The Colonial Settlement

colony virginia carolina company english government south colonies proprietors southern

The desire for profit motivated the founding of the first successful English colony. Two companies were organized in 1606 to establish colonies in Virginia. The London Company received a patent to settle a colony in southern Virginia; the Plymouth Company was designated to colonize northern Virginia; the Crown asserted its interest in the colonial settlement through the supervisory agency of a thirteen-man council. The first permanent colony was established in 1607 when a small group of colonists was settled at Jamestown, Virginia. Almost immediately, two major obstacles to progress emerged: the Virginia Company, operating on a joint-stock plan, insisted upon quick profits; and the English government sent to the colony as settlers primarily those who were either the dregs of London life or the younger sons of the gentry, left by primogeniture to earn their own fortunes. Neither group adjusted readily to the grueling work required in the new environment. Afflicted with food shortages, disease, and the depredations of hostile Indians, the Virginia colony barely survived its first years; only the arrival of six hundred additional settlers from England in 1609 prevented its immediate failure. By June 1610 the desperate colonists had for the second time decided to abandon Jamestown; once more, however, the fortuitous arrival of new settlers and supplies, under Lord De La Warr, saved Jamestown. At last, with a vigorous reorganization, resettlement on healthier sites, and the inauguration of stern disciplinary measures toward nonworkers, the colony began to improve. It was the introduction of tobacco culture in 1615, however, that finally supplied the settlers with a product that brought substantial (if erratic) profits and eventual prosperity.

Principal Early Settlements Along The Atlantic Coast

The Southern Colonies

Almost from their establishment, the Southern Colonies were occupied with the growth of staple crops that had a large export market. The resulting profits of agriculture gave to British settlement a stability unique in the New World. Unlike the Spaniards, who found a large native population that could be forced into serfdom, the English had to rely on the efforts of English immigrants from the outset. The result was the extension into the New World of a social order similar to that found in England. The passing of time was to change and modify it, but it would never wholly eliminate traces of its English origin. By as late as 1776, however, the distinct and separate traditions, institutions, and personalities that we now regard as southern had not yet emerged. The Southern Colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries revealed a heterogeneous character that makes generalizations hazardous. There were five separate and surprisingly diversified colonies, each of which had its own unique flavor. Though they all maintained the Anglican Church as the established church, their commitment to it was more nominal than real. The existence of Negro slavery in each colony resulted in a wide divergence of opinion. South Carolina and Georgia, both of which reaped wide profits from their rice and indigo crops, stubbornly defended the institution, but Virginia and Maryland, confronted with declining tobacco profits, increasingly viewed slavery as a profitless burden. By the mid-eighteenth century, Virginia contemplated termination of the institution if its slaves could be expatriated. The substance of political unity was present in the common English inheritance; later, and to a limited extent, Virginia would provide the tone that has come to be known as distinctly southern.

Virginia. The Old Dominion, as already noted, was the site of the first successful English settlement. Drawing her existence from a charter grant by the king, Virginia was an amalgam of government subsidy and private enterprise. Two disastrous years had convinced the company's leaders that profit existed not in hidden gold but in the cultivation of the soil. In 1609, a royal councilor and a director of the original company, Sir Edwin Sandys, received a new charter which extended the Virginia Company's boundaries to include the Chesapeake area and which tightened the company's control over the colony's government. Within a short time, Sir Thomas Smith, the company's manager, had launched a campaign "to plant an English nation" in the New World.

By 1611 it was clear that the Jamestown settlement would survive, and in the following year the charter was revised for the final time. Bermuda was placed under the company's jurisdiction, and the Royal Council in Virginia under its full control. Until 1624, the company effectively controlled Virginia. The collective approach which had characterized the original agriculture of the colony and which had deprived colonists of the incentive needed to make Virginia prosper was abandoned in 1613 when Sir Thomas Dale, the colonial governor, rented three acres of land to each colonist. All income above and beyond the rent, which was paid in produce, remained in the hands of the individual farmers.

