The Early English Colonies
Because England got such a late start in the colonization
game, they couldn’t just set up their colonies wherever they wanted.
Spain dominated South America, Mexico, the West Indies, the American
Southwest, and Florida. The French held sway along North America’s
major waterways. In addition, the dense forests and occasionally
hostile Native American tribes prevented English settlers from moving
westward past the Appalachian Mountains. The early English settlements
were therefore concentrated along the eastern coast of North America.
There were three types of British colonies: royal, proprietary,
and self-governing. Each type had its own characteristics.
- Royal colonies were owned by
- Proprietary colonies, such as Pennsylvania,
Maryland, and Delaware, were basically land grants from the British
government. Individuals were awarded huge tracts of land that they
would then supervise and govern, usually in return for political
or financial favors. These colonial governors reported directly
to the king.
- Self-governing colonies, including Rhode
Island and Connecticut, formed when the king granted a charter to
a joint-stock company, and the company then set up its own government
independent of the crown. The king could revoke the colonial charter
at any time and convert a self-governing colony into a royal colony.
The SAT II test will focus on the particularly
important English colonies of Jamestown, Plymouth, and the Massachusetts
Nearly twenty years after the failure of the English settlement
at Roanoke, two separate joint-stock companies set out to found
settlements along the Atlantic seaboard. In 1606, England’s King
James I authorized a charter granting land in what was then called
Virginia (but stretched from modern-day Maine to North Carolina)
to the Virginia Company of Plymouth and the Virginia Company of
London. Colonists, considered employees of their respective companies,
journeyed to America in 1607. The Virginia Company of Plymouth failed
miserably, and its settlement in Sagadahoc, Maine was abandoned
within two years. The Virginia Company of London was more successful,
though in the New World, success was something of a relative term.
Jamestown’s Early Years
The 105 original Jamestown colonists were all men. Jamestown
was a business venture, not a place to raise a family. The colonists
took this ethic to heart and focused all their efforts on getting
rich, neglecting to tend to any sort of agriculture. As a result,
more than half of the colonists died of malnourishment and starvation
within the first year. Only 38 colonists remained when reinforcements
arrived in 1608.
Captain John Smith, one of the surviving
original colonists, soon emerged as a prominent leader. In 1608,
Smith organized work gangs to ensure the colony had food and shelter
and made rules to control sanitation and hygiene. During the winter
of 1608–1609, only twelve of 200 men died. Smith also excelled in
diplomacy, maintaining friendly ties with the nearby Powhatan Confederacy.
But when Smith was wounded in 1609 and returned to England, the
colony staggered toward collapse. Out of a population of about 500
colonists in Jamestown in September 1609, 400 died by May 1610.
Relations with the nearby Native Americans deteriorated, and in
1610 the first Anglo-Powhatan War erupted.
Tobacco, Money, and Success
In the end, Jamestown was saved—not by gold or silver—but
because it had the perfect climate for growing tobacco. John
Rolfe, an Englishman who married the Powhatan leader’s daughter,
Pocahontas, introduced to the colony West Indian tobacco, a salable
strain with many advantages over local varieties. From 1616 to 1619,
Jamestown’s tobacco exports grew nearly twenty-fold. Sensing the
possibility for great profit, the Virginia Company dispatched money
and supplies and awarded land grants to anyone able to pay for his
own passage to Jamestown, or for the passage of another laborer.
The profits produced by tobacco saved Jamestown
and ensured the settlement’s success.
As the colony grew in size, its members began to desire
a better system of government. In 1619, the colonists formed a general
assembly, the House of Burgesses. The House of Burgesses
was the first representative government in the New World, though
its power was limited because the Virginia Company could still overrule
its actions. That same year, the first Africans were brought to
Jamestown. Originally working as indentured servants, by the 1640s
most Africans were bought and sold as slaves.
Jamestown’s House of Burgesses, formed in 1619,
was America’s first representative government.
