Early American Trade with China

Trade Routes & Trading Strategies

Economics of the China Trade

Contrasting Views of Trade

Life on a Merchant Ship


Concluding the Lesson

Students could write a brief essay on one of the following questions:

A. How did the system of mercantilism affect the way the United States could develop its own economy after gaining independence from England?

B. Imagine that you are a businessman living in the new United States in 1780. What advice would you give to the government regarding the development of trade. Things to be considered:

  1. Should the United States try to gain a monopoly over certain markets and attempt to establish colonies, following the model of mercantilism instituted by European countries?

  2. What options are open to the United States and what strategies would be most effective in developing a new and struggling economy?
  3. Given the existing trade routes, trade products, and economy at the time of independence, what is the feasibility of maintaining or changing these things?


To help students see how trade with China increased Americans’ awareness of and interest in many locations throughout the Pacific, an activity is included in which students locate places mentioned in "Ship Logs" involved in the China trade. Have students read the background information provided and follow the instructions given in the group assignment. By locating and marking these places on a world map, students can see how places like Hawaii and the Philippines took on strategic importance by the end of the 19th century.

Students can investigate other multiple-legged trade routes in the past or present (for example, the rum-slaves-sugar trade triangle that evolved between Rhode Island, West Africa, and the West Indies). Why are these complex, multiple product trade routes largely a thing of the past?

Review with students the factors that determined early trade routes with China: the American ports from which the ships left, the places to trade and get supplies along the way, prior experience of seamen. Explore connections to the present with the following questions:

  • How many of these factors still determine trade? Looking at the map, what are the most obvious routes for modern container ships carrying trade between the United States and China?

  • What factors have made the journey much shorter, faster, and easier?

  • Is trade with China still important to Americans? (students can look at labels on their clothing, sneakers, and products found all over their house and classroom to answer this one.)

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