Early North American Colonies
Created | Updated May 25, 2017
The English weren't the first to colonise America; they were distracted by internal strife during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. However, after a slow start, the English eventually took over the earlier settlements of France, Spain and the Netherlands, not to mention the land settled by the original inhabitants. This entry is a brief introduction to the first colonies in America.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to establish a permanent settlement in North America: at St Augustine, Florida in 1565. Spain 'possessed' most of southern North America, all of Central America, and western South America, but North America was only sparsely populated by Spanish settlers. Missionaries converted the Native American 'heathens', and Spain relied heavily on native labour for gold and silver mining, especially in Central and South America.
The first English colony, on Roanoke Island, was founded by Walter Raleigh in 1585, under a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I. The settlers of Roanoke searched for gold rather than plant crops, which was pretty silly, as gold is inedible. They relied on the local population of Native Americans, the Powhatans1, to provide them with food, and the native people obliged. However, the bad relations that are usually caused when invading peoples kidnap and kill their hosts meant that the food supply got rather low, so, the next year, the settlers abandoned the colony, and returned to England. Raleigh sent a second expedition in 1587, but England lost contact with the settlers at the time of the battle with the Spanish Armada, and when supply ships finally arrived in 1590, it was discovered that the colonists had all disappeared. They left only two cryptic clues: one carved into a post,'Croatoan'; and the other into a tree, 'Cro', apparently referring to the nearby Croatoan Island.
In 1607, a colony was founded at Jamestown by the 'Virginia Company', a joint-stock company2 granted a charter by James I. Virginia was named after Queen Elizabeth (the Virgin Queen) and was fashioned after the English society of aristocratic rule. Most of the original aristocrats died, however, and few more migrated. Most of the immigrants were young men who travelled as indentured servants - men whose transport was paid for by the rich, and which was paid off over a period of about five years. Theoretically, the indentured servants would then receive payment and freedom, but in reality, around 40 per cent died before they had the chance. Poor young men from England had a slightly greater chance of becoming property owners in America than in England, however, so there was no shortage of supply.
In Virginia3, men and women had shorter lives and less time (after servitude) to marry and have children, so fewer children were born. Because there were three times as many men than women, widows remarried and had greater social status. They could even inherit property during this period, however things regressed to the former subservient state by 1700.
At first, the settlers of Jamestown were friendly with Native Americans, but they later started to take food by force, rather than plant their own. When the leader of the Algonquians, Chief Powhatan, withdrew his support for the settlers, many English starved during the 1609-1610 winter, and the survivors resorted to cannibalism. The settlers reduced in number from 900 to 60 by spring. The first profitable crop was tobacco, introduced by John Rolfe in 1613, but like gold, tobacco wasn't edible. To increase the number of labourers in the colony the joint-stock company introduced the concept of 'headrights'. Fifty acres was given to anyone who would pay the transportation costs for a worker. These workers became indentured servants, who worked for between five and seven years to pay off the debt of their transportation.
In the New World there was an extremely high mortality rate. Between 1619 and 1622, 3,000 settlers arrived, but by 1622, only 1,200 had survived. This encouraged the leaders of the colony to look for labour elsewhere.
The first Africans were brought to Virginia in 1619. For four decades, the status of slaves was unclear. Some saw them as slaves; others saw them as indentured servants who became free after a certain period of time. By 1700, however, permanent slavery had become accepted and widespread.
House of Burgesses
The first American government was an experiment in democracy. All male property owners over the age of 17 could vote. The House of Burgesses was formed in 1619: a legislative body consisting of the Governor (appointed by joint-stock officials), his advisors, and representatives from most major areas and plantations throughout Virginia. The House of Burgesses was established to consolidate the company (the settlers) as the Virginians expanded inland along the river, after their tobacco crops exhausted the soil.
The expansion of the colonists endangered the Native American way of life. In 1622, the Powhatans attacked the colony and killed 300 people. The colonists retaliated, burnt villages, slaughtered natives, and destroyed crops. After the attack, the colonists numbered 1,300 from 8,500 originally shipped over, and the Virginia Company lost its charter and therefore its funding. Virginia was made a royal colony, ruled by the appointed governor, his council and the House of Burgesses. Powhatan's4 successor, Opechancanough agreed to withdraw from the English settlement. The colony's population grew to 10,000 by 1644, when Opechancanough attacked again. The Native Americans killed 500, but the colonists under Governor William Berkeley suppressed the uprising, and executed Opechancanough.
The settlers of the expanding colony wanted to move further west. The plantation owner Nathaniel Bacon wanted the government to support attacks on the Susquehannock tribe, but the government would not fund an army. Bacon's rebels threw a tantrum, massacring Native Americans, and occupying and burning Jamestown. The House of Burgesses conceded, enacting laws for tax reform and authorising attacks on the Susquehannock5. The rebels were backed by indentured servants and slaves, but the rebellion collapsed when Bacon died of illness and 23 of his followers were hung. To prevent further revolts, the Governor William Berkley forced Native Americans off the land.
In 1632 King James I gave Maryland (the North Chesapeake Bay area) to George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, making it private property, unlike Virginia. To populate his new land, Calvert introduced headrights in 1640. Calvert was a Catholic and intended Maryland to be a haven for Catholics, but most of the settlers were Protestant. Calvert protected the Catholic minority with the Toleration Act of 1649, which established religious liberty.
