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A colony is a country or area under the full or partial political control of another country, typically a distant one, and occupied by settlers from that country.


5 - 8


Social Studies, World History


Rhode Island Charter

All 13 of the British North American colonies were granted a contract, called a charter, from the King of England allowing its people to stay there. This image depicts Roger Williams, who founded the Rhode Island colony, being welcomed as he brought the r

Painting from North Wind Picture Archives

A colony is a group of people who inhabit a foreign territory but maintain ties to their parent country. While the group of people can be considered a colony, so too can the territory itself.

The 13 British colonies founded in North America during the 17th century are perhaps the most well-known colonies in the history of the United States. British colonies in North America included settlements in regions like New England and the Chesapeake Bay. Each colony was granted a type of charter, or contract, from the King of England, which allowed its people to remain in the area. Royal, proprietary, and joint-stock were the three most common types of charters given to those looking to colonize the New World in the name of the mother country.

A royal charter was administered under leadership of the crown but occurred through indirect means. The colony was then often ruled by a royal governor with a council. A proprietary charter was granted to an individual as a direct result of their relationship with the king. This would result in the individual, or Lord Proprietor, governing the colony in their own way but still under the flag of the mother country. Finally, a joint-stock colony (also known as a charter colony, or corporate colony) was a combined venture between investors in the hope of obtaining a return on their investment of funds in the colony. Investors were granted a charter to the colony by the crown, and as a result of that relationship, would establish rules of self-government. These colonies also entered into a financial agreement with a (joint-stock) company that invested funds in exchange for stock in the colony, with hopes of eventually obtaining profit.

People within each of these colonies lived, worked, sourced for food, and developed a culture together as a community. Colonies were a way for the mother country to engage in the practice of mercantilism, or increasing their power by creating a source for exports and raw materials.

While Great Britain was not the only world power to engage in the practice, they were one of the most successful. During the Age of Imperialism in the late 19th century, many colonies existed as a result of competition between world powers. Present in Africa and Asia, European Powers, and later the United States, attempted to obtain economic power and military strength under the guise of humanitarian efforts. Today colonies are rare, but still exist as non-self-governing territories, as categorized by the United Nations. Examples include Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, and the Cayman Islands, to name a few.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks,
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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