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Learn The Economic Activities in New England Colonies

United States [1620–86]

By Saul Mcleod, Last Updated: May 23, 2022

One of the main reasons the British migrated from New England to colonial America was because they were looking for economic opportunities.

These colonies were known as the “New World” because their resources were untouched, and people had the opportunity to get rich off of them.

The New England colonies are the colonies of North America. These include Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. We will talk about the successful and diverse economy of these New England Colonies, so read till the end!

What Were The New England colonies?

There were a total of 13 colonies in North America. Originally, in the 17th century, there were seven New England colonies. These colonies were:

  1. The Plymouth colony (Later became part of the Province of Massachusetts Bay)

  2. Province of Maine (Merged with Massachusetts Bay)

  3. The Rhode Island colony

  4. The Massachusetts Bay colony.

  5. The New Hampshire colony

  6. The Connecticut colony

  7. The New Haven Colony (Merged with the Connecticut colony)


Mercantilism is an economic system where wealth accumulation and positive trade balance are considered crucial for a nation’s economic health. Here, wealth meant possession of precious metals such as gold and silver. And positive trade balance means a colony is exporting more than importing. 

It's important to know that mercantilism was bad for the colonists and allowed Europe to exploit them for its welfare. Europe’s government took valuable raw materials from the colonists and manufactured goods in London. Then, they sold it back to the colonists at a much higher price.

Britain made a ton of profit off the colonists’ backs and strengthened its economy. Meanwhile, the poorer colonists remained poor and had no way of succeeding. 

Natural Resources

A country’s economy prospers when it has abundant production and export resources. The New England colonies had acres and acres of forested land. This provided the New England colonists with timber for building houses, ships, etc. 

They also had an abundant supply of iron used in shipbuilding, and their mining industry flourished. The ships they built were used for exporting goods. And the colonists also made a lot of rum, which was important in the triangular trade.

Since the colonies stretched along the coast of the Atlantic and the geography allowed great harbors to be built, the colonists took up fishing and whaling. This also developed into a major industry. 


The climate impacted farming in the north. The New England colonies had bitterly cold winters and rocky soil, making farming impossible. 

The cold winters were long, while the summers were shorter,  making the growing season shorter. This is why the colonists couldn’t rely on growing cash crops for economic development and only practiced subsistence farming.

Navigation Acts

The navigation acts were a series of rules and regulations imposed by the government of England on the American colonists. These rules were an attempt to control trade and establish a monopoly on American goods. 

The 1620s were years of severe depression in England. So, they forced the colonies to produce essential commodities needed by their mother country. The navigation acts were:

  1. The trade of all goods had to be carried out on British ships, and most of the crew had to be British.

  2. Gold and silver were fixed, which meant if someone wanted to gain wealth, it had to be at the expense of others. 

  3. The enumerated goods by Great Britain were specific products that the colonies had to buy from the mother country. The colonies were not allowed to produce their goods. 

  4. The government of England imposed taxes on all goods shipping from Europe to America. The colonists had to pay duty on all imports.

This improved the economy of England but downgraded the economy of the New England colonies. 

Major Economic Activities in The New England Colonies

Due to the factors mentioned above, these became the major economic activities in the New England colonies.

Trade was important for the New England economy, though whaling, trapping, and farming also played a vital part. 

Let’s take a detailed look at them.

Subsistence Farming

Subsistence farming is only growing enough food to feed the farmer’s family. The southern colonies got rich by growing cash crops because they had a suitable climate. 

Due to the unsuitable climate and geography, colonists could not afford large-scale farming. So they relied on subsistence farming and raising livestock. They only grew enough to feed their families and had little to no surplus. 

They made money by trading the fur and meat of the livestock on their farm.


There was a huge supply of timber due to the large forests. This made it easy for the lumber industry to grow, and iron mining was also rising in the north. Iron ore and wood are the two most vital things for building ships and boats. 

So, the shipbuilding industry flourished, and there was a boom in trading and fishing. 

Triangular Trade

The triangular trade was extremely lucrative, which attracted many colonies to it. It was also known as the Atlantic slave trade. The raw materials (sugar, cotton, etc.) were exported to New England towns, which exported the manufactured goods (guns and textiles) to Africa in exchange for enslaved people. 

The New England colonies bought slaves from Africa in return for rum and sold the slaves to the West Indies in exchange for molasses. This is how many New England shippers and traders got rich. 

Fishing and Whaling

With the Atlantic ocean at their disposal, fishing and whaling became the main economic activities in the north. This particular industry was largely dependent on the ocean. 

The New England colonists made a living by selling fish and whale products. The most common types of fish were cod, halibut, mackerel, herring, etc. Whale products such as whale oil were also valuable. 

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about the colonies that you might be curious about:

What Were The Main Economic Activities in The Southern Colonies?

The southern colonies experienced a warm climate and had fertile soil. They converted large plots into plantations and grew tobacco, sugar, cotton, and rice crops. Their economy was largely agricultural.

How Were The Colonies Economically Beneficial to England?

The colonies could only trade with Britain and its colonies. Farming was not favorable in Britain, so they exported raw materials from colonies, manufactured them, and sold them at a profit. This is how the colonies benefited England.

What Were The Main Economic Activities in The Middle Colonies?

The middle colonies enjoyed a warm and temperate climate. This region grew numerous kinds of grains because of the highly fertile soil. The middle colonies were also known as “Breadbasket Colonies” because their main economic activity was growing wheat and corn.


With this, we conclude the article. We have talked about the major economic activities of the northern colonies and the role of their mother country, England, in all of it.

So, by now, you will be an expert in the economy of the New England colonies!

Cite this Article (Chicago Style)

Mcleod, S. "Learn The Economic Activities in New England Colonies." World History Blog, May 23, 2022. https://www.worldhistoryblog.com/Economic-Activities-in-New-England-Colonies.html.

About the Author

Saul Mcleod is a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has recently worked as a psychology teaching assistant for The University of Manchester, Division of Neuroscience & Experimental Psychology

He previously worked for Wigan and Leigh College, where he was a psychology lecturer for ten years, primarily teaching A-level psychology and sociology.