The year 1622 was a tragic one for Jamestown. A second
war with the Powhatan tribe, a slump in tobacco prices, fraudulent
practices by local officials, and high death rates from disease,
all conspired to transform the normal rigors of colonial life into
extremely hard times. Under this strain, the joint-stock company
collapsed and James I revoked its charter, making Virginia a royal
colony in 1624.
In 1620, 102 settlers sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower,
having procured a patent for settlement from the Virginia Company
of London. These colonists agreed to send lumber, fish, and fur
back to England for seven years before they could assume ownership
of the land. Most of these settlers were Separatists from
England, who wanted to separate from the Anglican Church (the Church
of England). These Separatists had originally left England for the
Netherlands to escape religious persecution. The voyage to the New World
offered an even greater escape.
Separatists renounced the Church of England and
established their own self-governing congregations. Among the Separatist
groups are Pilgrims, Quakers, and Baptists. Separatists are distinct
from Puritans, who originally wanted to “purify” the Anglican Church
without separating from it.
In November of 1620, the Mayflower landed
at Plymouth Bay, outside the bounds of the British possession of
Virginia. Since they had no legal right to settle there, the leaders
of the Pilgrims, as the Separatists who came to
the New World were called, insisted that all males sign the Mayflower
Compact, which established the colony of Plymouth Plantation
as a “civil body politic” under the sovereignty of James I of England.
The Mayflower Compact is often described as America’s
first example of true self-government.
The Pilgrims were unprepared for the harsh New
England winter, and about half of the settlers died by March 1621.
Those who survived owed their lives to the aid of some English-speaking Native
Americans, who taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn. After that
terrible first winter, Plymouth quickly grew and prospered. Within
a few years, the colony expanded into Cape Cod and the southeastern
part of modern Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony
During the first half of the seventeenth century,
religious and political oppression in England grew worse. In 1628,
the Puritans struck a deal with the English government,
under which the Puritans would leave England and settle north of
the Plymouth Plantation on the condition that they would have political
control of their colony. The Puritans wanted their colony to be
a theocracy, and emphasized religion over trade. In 1630, under
the leadership of John Winthrop, who had been elected
governor, about 900 Puritans traveled to Massachusetts. These Puritans eventually
settled at the site of modern-day Boston. Winthrop’s colony was
a community based on the Bible. He saw Massachusetts Bay as “a city
upon a hill,” a beacon of religious righteousness that would shine
throughout the world. As happened in most settlements, the colonists
were unprepared for the first winter and almost one-third of the
settlers died. But by mid-1631, the colonists had put the worst
behind them and the Massachusetts Bay Colony began to thrive.
Government of Massachusetts Bay
The Massachusetts Bay colony was initially run
by a General Court that allowed membership only to landholding Puritan
men. After public outcry, all Puritan freemen, regardless of wealth or
holdings, were allowed entrance. As the number of settlers increased
and the General Court became too large, the settlers established
a representative government, electing two representatives from each
district to the General Court.
Religion and Massachusetts Bay
The Massachusetts Bay Colony operated according
to a system called congregationalism, in which
each independent church congregation served as the center of a community’s
political and social life. Only those individuals with good standing
in the church could participate in government.
Some inhabitants, however, broke with the Puritan leaders
over the strong relationship between church and state. One such
dissenter was Roger Williams. Unlike those in power, who
believed that there must be legal separation but substantial cooperation
between church and state, Williams argued that total separation
was necessary. He feared that without separation the state would
corrupt the church. In 1635, Williams was banished from Massachusetts.
He eventually established the colony of Rhode Island in 1647, where
the government renounced the Church of England and permitted religious
freedom. Another dissenter was Anne Hutchinson, whose
religious teachings were taken by some to be attacks on Puritan
religious codes. Hutchinson found support in Henry Vane, who had
become governor of the colony after Winthrop left office. But Winthrop
staunchly opposed Hutchinson and succeeded in ousting Vane from
office. In 1637, Hutchinson and her followers were banished; most
of them settled in Rhode Island.
Some Massachusetts dissenters who went on to
found new settlements in New England: Roger Williams (Providence,
RI), Anne Hutchinson (Portsmouth, RI and Pelham Bay, NY).