History 1301
Topic Three: British Colonization of America
Before we discuss British colonization in North America, it might be helpful to know a little something
about Britain herself. In the 16th century Britain was a Protestant society, although there were a few
(mostly secret) Catholic holdouts. Britain was ruled by a constitutional monarchy, that is, the monarch
was not considered above the law. The monarch also ruled with the help of Parliament, a legislative
body that consisted of two houses. In addition, the British had an official state religion, the Church of
England (also known as the Anglican Church). The official head of the Anglican Church was, and still is,
the ruler of the Britain.
Although Spanish colonization started in 1524, British colonization had to wait until political and
religious tensions in the country had been resolved. Henry VIII (1509-1547) married six wives in an
attempt to father a son and heir for England. As a result, Henry divorced his first wife, Katherine of
Aragon (daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain by the way), and married his mistress Anne Boleyn.
Since the Catholic pope wouldn’t sanction the divorce, Henry converted England to Protestantism and
the Church of England was created. Although Henry married six times, he fathered only three children:
Mary, daughter of Katherine of Aragon, Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn, and Edward, son of third
wife Jane Seymour. When Henry died in 1547, the question of religion in England was far from settled
since his son Edward VI (1547-1554) was a boy of fourteen. Protestantism had barely taken hold in
England when Edward died at the age of twenty and his half-sister Mary became Mary I (1554-1559).
Mary was Catholic, and she tried to re-convert England back to Catholicism. Mary ruled only five years
before she died and Henry’s last surviving child came to the throne. Under Elizabeth I (1559-1603),
England not only settled into a moderate Protestant country, but also broke Spanish naval power. It
wasn’t until Elizabeth’s reign, when England stabilized both politically and religiously, that the country
could begin to think about colonization.
British Colonization: First Phase 1587 to 1660
The British had claimed land in North America northward from Spanish Florida to the Dutch settlements
at New Netherlands (modern day New York). They also had claims to some of the islands in the
Caribbean (the West Indies). Furthermore, the British claimed the land north of the Dutch. John Smith
had visited this territory earlier and named them New England.
The first British attempt at colonization occurred at Roanoke Island. The first colony at Roanoke (15851586) failed, but the second colony established in 1587, was able to build a settlement. Although
financed by a favorite of the queen, Sir Walter Raleigh, the leader of the expedition was John White,
whose granddaughter, Virginia Dare, was the first English child born in the Americas. Shortly after
Virginia’s birth, John White and the colony ship returned to England for more supplies and more
colonists. They were delayed in returning because England and Spain went to war over the execution of
Mary, Queen of Scots. When the colony ship returned to Roanoke in 1590, they found it completely
deserted. Several searches were made for the Roanoke colonists, but to this day, no one knows with
certainty what happened to them.
The second attempt at colonization would not occur for another twenty years. By this time Queen
Elizabeth was dead and her cousin James, the King of Scotland, was on the throne as James I of England
(his mother was Mary, Queen of Scots, whose execution by Elizabeth started the war with Spain and
prevented Roanoke’s ship from returning for three years). This time is was an investment company, or
joint-stock company, that financed colonization. The Virginia Company would be headquartered in
London; the pool of investors would choose colony leaders and direct finances. In 1607, three colony
ships with 105 settlers set sail for the Chesapeake Bay region, where they built a settlement roughly
thirty miles inland on the James River. These new colonists, all men, called their settlement Jamestown.
Jamestown was not meant to be an agricultural settlement, but a trading post. The colonists were
supposed to find commodities, most especially mineral wealth, which could be shipped back to England
for profit. In addition, the settlers would trade with the local natives for food. Jamestown was an
investment and the shareholders of the Virginia Company expected a return on their investment. There
were problems at Jamestown from the beginning however. The site chosen for settlement was not the
most ideal. Located on a bend on the river, it provided a defensive position against the natives, but
wasn’t far enough inland. Since Jamestown was located in an estuary, the climate wasn’t healthy, the
drinking water was contaminated with salt and mosquitos spread disease among the inhabitants.
Furthermore, the colonists faced a unified empire of Native Americans, the Powhatan Confederacy.
Powhatan, an Algonquin chieftain, had conquered an empire that included dozens of tribes, thousands
of subjects and immense wealth. The settlers of Jamestown found themselves in a contradictory
relationship with their neighbors, alternately trading and warring with them.
That first year, Jamestown barely survived. Disease, starvation, laziness and attacks by the natives
reduced the population to 38. In 1608, John Smith was elected leader of the colony. He immediately put
Jamestown under military law, started the planting of crops, and began trading again with the natives.
