The Largest Cities in the American Colonies in 1775

Largest Cities American Colonies 1775

On the eve of the American revolution, colonial life was far different than we are accustomed to in the present day. One of the biggest differences was in the number of people who lived in cities vs those who lived in rural areas. This post shows the largest cities in the American colonies in 1775.

In 1775 city life was much less common than it is now. It’s estimated that only ~10% of the American population lived in cities then compared to ~80-85% in the present day. Of those, 4 of the 5 biggest cities were located in the Northern colonies. Philadelphia was the largest by far which made it a logical choice as the nation’s first capital.

Determining the exact population of colonial cities is a notoriously difficult task given the number of different historical sources that list different figures. For instance, historian John K. Alexander has documented that the population of Philadelphia may have been as little as 16,000 or as high as 45,000 in 1775 depending on the source and counting method used.1

The population of the northern colonies was generally higher than the rest of the colonies due to the temperate climate and abundance of food (from land and sea). The birth rates were highest and death rate were lowest there of all the colonies.

1778 Boston painting British Colony
Depiction of the American colonial city of Boston via U Michigan

The mid Atlantic and southern colonies relied more upon immigrants to bolster their populations. In the south, slaves made up a large portion of society to work for large plantation owners.

The biggest cities were located on the Atlantic coast and served as seaports. These port cities were crucial to the British empire as they facilitated the trade of America’s abundance of natural resources. Britain needed the raw materials from America to produce manufactured goods in their factories so as to further bolster trade.

The Largest Cities in the American Colonies in 1775

The largest cities in the American colonies in 1775 in terms of population were Philadelphia (~43,000), New York City (~25,000), Boston (~16,000), and Charleston (~12,000).2 Unsurprisingly, all these cities were located along the coast as transatlantic trade provided a plethora of labor opportunities for those without land for agricultural work.

In these cities a merchant class providing all sorts of goods and services emerged. The northern cities were heavily involved in ship building due to the abundant forests of the region. New York City also profited heavily from the fur trade. The southern colonies traded cash crops such as tobacco and indigo and made the large plantation owners extremely wealthy.

Each region had highly specialized economies based on their specific environments. They traded with each other nearly as often as trading with Britain in order to provide what other areas were lacking.

The Largest Cities in the American Colonies 1775

In general the average American colonist had a higher standard of living than their European counterparts. The Americas had the highest per capita income in the civilized world at the time, mainly due to cheap land and labor shortages that increased wages.

Up until 1763 the colonists also paid relatively little to no taxes to the British yet enjoyed protection from their military and lenient trade rules. It is no wonder that the colonists split their support for the American Revolution.

After fighting in the Seven Years War, the British Empire was bankrupt and needed to increase taxes. As the British fought on behalf of the colonies, America was the logical choice. This directly led to the American revolution and splintering of the British empire.


To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.


1) Alexander, John K. “The Philadelphia Numbers Game: An Analysis of Philadelphia’s Eighteenth-Century Population.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 98, no. 3, 1974, pp. 314–24. JSTOR,

2) Battlefields

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