By the end of the 17th century, New England colonists had tapped into a sprawling Atlantic trade network that connected them to the English homeland as well as the West African slave coast, the Caribbean's plantation islands, and the Iberian Peninsula. Colonists relied upon British and European imports for glass, linens, hardware, machinery, and other items required for a colonist's household. In contrast to the Southern Colonies, which could produce tobacco, rice, and indigo in exchange for imports, New England's colonies initially could not offer much to England beyond fish, furs, and lumber. The hunting of wildlife provided furs to be traded and food for the colonists' tables. The New England Colonies were located near the ocean’s abundance of whales, fish, and other marketable sea life. Excellent harbors and some inland waterways offered protection for ships and valuable freshwater fishing.
The earliest of the New England Colonies were usually fishing villages or farming communities in the more fertile land along the rivers. While the rocky soil in the New England Colonies was not as fertile as that of the Middle or Southern Colonies, the land provided rich resources, including timber, that was valued for building homes and ships. Timber could also be exported back to England, where there was a shortage. Some merchants exploited the vast amounts of timber along the coasts and rivers of northern New England. They funded sawmills that supplied cheap wood for houses and shipbuilding. Hundreds of New England shipwrights built oceangoing ships, which they sold to British and American merchants. By the mid-18th century in New England, shipbuilding was a staple. The British crown often turned to the cheap, yet strongly built, American ships. There was a shipyard at the mouth of almost every river in New England (Figure 3).
At the same time, a variety of artisans, shopkeepers, and merchants provided services to the growing farming population. Blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and furniture makers set up shops in rural villages. There they built and repaired goods needed by farm families. Traders set up stores selling English manufactures such as cloth, iron utensils, and window glass, as well as West Indian products like sugar and molasses. The storekeepers of these shops sold their imported goods in exchange for crops and other local products, including roof shingles, potash, and barrel staves. These local goods were shipped to towns and cities all along the Atlantic Coast. Enterprising men set up stables and taverns along wagon roads to service these trade routes.
After these products had been delivered to port towns such as Boston and Salem in Massachusetts, New Haven in Connecticut, and Newport and Providence in Rhode Island, merchants then exported them to the West Indies, where they were traded for molasses, sugar, gold coins, and bills of exchange (credit slips). They carried the West Indian products to New England factories, where the raw sugar was turned into granulated sugar and the molasses distilled into rum. The gold and credit slips were sent to England, where they were exchanged for manufactures, which were then shipped back to the colonies and sold, along with the sugar and rum, to farmers. This system of exchange was known as the Triangular Trade (Figure 2). Other New England merchants took advantage of the rich fishing areas along the Atlantic Coast and financed a large fishing fleet, transporting its catch of mackerel and cod to the West Indies and Europe.