Partnership of the Historic Bostons Presents: Every Thing Proved a Staple – Colonial Boston and the Commerce of Empire

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Date: Tuesday, October 13, at 7:00 pm.  All fall lectures by Zoom.  Registration required: see For More Information link.

How did a fledgling town at the edge of empire grow into the thriving port connecting 17th-century New England to the world of commerce?


By the mid-seventeenth century, colonial Boston had grown into the greatest city in British America, a bustling entrepôt tying its New England hinterlands to trans-Atlantic markets stretching from the Caribbean, to Europe, and Africa.

In many ways, the logic of seventeenth-century trade had been against Boston. Colonies were expected to provide an empire with valuable staple commodities unavailable at home, like the gold of Spanish Mexico, the tobacco of Virginia, or the sugar of the Caribbean. But New England lacked such a staple. Instead, colonists learned to exploit their environment for the supplies that other regions of the British empire needed to keep their own economies running: food, furs, timber, barrels, and ships. In 1650, colonist Edward Johnson celebrated Massachusetts’ unorthodox colonial economy, writing that “every thing in the country proved a staple.”

This lecture will explore this trade in local natural resources and what it meant for the economy and ecology of early New England, and of Boston, in particular.


Strother E. Roberts, Assistant Professor of History, Bowdoin College, is a historian of the environment and economy of early modern North America. His research focuses on the indigenous and Euro-American communities of New England from the age of encounters through the era of the Early Republic. He recently published his first book, Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England, with the University of Pennsylvania Press. The book focuses on the Connecticut River Valley – New England’s longest river and largest watershed – to explore how the participation of Native nations and English settlers in local, regional, and trans-Atlantic markets for colonial commodities transformed the physical environment in one corner of a rapidly globalizing early modern world.