Forget about the romance with Pocahontas. It is completely false. Jamestown still had a problem
however. It was surviving, but it wasn’t making a profit. And in 1609, Smith was injured and returned to
England. The winter of 1609-1610 was called “The Starving Time”. Without strong leadership, the colony
fell apart and barely survived. Some resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Of the three hundred colonists
that went into the winter of 1609, only 60 were alive by May of 1610.
The year 1611 saw a change in the fortunes of Jamestown. A new fort, Henrico (later renamed
Richmond) was constructed further up the James River. In addition, a cash crop, tobacco, was
introduced to the colony. King James despised the new fad of tobacco smoking, but it proved profitable
on both sides of the Atlantic. The Englishman who perfected tobacco growing in Virginia, John Rolfe,
also married Pocahontas in 1614.
The cultivation of tobacco in Virginia changed the colony in fundamental ways. Tobacco planting
required a large work force, so labor patterns changed from the early days of the colony. Much of the
labor on tobacco farms and plantations were performed by indentured servants (and then eventually by
slaves). Since growing tobacco leached the soil of nutrients very quickly, tobacco farmers were soon
moving west, into native territory, sparking disputes and outright wars with the Native Americans.
Finally, in 1646, the natives were, for the most part, subdued, and tobacco became the staple crop of
Tobacco also changed the way Virginia was governed. In 1618, Sir Edward Sandys (pronounced “sands”)
became the head of the Virginia Company. Instead of sharecropping, the Virginia Company offered a
headright, that is, anyone who paid their way to Virginia (the cost of which was about six pounds at the
time) would receive fifty acres of land. If that person brought laborers with them, they would get an
additional fifty acres for each servant or laborer. And who would give these grants of land to the
fortunate few who could afford to pay their way to Virginia? The House of Burgesses was created in
1619 to allot land to these new property owners. Twenty-two burgesses were elected from among the
colonists of Virginia to sit in the House of Burgesses. They were elected by the colonists of Virginia. The
importance of the House of Burgesses cannot be understated. It was the first elected, democratic
assembly in British America and it was formed just twelve years after the founding of Jamestown. The
British colonists were experimenting in self-governing, as the House of Burgesses was also the legislative
assembly for the colony of Virginia. There was an inherent contradiction in the House of Burgesses
though. Even though the colonists have set up the principles of elected democracy, they also, through
the land grants and headright system of the House of Burgesses, set up the foundations of the
plantation system and with it, slavery.
George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, had been a member of the Virginia Company, but he converted to
Catholicism in 1625. He received a charter from King Charles I and in 1634 established the first
settlement in Maryland, St. Anne’s, with 200 settlers. In 1635, the first legislative assembly was elected
for the colony. Maryland was a proprietary colony (that is, one man owned it), but in 1691, Maryland
became a royal colony. The capital of the colony was moved to Annapolis is 1695. Like Virginia,
Maryland depended on a staple crop, tobacco, and an indentured labor force, until slavery became the
norm later in the century.
Before we talk about colonizing Massachusetts, we must talk about John Calvin, Calvinism and the
doctrine of predestination. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther wasn’t the only reformer
gathering followers and teaching/preaching new principles of faith. In Geneva, John Calvin adopted
many of Luther’s ideas, but he also added to them. The main idea that concerns us is the idea of
predestination. Christians believe that they will either go to heaven or hell. Predestination says that
God, being all-knowing, already knows if you will be saved, even before you are born. Therefore, you are
predestined for salvation or damnation. Here’s the trick however. God knew who would be saved, but
the Calvinists did not. Therefore, they would look for signs of God’s favor, or grace. God would “mark”
those who were destined to be saved, or God’s Elect, as they were called. Why is all this important? On
account of the fact that the Calvinists spread out from Geneva, taking their beliefs with them: to France
(the Huguenots), to Scotland (the Presbyterians), and to England (the Pilgrims and the Puritans). It is this
last group that will colonize Massachusetts.
Plymouth Colony (1620-1691): Plymouth Colony (in modern day Massachusetts, or more specifically
Cape Cod) was founded by a group of Calvinist dissenters from the Anglican Church known as
Separatists. We, however, call them Pilgrims. They were known as Separatists because they completely
split from the Church of England. Persecuted, the Pilgrims immigrated to Leiden, in the Netherlands, in
1607, but after a decade there, they felt they were losing touch with their heritage (or more specifically,
that their children were growing up Dutch). In 1619, Separatists received a grant from the Virginia
Company to immigrate to Virginia. It is a mistake to think that the entire population of Separatists left
the Netherlands. In reality, only a small portion decided to undertake the journey to America.
