Chesapeake Colonies



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Chesapeake Colonies

In the middle of the seventeenth century, a resident complained that the Chesapeake "is reported to be an unhealthy place, a nest of Rogues, whores, desolute and rooking persons; a place of intolerable labour, bad usage and hard Diet." Such circumstances, partly true of early Virginia, were an inauspicious beginning for England's first region of permanent settlement on the North American mainland and a misleading harbinger of the Chesapeake's eighteenth-century prominence and prosperity.

English interest in the Chesapeake area had begun in the late sixteenth century as a prospective outpost for attacking Spanish ships, as a possible source of precious metals and semitropical crops, as a presumably congenial location for English settlement and conversion of the Indians, and, perhaps, as the eastern terminus of a transcontinental passage. By the early seventeenth century, when English explorations farther north and south proved disappointing, England's imperialists focused on the Chesapeake area as the most promising site for British colonization. The formation of the Virginia Company of London in 1606 led the following year to England's outpost at Jamestown and eventually to the extensive settlement of Virginia and Maryland.

Although the Jamestown colony survived, it failed for several decades to accomplish any of its avowed objectives. The outpost, moreover, was lethal to its settlers, expensive to its investors, and intermittently at war with its native neighbors. Major problems were the colonists' lack of appropriate skills and the company's inability to send necessary supplies. As a garrison against attacks and simultaneously a self-supporting work force, the first colonists should have been predominantly soldiers, farmers, and laborers. Instead they were a hodgepodge of workers with irrelevant skills and posturing lesser gentry. Matters improved only slightly with additional recruits and supplies: time and again the wrong people and wrong things arrived. As England's first major experiment in American colonization, the Chesapeake was a trial-and-error disaster.

The mortality rate in the early years reflects the colony's problems. From an initial population of approximately 105 at its founding in 1607, the number dropped to 50 at the end of the first year; new arrivals swelled the ranks to nearly 400 by the summer of 1609, but a year later the number was down to 90. A few settlers had returned to England, but most of the population loss came from persistent diseases and Indian retaliation for encroachment and forced contributions of food. The deadly pattern continued well into the 1620s and abated only gradually thereafter. Even after 1624, when Virginia came under direct Crown control and Maryland (settled in the 1630s) was administered by a benign proprietor, the Chesapeake compared poorly in healthfulness, orderliness, and overall prosperity to New England and, in some respects, to the British Caribbean.

Maryland, founded a generation after Jamestown, learned from Virginia's mistakes. Lord Baltimore's colony began with more realistic expectations and better planning and accordingly enjoyed relative health and tranquillity in its early years. It also attracted a more dedicated group of colonists. As a haven for Roman Catholics (though they were a minority in the colony from the outset), Maryland appealed to families with intentions of staying the course rather than to single men with expectations of quick profits and an early departure. But Maryland's golden age was brief; as Virginia gradually gained stability, Maryland succumbed to internecine strife. For most of the seventeenth century, the two British colonies suffered internal friction and hostility not only with neighboring Indians but often with each other.

The Chesapeake's economic vitality began with John Rolfe's introduction of a superior species of tobacco from Trinidad in 1612. The imported plants (Nicotiana tabacum) flourished in the Tidewater's soil and climate; soon a tobacco craze hit Virginia that undermined efforts to grow other crops, even for local use. The early settlers of Maryland followed suit. By midcentury, the Chesapeake colonies were exporting large and profitable tobacco cargoes, and their prosperity thereafter rose and fell with fluctuations in the international market.

Tobacco profits dramatically increased the demand for labor. When early hopes that the Indians would work for the English proved ephemeral, a system of indentured labor (whereby one worked usually for four or five years in exchange for passage to America and all necessities during the period of service) was linked to head rights of fifty acres of land (sometimes one hundred acres in Maryland) to anyone who paid a person's passage to the colony. This system provided a temporary solution to the labor shortage; it also encouraged the amassing of huge estates by men rich enough to obtain scores of head rights. But the number of indentured immigrants was always inadequate, and the ex-servants often became tobacco growers themselves, thus increasing the demand for servants. And as good farming land became scarce, the ex-servants increasingly formed a disgruntled frontier subculture - landless, restless, and armed - that culminated in Nathaniel Bacon's uprising in 1676 in Virginia. Moreover, the demand for field-workers skewed the sex ratio heavily toward male immigrants, which gave the Chesapeake a heavy (about five to one) male preponderance during most of the seventeenth century. Indentured servants remained an important part of the Chesapeake labor force throughout the colonial era, but by the late seventeenth century they were no longer its core. In the eighteenth century, Maryland imported substantial numbers of British convicts as bound laborers, usually with terms of seven years, but again the supply fell short of the need.

Slavery was the solution. In both Virginia and Maryland, the shift to imported African slave labor began early but did not reach major proportions until the last quarter of the seventeenth century, when a growing demand for labor coincided with a slackening of the supply from England and an expansion of the Atlantic slave trade. By the second quarter of the eighteenth century, black labor predominated, although white workers continued to hold most of the skilled positions on the tobacco plantations until acculturated slaves took over those roles as well. Whites of all socioeconomic classes increasingly eschewed labor in the fields, as a caste system based on pigmentation became a hallmark of Chesapeake society. By the eve of the American Revolution, African-Americans constituted nearly 40 percent of the region's non-Indian population.

In both Virginia and Maryland, leadership in the eighteenth century came from the planters and their associates - merchants and lawyers - though the roles often overlapped. The plantocracy dominated both houses of the legislatures, the local governments, the colonial militias, and the church vestries. A few families, most notably in Virginia, set the tone for a society that emulated the English landed gentry's style and influence. But unlike its English counterparts, the Chesapeake aristocracy depended on a single-crop economy based on vast landholdings and black bondsmen. Even toward the end of the eighteenth century, when falling tobacco prices and exhausted soil encouraged a more diversified economy, tobacco and slaves remained central to the colonial Chesapeake, and the plantocracy retained its remarkable homogeneity and hegemony. The power of the plantocracy took on new meaning in the 1760s and 1770s when the struggle with the mother country highlighted a remarkable cadre of articulate and energetic leaders whose national prominence lasted far beyond the revolutionary era.

Wesley Frank Craven, The Southern Colonies in the Seventeenth Century, 1607-1689 (1949); Gloria Lund Main, Tobacco Colony: Life in Early Maryland, 1650-1720 (1982); Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975).

Alden T. Vaughan



See Also

  • Bacon's Rebellion

  • Colonial Culture

  • Colonial Economy

  • Colonial Government and Politics

  • Colonial Wars

  • Indentured Servitude

  • Indians

  • Plantation System

  • Slavery

  • Tobacco


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