine Territory (aka Stickeen Territory) and the Colony of the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1863.
Colony of British Columbia, formed in 1866 from a merger of the Vancouver Island and Mainland Colonies. The name British Columbia was chosen for the newly-merged colony despite the opposition from Vancouver Island colonists.
Non-colonial British territories in North America
Rupert’s Land, territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company, founded in 1670 and transferred to the new Dominion of Canada in 1867 as the Northwest Territories
Columbia District, the trading district of the Columbia Department of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1821 to the Oregon Treaty of 1846, by which most of the Columbia District was formally annexed to the United States. HBC lands south of the 49th parallel were guaranteed by the Oregon Treaty but ownership and compensation issues were not fully resolved until 1861.
New Caledonia, fur district. First created in 1805 as part of North West Company for operations, administered by Hudson’s Bay Company following the two companies’ forced merger in 1821, until incorporated as the part of the Colony of British Columbia in 1858, by which time the term “New Caledonia” had come to refer to the whole of the British Columbia mainland, not just the original fur district in what is now its Central Interior.
Stikine Territory, aka Stickeen Territories, founded in 1862 in response to the Stikine Gold Rush to prevent an American takeover.
North-Western Territory, a Hudson’s Bay Company trading area covering lands north and northwest of Rupert’s Land and, after 1863, north of the Stikine Territory’s original boundary at the 62nd parallel. Its remnant was incorporated at the Yukon Territory after the part of it south of the 60th parallel was amalgamated to British Columbia.
Nova Albion, never incorporated or settled, exact location unknown, claimed by Sir Francis Drake and one of the precedents for the British claims to the Pacific Northwest during the Oregon boundary dispute.
the southeastern Alaska Panhandle was leased from the Russian Empire, from 1839 to 1867, until the lease was ignored by both the Russians and Americans and, subsequently, by the Canadian and the British imperial governments, despite British Columbia’s protests.