Think about this: Which is stronger, national identity or religious identity?
In 1620, 101 colonists, of whom only 30 were Pilgrims, set sail on the Mayflower for America. The rest of
the settlers were from the Virginia Company. 41 of these immigrants signed the Mayflower Compact, a
contract that would establish a political body to make “just and equal” laws. This was, in hindsight, a
good thing, for the Mayflower landed outside the boundaries of the Virginia Company, in a place John
Smith had named New England. The colonists decided to stay there and named their new colony
Plymouth. By April of 1621, half of them were dead. The rest of the colonists might have perished if it
weren’t for an English-speaking native by the name of Squanto. Captured by Europeans, Squanto had
been to Europe, learned English and returned to his homeland. He was also willing to show the colonists
of Plymouth how to plant corn. Furthermore, Squanto acted as a liaison between the natives and the
settlers. In the fall of 1621, in a show of friendship, the natives and the colonists of Plymouth sat down
to a feast to celebrate that first harvest. It was a three day event and the foods that we associate with
OUR Thanksgiving meals probably weren’t present, except for corn (and even then, it was a different
variety of corn). Thanksgiving as a holiday didn’t become an annual event until the Civil War.
Plymouth Colony prospered through fur trading and timber harvesting. Much of what we know about
the colony comes from A History of Plymouth Plantation, written by William Bradford, the second
governor of the colony. In 1625, the Pilgrims bought the charter of their colony from the Virginia
Company. Essentially it was a “free colony”. The colonists of Plymouth wrote a code in 1636 called “The
Great Fundamentals” that provided for an elected assembly. The Pilgrims had no charter from the
government, however, so in 1691 Plymouth was merged with the much larger Massachusetts Bay
The importance of Plymouth and the Pilgrims is not that they are the first British-Americans; they aren't.
Rather, the significance of the Pilgrims is the way our mythology of them shaped our identity: selfreliant, the hardy, God-fearing Pilgrims threw themselves into the wilderness and succeeded, all under
a democratic government. Most importantly, of course, was the idea of Thanksgiving: the credo that the
natives and the new settlers were one big happy family. All cultures have their creation myths and the
fact that it was the Puritans, not the Pilgrims, who colonized New England escapes us as we give thanks
to our dead, roasted turkeys every November.
Massachusetts Bay Colony: The rest of Massachusetts was settled by English Calvinists also, but the
Puritans did not leave the Anglican Church. Instead, they wanted to reform the church from within. The
Puritans felt that the Church of England retained too many Catholic traditions; it needed to be purified
of these papist leftovers. One Catholic tradition in the Anglican Church that the Puritans especially
objected to were Anglican bishops. The majority of bishops, you must understand, came from
aristocratic and/or wealthy families. Moreover, bishops were appointed by the king and they
automatically had a seat in the House of Lords (they comprised about one-quarter of the upper
chamber). In England, there were invisible ties between the government, the aristocracy and the church.
In addition, the Thirty Year's War (1618-1648) had created less economic opportunity in Europe,
including England (exports to Germany dropped considerably as the economies' of the German states
were ruined). Puritans also found that royal opposition made it more difficult to do business (applying
for permits, getting business licenses, etc.). Therefore, some Puritans decided to move to America.
Around 700 Puritans set off in 1630 for Massachusetts, with their leader John Winthrop. On the lead
ship, the Arabella, Winthrop gave a speech which laid out the goals of the new Puritan colony.
Massachusetts would not only be an economic venture, but also a religious experiment. In Winthrop's
own words, the Puritans would create a "city on a hill...a beacon of righteousness that would shine as
an example to the rest of the world". In other words, the Puritan Commonwealth would be a model
community so godly and pure that it would reform the rest of the world just by its sheer existence.
Between 1630 and 1649 (the year the English Civil War ended, more about that later), approximately
twenty thousand Puritans migrated to New England. They almost immediately prospered. The Puritans
created a stable society because they came in family groups. An even gender ratio meant that natural
population growth was much higher than in Virginia. Lack of disease and a healthier climate also helped
the Puritans to live longer and prosper (sorry about that).
