Background Notes: Colonial America Historical

Colonization in the New World

Colonists settled British North America for different reasons. Some came for profits; others came for religious freedom. For those colonies established for profit, the British Crown granted charters to venturing proprietors or joint-stock companies. Yet, whatever the reason for coming, whatever the type of colony, when English settlers arrived they encountered native populations and Spanish and French settlements. Significantly, African slavery altered the New World's demographic profile in the early 1600s. Interacting cultures within distinct geographic settings and economic circumstances resulted in unique histories for early colonies such as Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth and South Carolina. South Carolina, for instance, capitalized on lowcountry rice cultivation through the labor of enslaved Africans. Further, South Carolina withstood threats from the Spanish in St. Augustine and from warring natives such as the Westo, Yamasee, and Cherokee. The histories of Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth, and South Carolina reveal four very different examples of British colonization in the New World.1


England's first attempt at American colonization took place at Roanoke. A recognized failure, this venture began in 1584 with Sir Walter Raleigh's endeavor to increase the land held by the British Empire. Raleigh's older half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, had previously voyaged across the Atlantic and claimed Newfoundland for the British crown; Raleigh planned to continue that work. The Roanoke adventure began as an exploration of Virginia, named for Elizabeth the Virgin Queen. Attempts to settle Virginia were made between 1585 and 1590. The most famous attempt at settlement took place in 1587, when a group of 150 colonists (women and children included) settled at Roanoke along the outer banks of North Carolina. At this time, the North Carolina outer banks were recognized as part of Virginia. The colonists, led by Captain John White, expected only limited contact with Britain, so they immediately established relations with local Algonquians, with whom relations had fluctuated between helpful and confrontational. Further, England was at war with Spain, and pirates roamed the eastern seaboard seeking treasure.

Captain John White left Roanoke in 1587 in order to re-supply the colony with goods from England. Upon his return in 1590, however, the people had vanished leaving inadequate clues as to where they went. White and company searched in vain for the missing settlers. Did harsh weather conditions destroy the colony? Did pirates get them? What about Spanish or Algonquian attacks? Did the Roanoke colonists peacefully assimilate with the natives? The fate of the people at Roanoke remains a mystery. The disappointment of the Lost Colony, however, did not squelch Britain's desire to claim territory in the new world. English settlers were soon headed westward again—this time to Jamestown. 2


The decision to settle Jamestown came from a group of businessmen calling themselves the Virginia Company of London. Sending the first wave of settlers in 1607, the Virginia Company had high hopes of turning a profit with gold and silver discoveries. Initial colonists included 104 males of various ages, searching to carve a fortune, not a new life, in the Virginia colony. Due to climate, the first settlers suffered disease and distress. Also, relations with Powhatan natives became strained. While Jamestown struggled in its early years, regular supplies from England sustained the colony.

Significantly, the General Assembly of Virginian burgesses convened in 1618, establishing the first governing body in the British colonies. Tobacco became the most important cash crop. The cultivation of tobacco was labor-intensive, so Virginia planters sought African slave labor to work the crop. The first local purchase of an African slave occurred in 1619. Planters originally promised freedom to African workers after a set length of indentured servitude. Although uncommon, some African Americans were able to establish themselves as free working members of the community.

The first large-scale arrival of women occurred in 1620, contributing to Virginia's expansion of settled area. In 1624, the Virginia Company, having settled the area but not developed a profit, had its charter revoked. Virginia become a Royal colony, and continued developing as an agrarian society with its basic political structure resting in English law and custom. 3


Unlike colonial ventures for profit, Plymouth was initially settled for religious freedom. The Pilgrims that established Plymouth were religious separatists who left Europe seeking a new home for their community. Armed with a land grant from the Virginia Company, William Bradford led a group of 102 Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower in 1620. Due to a navigational error, the Pilgrims landed in present-day Massachusetts. Since they had no authorization from the crown to settle at Plymouth, the Pilgrims established their own civil government. The Mayflower Compact established the necessary laws to preserve order for the fledgling settlement. This compact, considered by some to be America's first constitution, may have influenced the Founders during the Revolution.