In 1618 the company offered fifty acres in Virginia to anyone buying one of its shares. The offer served to lure land - hungry Europeans to the New World. The development of an extensive land-holding population in the colony had an unforeseen consequence: the immigrants vigorously protested the harsh policies of the company representatives. To pacify them, Sandys, in 1618, extended a Charter of Grants and Liberties which made government contingent upon the popular will. Sir George Yeardley, the new governor, implemented this decision by calling for a democratically elected House of Burgesses. When this legislature met in Jamestown in July 1619, its twenty-two members inaugurated self-government in the colonies. The further introduction, in 1621, of the proviso that no company directive would be carried out without the prior approval of the Burgesses, extended the principle of self-government. A lively awareness of individual rights was being fostered in Virginia. It would no longer be a simple matter for any individual, no matter how great, to substitute his individual decisions for the collective will.

As Virginia obtained a substantial measure of self-government, the Virginia Company began to disintegrate. The failure to secure a permanent monopoly contract for the import of tobacco into England proved fatal to it. As tobacco became more profitable, the king and his officials chose to exact an increasingly large share of the profits from it for the royal treasury. Mercantilist policy dominated the planting of the new crop. A heavy import tax was imposed on tobacco in England at the same time that the Virginians were forbidden to export it to any other country. Finally, when an outbreak of Indian warfare in 1622 caused the deaths of many colonists and the destruction of much property, the Crown became convinced of administrative mismanagement, and, overriding Parliamentary objections, dissolved the company. Thus, in 1624, Virginia became the first royal colony.

The colony that emerged had not only a rudimentary legislature but also an established church - the Anglican Church. Though in theory funds from tax moneys were set aside to support the Anglican establishment, the clergy had to struggle almost constantly to obtain payment. Often they had to settle for token remuneration. Nor was religious conformity maintained in the colony. Substantial evidence exists that the Anglican Church in Virginia soon deteriorated into a social center where more gossip than prayer was offered. More important, Virginia developed a tradition of unofficial tolerance within which liberal religious views flourished.

Maryland. Unlike Virginia, Maryland was founded, at least in theory, to provide a place where English Catholics could obtain toleration. Created from a grant of 10,000,000 acres made by Charles I to George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, Maryland was the near-feudal domain of its proprietors. But they were obliged to consult with their freemen about legislation and to follow customary English common-law practice.

From the very start, the Calverts, a noble Catholic family, had no illusion about their ability to populate the colony with Catholics alone. They therefore invited Protestants to join them in settlement. In 1649, the Assembly passed an Act of Toleration, granting religious freedom to all sects that accepted the Trinity. But toleration was abruptly ended in 1654 when the Puritan Party gained control of the Assembly, and revoked the Act of Toleration. Though the Calverts had pretensions to absolute power, their assembly of freemen strenuously opposed them and insisted that it alone had the right to introduce laws. After a brief loss of proprietary prerogatives, Baltimore made a direct personal appeal to Cromwell in 1657 and regained control, and in 1658 restored the original Toleration Act.

An irritating factor which did much to upset Maryland's tranquillity was the recurring controversy between the proprietor and the colony's inhabitants over quitrents, the small annual payments made to him as evidence of his proprietary rights. Few settlers felt they owed payment to anyone. In the eighteenth century this issue frequently exacerbated affairs, not only in Maryland, but in the colonies of New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina.

The Carolinas and Georgia. The decision of 1624 to make Virginia a royal colony meant that its ungranted lands were now the king's, to do with as he saw fit. Charles I attempted unsuccessfully to stimulate settlement of the Carolinas. Settlement in the area of Albemarle Sound by discontented Virginians started around 1663, when Charles II granted to a number of West Indian sugar planters and members of his official entourage a charter for the region between latitude 31° and 36° "to stretch as far as the south seas" - a generous grant indeed. This charter, like that of Maryland, also enjoined the proprietors to enact laws only with the approval of the freemen or their delegates, and to take care that colonial law conformed to English precedent. Once again the seeds of self-government were sown by royal intervention.