Because of the type of society the Puritans wanted to build, their "city on a hill", they put down roots
immediately. At the center of the community was the church. Puritans were Congregationalists, so each
Puritan township paid taxes (mandatory) to support the church and the minister. Each congregation was
separate from the rest and in the control of the male congregants, who made rules for the church and
hired/fired ministers. This was truly a democratic system. Everyone in the community attended services,
which lasted for six hours (attendance was also mandatory).
Although the Puritan church and the civil government were separate, there was no separation between
religious laws and civil laws. As stated, church attendance was mandatory; you could be fined for
adultery or for taking the Lord's name in vain, i.e. for breaking moral rules as well as civil laws.
Puritan townships were built on a grid plan, with the central square reserved for public buildings: the
meeting house, the church, and the school. Education was important to the Puritans and they paid taxes
to fund free public education for children of both sexes. By 1636, six years after the founding of
Massachusetts Bay Colony, the first institution of higher learning was chartered: Harvard College.
Also by 1636, the Puritans had grown so successful that they had expanded into the Connecticut River
Valley. Connecticut was one of several off-shoot Puritan colonies in New England.
A Small Bit of English History
History doesn't occur in a vacuum (I didn't invent that saying either). As I said before, the Thirty Year's
War (1618-1648), had depressed the economies of Europe. Furthermore, there were immense social
changes going on in Britain herself. The great landed estates were enclosing land, mostly to raise sheep,
which was more profitable than agricultural crops. For example, if I were the Duke of HCC, and I owned
20,000 acres of farmland in the shire of Galleria, I wouldn't farm all of that land myself. I would have
tenant farmers, some whose families would have lived on the estate for generations. These tenant
farmers would pay rent to farm their particular plots of land. Payment would have been in money, in
crops, or both. As landlord, I would have seen to the upkeep of their farm cottages, updated technology
when needed, etc. With the land enclosures, these tenant farmers were thrown off their farms. With
nowhere to go, the urban population of the major cities in England (also Scotland and Wales) increased
greatly. This new urban population will, of course, be poor (and angry). Some of them migrated to
America (one of the reasons for colonization was to release population pressure on Britain's cities). They
will also become the fodder for the Industrial Revolution that Britain will begin at the end of the century.
What all of this means was that the traditional English society of farm, church, and family was being torn
apart at the end of the 16th century and at the beginning of the 17th century. Why? Mercantilism, of
Think about this: Mercantilism and capitalism are two different economic systems, but mercantilism
leads to capitalism (and by default, industrial societies). Why?
Back in Massachusetts, if the Calvinists' central doctrine revolved around predestination, another
equally important concept was the covenant. To the Puritans, every relationship was built on this idea.
Minister and congregation, governor and constituents, husband and wife, God and man, all of these
rested on the idea of a contract between the two. Winthrop's "city on a hill" was not only a call to build
a moral Christian community, but also to build a communal and charitable community. It wasn't
supposed to be equal, but it WAS supposed to be compassionate. A contract between the rich and the
poor, between neighbors, in which the community and the family all looked out for one another. In
Winthrop's Massachusetts's, making money was good, but exploiting people to make money was not. So
Winthrop's Massachusetts was forward looking, in its democratic principles, but it also wanted to go
back to the "good old days" of English society.
Think about this: How does this fit into but also contrast with our American ideal of individualism?
Rhode Island
There were those persons who objected to the strict authoritarianism of a Puritan society. These people
were kicked out and founded the colony of Rhode Island. Roger Williams, a Salem minister, was
banished from MBC in 1635. Williams preached that the civil government had no authority to force
people to worship in only one way (religious toleration), or even to attend church on Sunday. Williams
believed in separation of church and state, not because religion could influence government but
because the state could corrupt religion. Williams also said the Puritans couldn't take native land; it had
to be paid for. After his exile, Williams founded the settlement of Providence in 1636, effectively
establishing the colony of Rhode Island.
Another troublemaker, Anne Hutchinson, was also exiled from Massachusetts and in 1638 settled in
Rhode Island at the invitation of Roger Williams. The settlement of Portsmouth was founded by
followers of Hutchinson.
Rhode Island became a haven for "outcasts" and dissenters, like the Quakers. The colony even accepted
Jewish settlers.
