Southern English Colonies


While it is important to recognize that the sugar colonies in the Caribbean were far more important to the English empire than the mainland colonies in the seventeenth century, most of our focus is on the "Chesapeake." The Chesapeake settlements consisted of two colonies: Virginia (settled in 1607) and Maryland (1635). While Maryland was intended to be a haven for English Catholics, religious beliefs had very little to do with the development of either colony. Alternatively, it was the cash crop tobacco that shaped the lives and secured the success of these English colonies. Most textbooks focus on the development of Virginia because Jamestown was (1) the first successful English foothold in the Americas and (2) Virginians would later dominate politics during the Revolutionary era (1776-1783) through the early national period (1783-1824). We can break seventeenth century Virginian history into three phases: early settlement (1607-ca.1622), the rise of yeoman farmer (ca. 1622-ca. 1650), and the ascendancy of the planter grandees (ca. 1650- ca. 1700). 

Early Settlement (1607-ca.1622) 

King James I (the first of the Stuart dynasty) had very little to do with the establishment of Jamestown. Instead, James simply gave his permission to a group of investors who hoped that a New World settlement might produce profits for themselves. Forming a "joint stock company," these financiers hoped that their employees (the settlers) would discover (1) a Northwest passage to Asia; (2) mineral wealth; and/or (3) establish profitable trading partnerships with local natives. Unfortunately for the investors, early settlers, and the indigenous people of the Chesapeake, the early settlement's earliest legacy was one of misery, warfare, and death. The English carried with them diseases that spread among the native population, introduced new plants and animals that quickly altered the local ecology, and pushed the limits of the Powhattan Indians' patience, which ended in a bloody uprising in 1622. The capitalists who backed the company never saw a return on their investment, but two innovations made by the company in the late 1610s are recalled in standard textbooks:
  1. In 1619, the Virginia Company ceded responsibility for creating Virginia laws to the colonist. In other words, the company created the "House of Burgesses," the first representative legislative body in English America, where all freemen had the right to participate in local elections.
  2. In 1618 the Virginia Company established the headright system for distributing land to individuals. Under this scheme, each adult freeman received fifty acres plus an additional fifty acres for each dependent (wife, child, servant, slave). According to an earlier generation of historians, it was the combination of private property ownership and representative form of government that accounted for the long-run prosperity of the colony. Today's textbooks do not necessarily dispute this claim, but modern accounts emphasize the discovery of a cash export crop (tobacco) as the most important factor in creating a prosperous colony.
The Ascendancy of the Yeoman (ca. 1622- ca. 1650) 

In the early seventeenth century, only the very wealthy in England could afford to smoke regularly. Tobacco, for the most part, was imported from either Spanish or Portuguese America and could be purchased at only high prices. When it was discovered that high grade tobacco leaf would thrive in the Chesapeake region, settlers quickly specialized in the crop. Virginia farmers were desperate for land and laborer in order to maximize production. While some African and African Americans were imported as slaves, the vast majority of workers arrived as contract laborers known as "indentured servants." 

Indentured servants were primarily the poorest people in England. They signed agreements with merchants and shipmasters that committed them to labor for four to seven years. During this period of time, the contracted laborer could be bought and sold from master to master as if, in the words of one servant, as if he were "a damned slave." In exchange for his or her labor, the servant received free passage to America, food, shelter, and supplies (freedom dues) when the time on the indenture ran out. Upon gaining his freedom, male servants could also stake a 50 acre claim and set himself up as a small, yeoman farmer. According to Russell Menard's research, indentured servitude and life in the Chesapeake offered upward economic and social mobility for England's poor. Former servants, who had no real prospects in England, became active participants in colony society and government. Menard also emphasized that those who became established yeoman were nonetheless lucky, for nearly half of servants died before their contract ended. 

In the first half of the seventeenth century, eighty percent of migrants to the Chesapeake region came as indentured servants. Between 75% and 85% of the trade was made up of men, generally between the ages of 15 and 25. In other words, the Chesapeake settlements were demographically imbalanced and relatively few families or couples came from England to Maryland or Virginia. Family formation was therefore relatively rare. 

The Emergence of the Chesapeake Grandees (ca. 1650-ca.1700) 
In the second half of the seventeenth century, the opportunities for poor and uneducated Englishmen narrowed. One reason for diminishing opportunities is related to the change in the Chesapeake's demographic regime. As settlements moved inland, and as better sources of drink were discovered, the likelihood of death by disease diminished. As a result, life in the Chesapeake increasingly attracted migrants who were educated and came as freeman and with capital. The opportunities for poor migrants diminished in both Maryland and Virginia. Furthermore, the House of Burgesses was less inclined to promote land ownership among ex-servants. Landless laborers clamored for a war of territorial conquest against the Natives in the region, but the elites who controlled government refused. The failed Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 was a direct outgrowth of this tension between the poor ex-servants and the rising gentry. According to Edmund Morgan, the uprising made race slavery appear more attractive to landowners. Unlike indentured servants (and ex-indentured servants), Africans and their descendents would be formally denied the rights of Englishmen and be reduced to chattel (moveable property) indefinitely. Morgan reasons that this gave the master class greater ability to control their workers (than under the servant system) and helped solidify white unity between the landless, yeoman, and grandees. 

The Greater Caribbean 
The English Caribbean (West Indies) is often overlooked in surveys of British America, but in the seventeenth century it was the center of imperialist ambitions. Cromwell, for example, showed little interest in rocky New England (which didn't offer any promising staple crops), calling it "a poor, cold, and useless place." Alternatively, he and other English imperialists eyed the Caribbean as the source of personal and national riches. The tiny sugar islands of St. Kitts, Nevis, and Barbados along with much larger Jamaica attracted enormous capital, which was used to purchase slaves and machinery which produced a sub-refined sugar, known as "muscovado." These islands were highly specialized and relied on food imports in order to feed both the free and slave population. Over the course of the seventeenth century, much of the "provisioning" trade originated in New England and the North American "middle colonies." It is essential to know that the majority of African slaves that were taken to the New World were destined for sugar growing regions (ca. 70%). The vast majority of slaves carried on board British ships were no different, selling their cargoes in the sugar islands. 

Key Terms: 

James I
Powhatan and Powhatan Indians (Algonquians) 
Indentured Servants
John Rolfe
John Smith
Nathaniel Bacon
Lord Baltimore

The Chesapeake

Indentured Servitude
Slave trade
Staple crops
Codification of slavery (post 1660) 
Bacon's Rebellion

Copyright ©2009 D.B. Ryden