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Economic Development of British Colonial America

This assignment created by Serena Zabin, Carleton College, heavily derived from Wheeler, Becker, and Glover, Discovering the American Past: A Look at the Evidence, chapter 3 (Cengage Learning, 2012).
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This material was originally developed as part of the Carleton College Teaching Activity Collection
through its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


Through a close study of a rich set of demographic and economic statistics, students will see the development over 150 years of two similar yet divergent colonies (Virginia and Barbados). They will work through population, land use, and trade statistics with closely-guiding questions in order to find links between one set of numbers and another. As part of the class preparation, the students will figure out what each set of statistics is measuring. In class, the students will work cooperatively to figure out how each set of numbers answers an important question about the development of the British plantation colonies. Finally, students will write a 500-word paper that draws together and analyzes their findings. A detailed description of the questions and writing assignment is provided.

Learning Goals

The goal of this assignment is to demonstrate to students that there is nothing foreordained or predetermined about either the success or the development of England's early colonies. In order to do so, students will examine change over time in a variety of colonies. They will learn to use statistics and statistical reasoning to examine economic and demographic trends in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By making links between statistical sets, students will learn how to use quantitative evidence to reconstruct the past.

Context for Use

This exercise is intended for an introductory-level survey of American history. It can be used for classes of 15 to 50 people. Because it is derived so heavily from Wheeler, Becker, and Glover, Discovering the American Past: A Look at the Evidence, it might be best used in conjunction with the entire text throughout the term. The exercise itself in the week or two before. After one lecture on the Atlantic slave trade and another on family life in New England (both of which will explicate a few statistical charts in order to begin to introduce the students to this method), the class will work with the statistics on their own and then in class. Part A represents the preparation each student will do for class; Parts B and C will be done in class, and then the students will write a brief (500-word) paper comparing and contrasting the two colonies in an attempt to answer the question: how were colonial societies able to succeed after their inauspicious beginnings, and what were the costs of that success?

Description and Teaching Materials

Students will work through a set of 26 tables on their own to determine what trends each set measures. Once they are familiar with each set, the class as a whole (or in small groups) will work on linking the various tables together in order to answer causal questions about the shape, pace, and factors of colonial development. Finally, the students will write a brief paper using these statistics to show how actual embodied people experienced change over time in these southern colonies between 1620 and 1770. Student assignment for British colonial America assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 134kB Sep1 13)
Statistical sets for colonial America assignment (Acrobat (PDF) 392kB Aug26 13)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students may need to be reminded that historical statistics were both imperfectly collected and imperfectly retained, so they will need to extrapolate in places. This is part of the intellectual and creative work of the historian, not a flaw in cliometrics.


As preparation for the class meeting, students should write out answers to all three of these questions:

a. What does this set of statistics measure?
b. How does what is being measured change over time?
c. Why does that change take place? If you think the answer lies in another set or sets of statistics, please refer to the set number.

The first two questions assess the student's ability to understand what they are seeing in the numbers, the third is a baseline for the class discussion. At the end of the exercise, the final paper is an excellent assessment of the student's ability to understand how to answer questions of "how" and "why" with historical statistics.

References and Resources