Another English History Lesson, The English Civil War and The Restoration
James I died in 1625 and his son, Charles I inherited the throne (1625-1649). Both James and Charles
believed in the Divine Right of Kings (an essay that James penned), the belief that since they were
anointed rulers by God, they were only answerable to God. Parliament had other ideas. The main
legislative body of Britain believed that it had the right to rule beside the king. Leaving aside many things
you don't need to know (and I don't have time to explain), open warfare broke out between the king
and his supporters (the Cavaliers) and Parliament and their supporters (the Roundheads, because of
their haircuts). The English Civil War lasted from 1642 to 1649 (when the Puritan migrations to New
England ceased). Charles I lost the war and was beheaded for treason in 1649. The English Civil War was
not only a war over political power (or authority), but also a religious war. Oliver Cromwell, the leader
of the Parliamentary Army, was a Puritan, and Puritans had gained a small, but forceful minority in
Parliament. After the regicide of 1649, Cromwell effectively took over Britain and instituted an
authoritarian government there, with a Rump Parliament of only 70 members. As Lord Protector of
Britain (1653), Cromwell tried to establish a stable country, but through harsh measures (he was a
Puritan after all). The population of Virginia surged as supporters of Charles I "emigrated" there.
Cromwell died in 1658 and the Puritan Commonwealth in Britain died with him. A new parliament was
elected in 1659 and it decided to restore the monarchy under Charles II, the son of Charles I. Returning
from France (his mother was the French princess Henrietta Maria, who fled to France soon after the war
started WITH the crown jewels), The Restoration of the monarchy of Britain took place in 1660 with the
ascension of Charles II to the throne. Oliver Cromwell was dug up, tried for treason, his body thrown
into a pit and his head placed on a pike at the end of Westminster Hall. Puritan migration to New
England began in earnest again. More importantly, while England was experiencing this political
upheaval, there was no colonization. After the Restoration, the second phase of English Colonization
Second Phase of English Colonization: 1664 to 1732
In 1664, England won New Netherlands from the Dutch in a war. This was after the Restoration, and a
new set of colonies will be founded.
New York
New Netherlands was renamed New York, after the brother of the king, James, Duke of York. After all,
James was given possession of New York. The residents of New York were allowed to retain their Dutch
citizenship, they were given religious freedom and New York was allowed self-government. They
elected, in the English manner, a colonial assembly to administer the colony (1683).
New Jersey
James, the brother of the king, gave land between the Delaware River and the lower Hudson River to a
couple of his friends, Sir George Carteret and Lord Berkley. They named their new possession New
Jersey. In order to attract followers, they allowed religious freedom in New Jersey.
In 1681, William Penn received a charter from Charles II for a colony on the west bank of the Delaware
River (the king owed Penn 16,000 pounds and couldn't pay it back). In 1682, the settlement of
Philadelphia was established.
Penn was a Quaker and wanted to establish a haven for Quakers. He paid the natives for the land and
set up a representative assembly for the colony. Pennsylvania had religious toleration and freedom AND
equal rights for women (in Quaker meetings, women were allowed to preach). Pennsylvania became
successful through trading and farming.
Delaware was a spin-off colony of Pennsylvania. It was established in 1704.
North Carolina
North Carolina was established by Virginia planters in 1653. By 1664, the colony had its own legislative
assembly and by 1691, North Carolina had a separate governor and independent status.
South Carolina
This colony was settled by English plantation owners from Barbados in 1670. They set up a settlement,
Charles Town (Charleston), and then built large plantations. Since they brought their slaves with them,
from the start, South Carolina had a large slave population.
Georgia was the last colony to be founded. Settled by James Oglethorpe in 1732, the colony was found
as a haven where ex-convicts and the poor could go, start over and improve their lives. Georgia was also
supposed to be a buffer between Spanish Florida and British America. Since Oglethorpe did NOT want a
plantation society, there were three rules: no hard alcohol, no slavery, and land ownership was limited
to 500 acres or less.
Georgia was supposed to be a haven for small farmers, but the colony did not prosper, mostly because it
couldn't trade with the Caribbean (whose main export was molasses, to be turned into rum). It was on
the verge of failure when in 1742, the rules were changed to allow the importation of molasses. In 1750,
slavery was allowed and personal land acreage increased. And in 1751, Georgia became a royal colony,
with a governor and an elected assembly. Soon Georgia resembled its other southern neighbors. By
1773, it had a 45% slave population.
English/British Colonization of the Americas
If we observe how the English colonized America, we can see that it was for profit, not for ideology. It
was not government sponsored, unlike Spanish America. Instead, colonization was undertaken by
private individuals, or corporations. For the most part, the English government paid little attention to
colonization. Eventually, all of the colonies will become royal colonies, but even then, the English
government will pay little attention to its possessions across the Atlantic. We call this lack of governance
and policy making "salutary neglect".
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