Plymouth differed from Jamestown and initial Roanoke settlements in that the colonists included entire family units. The Pilgrims wanted to begin new lives and never really considered returning to Europe. More settlers came to the area and established independent colonies, including the well-known Massachusetts Bay Colony. After early cooperation between Pilgrims and local Wampanoags, relations turned tense and erupted in King Philip's War, 1675. Colonials won King Phillip's War, but not without great loss of life on both sides.

Despite difficulties, the Massachusetts area developed into small towns producing agricultural goods. Farming was smaller in scale than Southern farming, but indentured servitude and slavery occurred in the Massachusetts area nonetheless. In 1638 the Massachusetts colonies joined the slave trade. With the economy centered in Boston, African slave labor included both skilled and unskilled labor associated with life in a shipping town. However, slavery in Massachusetts never reached the level of economic importance as it did in the southern colonies. Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783. Plymouth became absorbed into the Royal colony of Massachusetts in 1691, solidifying the region under a collective ruling body. Massachusetts continued to produce goods and agriculture, and became a politically powerful colony in the New World. 4

South Carolina

In 1629, Charles I granted a charter for the province of Carolina. While some scattered settlement took place along the Cape Fear River as early as about 1650, the English Crown took little action in governing the province until 1663. In that year, Charles II granted a new charter to eight English noblemen, known as the Lords Proprietors. The Lords Proprietors saw Carolina as a money making venture that relied on dense population, and encouraged settlement with promises of religious freedom, self-government, and generous land grants. With their second charter of 1665, the Lords Proprietors laid claim to 850,000 square miles of land, stretching from east coast to west. The first settlers, approximately 130, established the colony at Charles Town in 1670.

From the beginning, South Carolina was a colony based on Caribbean models of plantation agriculture. While experimenting with different crops, South Carolinians also developed profitable cattle herding and tar production enterprises for export to the West Indies. By 1690, rice became South Carolina's primary export. Carolina planters, through their experience in Barbados, provided expertise in managing the business end of cash-crop agriculture; enslaved Africans provided technical expertise and intensive labor in growing rice. By 1746, indigo became a profitable export, increasing South Carolina's colonial wealth. Carolina planters invested their profits primarily in land and slaves, and ranked among the wealthiest men in British North America.

While plantations generated much wealth, South Carolina was also a colony of merchants and small subsistence farmers, of a people continually moving west, facing new frontiers and struggling for daily survival. Growing prosperous, the colony expanded westward in the 1700's, displacing various native groups such as the Cherokee. In an effort to control its own destiny, South Carolina overthrew the proprietary regime in 1719 and became a royal colony by 1729. 5


Foot Notes

1. Additional research will help teachers learn more about Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth, and South Carolina colonies. Many on-line sites link to primary sources, which teachers can use with students. To see colonial charters and other historic documents visit Yale University's Avalon Project. The University of Georgia's Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library is an excellent source for colonial-era maps.

2. The North Carolina Encyclopedia's First English Settlement in the New World” details Roanoke history. Published in Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, John White's Return to Roanoke, 1590 [link] describes White's account of the missing colony. See too John White/ Theodor De Bry Illustrationsof Algonquin life. Thomas Hariot's report of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1588 accounts for some of the first English impressions of the New World. For the latest breaking report of Outer Banks Weather Conditions see the National Data Buoy Center, station 41002, South Hatteras — 17 foot waves on December 11, 2003 at 10:00 a.m.

3. Emily J Salmon and Edward D.C. Campbell Jr's The Hornbook of Virginia History. (Richmond, Virginia: The Library of Virginia, fourth edition, 1994) is a fine source for learning more about Jamestown.

4. To learn more about Plymouth's general history see Plymouth: Its History and People. The Boston African American National Historical Site provides additional information about Slaveryin Boston. The Pilgrim Hall Museum gives a brief account of King Phillip's War. See too the University of Virginia's Plymouth Colony Archive Project , which contains many primary sources, including the Mayflower Compact of 1620.

5. Walter Edgar's South Carolina: A History (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1998) and Robert Weir's Colonial South Carolina: A History (Reprint. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1997) are both excellent sources for learning more about South Carolina's colonial history.