At first, government was guided by the liberal "Declaration and Proposals to All that will Plant in Carolina" which vested considerable power in an elected assembly. But political confusion quickly dominated the Carolina settlement, since the eight proprietors, who operated through a proprietary board which met irregularly, often had no idea of what they wished to achieve with their colony. The result was a government that demoralized the governed.

In 1669, John Locke, at the behest of Lord Ashley, one of the proprietors, composed the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, a document that proposed the establishment of a near-feudal government. It explicitly stated that its purpose was to "avoid erecting a numerous Democracy." Though some of the provisions of the 120 paragraphs were effectuated - such as the provision for the Palatine Court, with its odd confusion of landgraves, caciques, and popular representatives - the cumbersome document was never fully implemented. Despite four revisions, and after thirty years of partial use, the document was finally abandoned.

The rapid growth of population in the region of Albemarle Sound persuaded the proprietors in 1691 to divide the territory into two parts, North and South Carolina.

Perpetual tumult, a lively indifference to authority, and an isolated condition of life made North Carolina one of the most rambunctious of the colonies. As early as 1677-78 an armed uprising, Culpeper's Rebellion, rocked the colony as the proprietary and antiproprietary factions struggled for power in North Carolina. The laxity of authority served to attract to the colony discontented Virginians who saw there an opportunity for making their own freedom.

South Carolina proved an entirely different experiment. Its proprietors worked to guarantee orderly settlement and development of the colony's resources. Its magnificent harbor at Charleston, close to the West Indian possessions of Great Britain, and the adaptability of the colony's soil to the growing of rice and indigo, seemed to promise considerable profit.

Where North Carolina had ignored Locke's constitution, South Carolina's proprietors attempted to establish it in fact as well as in theory. Conflict erupted between the elected "Parliament" and the proprietary governor. Only after an unfortunate experiment in arbitrary decision by the governor did the proprietors agree to restore an independent assembly.

Despite political conflict, South Carolina flourished. The proprietors invested more than £10,000 by 1675 and, though discontented with their returns, they persisted. Soon a flourishing rice and indigo agriculture, using first Indian and then Negro slavery, brought sizable profits. By 1708, the city of Charleston was a cosmopolitan port of more than 3,000 inhabitants. The influx of French Huguenots after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes gave to the colony a heterogeneous character and an energetic commercial class. Strongly influenced by West Indian plantation precedents, which were based on a staple (and therefore profit-making) rather than a subsistence agriculture, South Carolina introduced a harsh slave code and extensive plantations, and elements that were later to become associated with the South were already in evidence in South Carolina: slave gangs, plantations, and an expanding staple agriculture. This expansion inevitably brought English settlement into conflict with both Spanish claims in Florida and French claims in the lower Mississippi Valley. As settlers pushed into the interior of Carolina they helped to protect the developing agriculture of the Charleston region from marauding Indians and from England's Latin rivals.

The settlement of Georgia, begun in 1732, stemmed from the desire to form a buffer colony between Florida and South Carolina. The aspiration of James Oglethorpe, a sensitive idealist, to found a refuge for the unfortunate classes of England (especially debtors) provided an additional reason for the formation of the new colony. The charter for Georgia, issued to Oglethorpe and twenty other trustees, denied them proprietary rights, and provided for the reversion of the colony to the Crown after twenty-one years. Though religious toleration was established for all but Catholics, the charter, unlike those of the other southern colonies, made no provision for representative government. Until 1751, when a popularly elected assembly met, the colony was regulated by a "Common Council" chosen by the trustees. It is worth noting, however, that a representative assembly had been organized just before the colony came under royal control. From the outset, Georgia's agriculture resembled that of South Carolina: rice, indigo, and food crops were raised by slaves, who in 1760 constituted one-third of the population of 9,000.

"The South," therefore, really consisted of five distinct and diversified colonies before the Revolution. Eventually, however, time and proximity imposed upon them common characteristics. But it is worth noting that every English colony had slaves before 1776; slavery was a colonial - not a "Southern" - institution.

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