What Were Colonial Merchants Like?

Colonial merchants came from many backgrounds and countries and commanded vastly different fortunes and territories, dealing in goods as diverse as lard, salt fish and human chattel. Smuggling was also a prominent area in which many merchants were involved in defiance of their home countries.

Some merchants, such as 17th century Virginia trader John Greenhow, traded on river routes like the one between Philadelphia and the James River. Greenhow traded in an 8-ton schooner, the Robert, which was crewed by three men. This route allowed him to rebuild his mercantile career and wealth after emigrating from England, the land of his birth, in pursuit of a new fortune.

Other merchants crossed the Atlantic in the lucrative Triangle Trade, exchanging slaves, rum, and sugar at various stops along the way and encouraging the development of a slave economy in the American colonies. The people sailing that route were often hardened to the suffering of other human beings and had little regard for the lives of African slaves except through their value as commodities..

Colonial merchants were an indispensable part of the colonial landscape, where survival often depended on a narrow margin. Without imports and exports, many settlements could not have weathered the harsh winters of the Northeast or nourished themselves adequately without outside support. People such as Greenhow enabled these settlements to flourish rather than perish.