Puritans wanted to purge the Protestant Church of England of all Catholic remnants, and were therefore seen in England as dissenters. They settled in New England as families, to demonstrate the values of a 'godly' society. The Puritans believed that the Native Americans were once white, were sinners put in America by the devil, and that God killed them with diseases, to make way for His 'chosen' people. They believed that people were sinners and deserved damnation, but a few chosen ones were predestined for heaven before they were born, and perhaps from the beginning of all time. Puritans spent their lives preparing themselves for heaven, and showing outward signs of inward grace.
Puritanism was influenced by the Geneva Protestant theologian John Calvin, and Puritans did not believe that the Church of England was beyond redemption. Those who did were known as Separatists. The Separatists, or Pilgrims, landed in Plymouth in 1620 on The Mayflower. They developed a government giving the minority (one-third) Separatists power. In the 1630s, 20,000 more Puritans migrated to Massachusetts.
Massachusetts Bay Colony
The Government of New England originated as the joint-stock Massachusetts Bay Company. Only stock-holders, or 'freemen' could vote. This was later changed to 'citizens', but only church members were considered citizens. At the town level, all property-owning men could vote. In 1634, colony legislature ordered towns to elect delegates to a representative assembly, thereby becoming a democracy.
To show the world how good godly people lived, the Puritans and Separatists built what they considered to be a 'city on a hill': a metaphoric beacon for the whole world to look up to and strive for. The colonists settled as families in townships around a church; ministers distributed land to individual families. The Puritan family was seen as a microcosm of society. It was hierarchic, with men assuming the legal status of their wives6. Children were assumed to be born tainted with original sin, so discipline was strict and harsh. The abundant land led to early marriages, which in turn led to large families and rapid population growth.
Theologian Roger Williams demanded the complete separation of Church and State in order to protect the Church from corruption. Governor John Winthrop expelled him from the colony, whereupon he established his own colony at Rhode Island, dedicated to religious tolerance. In another incident, Anne Hutchinson claimed God spoke to her, and held private religious meetings with other women in the colony. This was seen to be heretical, as the status of women was seen to be beneath that of men, and she too was expelled from the colony, fleeing to Rhode Island. Quakers were also expelled, or in some cases, executed.
King Phillip's War
The Native American Metacomet of the Wampanoag tribe, known in the English colony as King Phillip, led a war against the colonists between 1675 and 1676. Colonists invaded Native lands, burned villages, and destroyed crops. The Wampanoags and other Algonquian tribes attacked English settlements, forcing them to abandon 25 towns: half of their colonies. To preserve trade, the Native American federation of tribes, known as the Iroquois Confederacy, killed Metacomet and forced the Algonquian tribe to accept a harsh treaty, however 600 English settlers and 3,000 Algonquians had already been killed.
After the English Civil War in the 1640s, King Charles II tightened control over colonies. He gave land (New York, the Carolinas, and Pennsylvania) to aristocrats, and regulated trade between the colonies and Britain.
In 1663, Carolina was given to eight lords, who proposed an English-like system of lords, peasants and slaves, but no one wanted to be a peasant. No one wanted to be a slave either, but they had less choice in the matter. Wealthy Barbados sugar planters settled in southern Carolina, forming Charles Town (later Charleston) in 1670, where some raised cattle and traded for deer skins with Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws. The colonists encouraged wars between the Native American tribes, and supplied arms in return for captives (slaves). Small farmers settled around Albemarle Sound in the northern part of Carolina, and formed North Carolina in 1712.
King Charles II granted a colony to the Quaker William Penn in 1681, and he founded Pennsylvania as a religious sanctuary. He formed a charter, the First Frame of Government in 1682, which established principles of religious freedom and representative government. Penn purchased the land 'given' to him by the King from the Delaware inhabitants, earning their appreciation, and facilitating trade in furs. The religious freedom and liberal land ownership of Pennsylvania attracted diverse settlers from countries such as Germany and Scotland. By 1700, the population of Pennsylvania was 12,000.
The Dutch created the West India Company in 1621 and established New Amsterdam in 1624. The settlement attracted a multi-ethnic population, including Jews, Catholics, free and slave Africans and Europeans. King Charles II captured the Dutch colony (New Netherlands) and in 1667 gave it to his brother, the Duke of York, who renamed it New York. In 1673, the Dutch recaptured New York, but returned it in a peace settlement the year after, and the Dutch and the English lived peacefully together. New York attracted Quakers and settlers from New England, and by 1700, New York was a major metropolis.
The French settlements in North America (Canada) were smaller, because most French people did not want to migrate, an exception being the French Protestants (Huguenots), who faced persecution in France. Partly because they had fewer people, the French traded and were allied with Native Americans, in particular the Algonquians and Hurons (in the North East) and the Choctaws (in the lower Mississippi, down which they traded). French fur trappers (coureurs de bois) partnered with natives to do business, and married native women. The French never had large settlements or agriculture, as their population was never high.
The French alliance with Algonquians and Hurons made them vulnerable to Iroquois attacks; the Iroquois hunted Hurons for slaves, to replace clan members killed by disease, and this threatened French trade. The French helped the Huron, so the Iroquois attacked the French settlements. In 1650 the Mohawks (of the Iroquois confederation) destroyed the Huron people and made peace with the French. When the Mohawks violated the peace agreement, the French destroyed their villages, and the Mohawks accepted peace.
The United Colonies of America
The formation of the country of America has a long and complicated history. Each of the colonies was founded with a different goal in mind, often by people of different nationalities and religions, but by the 18th Century the eastern colonies had rebelled against British rule, forming the Thirteen States of America, which was to become the most powerful nation in the world.