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Early English Colonization

During the early and mid-sixteenth century, the English tended to conceive of North America as a base for
piracy and harassment of the Spanish. But by the end of the century, the English began to think more seriously
about North America as a place to colonize: as a market for English goods and a source of raw materials and
commodities such as furs. English promoters claimed that New World colonization offered England many
advantages. Not only would it serve as a bulwark against Catholic Spain, it would supply England with raw
materials and provide a market for finished products. America would also provide a place to send the English
poor and ensure that they would contribute to the nation's wealth.
During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the English poor increased rapidly in number. As a
result of the enclosure of traditional common lands (which were increasingly used to raise sheep), many
common people were forced to become wage laborers or else to support themselves hand-to-mouth or simply as
After unsuccessful attempts to establish settlements in Newfoundland and at Roanoke, the famous "Lost
Colony," off the coast of present-day North Carolina, England established its first permanent North American
settlement, Jamestown, in 1607. Located in swampy marshlands along Virginia's James River, Jamestown's
residents suffered horrendous mortality rates during its first years. Immigrants had just a fifty-fifty chance of
surviving five years.
The Jamestown expedition was financed by the Virginia Company of London, which believed that precious
metals were to be found in the area. From the outset, however, Jamestown suffered from disease and conflict
with Indians. Approximately 30,000 Algonquian Indians lived in the region, divided into about 40 tribes. About
30 tribes belonged to a confederacy led by Powhatan.
Food was an initial source of conflict. More interested in finding gold and silver than in farming, Jamestown's
residents (many of whom were either aristocrats or their servants) were unable or unwilling to work. When the
English began to seize Indian food stocks, Powhatan cut off supplies, forcing the colonists to subsist on frogs,
snakes, and even decaying corpses.
Captain John Smith (1580?-1631) was twenty-six years old when the first expedition landed. A farmer's son,
Smith had already led an adventurous life before arriving in Virginia. He had fought with the Dutch army
against the Spanish and in eastern Europe against the Ottoman Turks, when he was taken captive and enslaved.
He later escaped to Russia before returning to England.
Smith, serving as president of the Jamestown colony from 1608 to 1609, required the colonists to work and
traded with the Indians for food. In 1609, after being wounded in a gunpowder accident, Smith returned to
England. After his departure, conflict between the English and the Powhatan confederacy intensified, especially
after the colonists began to clear land in order to plant tobacco.
In a volume recounting the history of the English colony in Virginia, Smith describes a famous incident in
which Powhatan's 12-year-old daughter, Pocahontas (1595?-1617), saved him from execution. Although some
have questioned whether this incident took place (since Smith failed to mention it in his Historie's first edition),
it may well have been a "staged event," an elaborate adoption ceremony by which Powhatan symbolically made
Smith his vassal or servant. Through similar ceremonies, the Powhatan people incorporated outsiders into their
society. Pocahontas reappears in the colonial records in 1613, when she was lured aboard an English ship and
held captive. Negotiations for her release failed, and in 1614, she married John Rolfe, the colonist who
introduced tobacco to Virginia. Whether this marriage represented an attempt to forge an alliance between the
English and the Powhatan remains uncertain.

Life in Early Virginia
Early Virginia was a death trap. Of the first 3,000 immigrants, all but 600 were dead within a few years of
arrival. Virginia was a society in which life was short, diseases ran rampant, and parentless children and
multiple marriages were the norm.
In sharp contrast to New England, which was settled mainly by families, most of the settlers of Virginia and
neighboring Maryland were single men bound in servitude. Before the colonies turned decisively to slavery in
the late seventeenth century, planters relied on white indentured servants from England, Ireland, and Scotland.
They wanted men, not women. During the early and mid-seventeenth century, as many as four men arrived for
every woman.
Why did large numbers of people come to such an unhealthful region? To raise tobacco, which had been
introduced into England in the late sixteenth century. Like a number of other consumer products introduced
during the early modern era--like tea, coffee, and chocolate--tobacco was related to the development of new
work patterns and new forms of sociability. Tobacco appeared to relieve boredom and stress and to enhance
peoples' ability to concentrate over prolonged periods of time. Tobacco production required a large labor force,
which initially consisted primarily of white indentured servants, who received transportation to Virginia in
exchange for a four to seven-year term of service.
Lacking valuable minerals or other products in high demand, it appeared that Jamestown was an economic
failure. After ten years, however, the colonists discovered that Virginia was an ideal place to cultivate tobacco,
which had been recently introduced into Europe. Since tobacco production rapidly exhausted the soil of
nutrients, the English began to acquire new lands along the James River, encroaching on Indian hunting
In 1622, Powhatan's successor, Opechcanough, tried to wipe out the English in a surprise attack. Two Indian
converts to Christianity warned the English; still, 347 settlers, or about a third of the English colonists, died in
the attack. Warfare persisted for ten years, followed by an uneasy peace. In 1644, Opechcanough launched a
last, desperate attack. After about two years of warfare, in which some 500 colonists were killed, Opechcanough
was captured and shot and the survivors of Powhatan's confederacy, now reduced to just 2,000, agreed to
submit to English rule.
Raising tobacco required a large labor force. At first, it was not clear that this labor force would consist of
enslaved Africans. Virginians experimented with a variety of labor sources, including Indian slaves, penal
slaves, and white indentured servants. Convinced that England was overpopulated with vagabonds and paupers,
the colonists imported surplus Englishmen to raise tobacco and to produce dyestuffs, potash, furs, and other
goods that England had imported from other countries. Typically, young men or women in their late teens or
twenties would sign a contract of indenture. In exchange for transportation to the New World, a servant would
work for several years (usually four to seven) without wages.
The status of indentured servants in early Virginia and Maryland was not wholly dissimilar from slavery.
Servants could be bought, sold, or leased. They could also be physically beaten for disobedience or running
away. Unlike slaves, however, they were freed after their term of service expired, their children did not inherit
their status, and they received a small cash payment of "freedom dues."
The English writer Daniel Defoe (1661?-1731) set part of his novel Moll Flanders (1683) in early Virginia.
Defoe described the people who settled in Virginia in distinctly unflattering terms: There were convicts, who
had been found guilty of felonies punishable by death, and there were those "brought over by masters of ships
to be sold as servants. Such as we call them, my dear, but they are more properly called slaves."

George Alsop, an indentured servant in Maryland, echoed these sentiments in 1666. Servants "by hundreds of
thousands" spent their lives "here and in Virginia, and elsewhere in planting that vile tobacco, which all
vanishes into smoke, and is for the most part miserably abused." And, he went on, this "insatiable avarice must
be fed and sustained by the bloody sweat of these poor slaves."
Founding New England
In sixteenth-century England, a religious movement known as Puritanism arose which wanted to purge the
Church of England of all vestiges of Roman Catholicism. The Puritans objected to elaborate church hierarchies
and to church ceremonies and practices which lacked Biblical sanction and elevated priests above their
Late in the sixteenth century, some Puritans, known as separatists, became convinced that the Church of
England was so corrupt that they withdrew from it and set up their own congregations. In 1609, a group of
separatists (later known as Pilgrims) fled from England to Holland, eager to escape the corrupting wickedness
around them. In his classic History of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford (1588-1657), the Pilgrim leader,
explains why the Pilgrims decided to leave the Netherlands in 1619 and establish a new community in the New
World. In this selection, he also describes how the Pilgrims were assisted by an Indian named Squanto.
Squanto's story illustrates the way that the entire Atlantic world became integrated in wholly new ways during
the seventeenth century and the impact this transformation had upon real-life individuals and communities. A
Patuxet Indian born around 1585, Squanto had grown up in a village of 2,000 located near where the Pilgrims
settled in 1620. In 1614, Captain John Smith had passed through the region, and one of his lieutenants
kidnapped Squanto and some twenty other Patuxets, planning to sell the Indians in the slave market of Malaga,
Spain. After escaping to England, where he learned to speak English, Squanto returned to New England in
1619, only to discover that his village had been wiped out by a chicken pox epidemic--one of many epidemics
that killed about 90 percent of New England's coastal Indian people between 1616 and 1618. Squanto then
joined the Wampanoag tribe.
After the Pilgrims arrived, Squanto served as an interpreter between the Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, and the
colonists and taught the English settlers how to plant Indian corn. He also tried to use his position to challenge
Massasoit's leadership, informing neighboring tribes that the Pilgrims would infect them with disease and make
war on them unless they gave him gifts. Squanto's scheme to use his connections with the Pilgrims to wrest
power from Massaoit failed. In 1622, two years after the English settlers arrived, Squanto fell ill and died of an
unknown disease.
Regional Contrasts
There were significant demographic and economic contrasts between the Chesapeake region and New England.
Because of its cold winters and low population density, seventeenth-century New England was perhaps the most
healthful region in the world. After an initial period of high mortality, life expectancy quickly rose to levels
comparable to our own. Men and women, on average, lived about 65 to 70 years, 15 to 20 years longer than in
England. One result was that seventeenth-century New England was the first society in history in which
grandparents were common.
Descended largely from families that arrived during the 1630s, New England was a relatively stable society
settled in compact towns and villages. It never developed any staple crop for export of any consequence, and
about 90 to 95 percent of the population was engaged in subsistence farming.
The further south one looks, however, the higher the death rate and the more unbalanced the sex ratio. In New
England, men outnumbered women about 3 to 2 in the first generation. But in New Netherlands there were two
men for every woman and the ratio was six to one in the Chesapeake. Where New England's population became
self-sustaining as early as the 1630s, New Jersey and Pennsylvania did not achieve this until the 1660s to the

1680s, and Virginia until after 1700. Compared to New England, Virginia was a much more mobile and unruly
Compared to the Southeast, it was much more difficult for native peoples of New England to resist the
encroaching English colonists. For one thing, the Northeast was much less densely populated. Epidemic
diseases introduced by European fishermen and fur traders reduced the population of New England's coastal
Indians about 90 percent by the early 1620s. Further, this area was fragmented politically into autonomous
villages with a long history of bitter tribal rivalries. Such factors allowed the Puritans to expand rapidly across
New England.
Some groups, notably the Massachusetts, whose number had fallen from about 20,000 to just 750 in 1631, allied
with the Puritans and agreed to convert to Christianity in exchange for military protection. But the migration of
Puritan colonists into western Massachusetts and Connecticut during the 1630s provoked bitter warfare,
especially with the Pequots, the area's most powerful people. In 1636, English settlers accused a Pequot of
attacking ships and murdering several sailors; in revenge, they burned a Pequot settlement on what is now
Block Island, Rhode Island. Pequot raids left about 30 colonists dead. A combined force of Puritans and
Narragansett and Mohegan Indians retaliated by surrounding and setting fire to the main Pequot village on the
Mystic River.
In his History of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford described the destruction by fire of the Pequot's major
village, in which at least 300 Indians were burned to death: "Those that escaped from the fire were slain with
the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run threw with their rapiers [swords]....It was a fearful sight to see
them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same." The survivors were enslaved and
shipped to the Caribbean. Altogether about 800 of 3,500 Pequot were killed during the Pequot War. In his epic
novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville names his doomed whaling ship "The Pequod," a clear reference to earlier
events in New England.