ADVANCED PLACEMENT UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Chesapeake


*Spain's wealth attracted attacks from English privateers and encouraged England to explore and attempt to settle the New World as well.  Besides the economic and territorial motives for this conflict lay religious ideology as well, for Spain saw itself as the defender of Catholicism while England was a Protestant country that saw Catholicism as its enemy.

*England in the 1500s had did not have a large navy, although the Tudor monarchs worked hard to modernise and professionalise it.  For most of their combat against the Spanish, the English relied on privateers--privately-owned ships led by a captain with a letter of marque, official permission to attack the ships of countries with whom the issuing country was at war (and sometimes even when they were officially at peace), almost a sort of licensed piracy.  The Spanish called the English privateers Sea Dogs, or worse.  They raided Spanish shipping, including the Treasure Fleet, and sometimes sacked entire Spanish cities in the New World.  Among the most famous were Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake.

*For most of the 1500s, the Spanish navy ruled the seas, despite the loss of individual ships or small groups of them, and this prevented any serious colonisation of the New World by anyone else (except the Portuguese in Brazil).  The English did claim some land in North America and named it Virginia, in honour of the Virgin Queen, and even attempted to set up a colony on Roanoke Island (in modern North Carolina) in 1587.

*However, in 1588, the Spanish attempted to invade England with the goal of overthrowing Queen Elizabeth and perhaps placing the King of Spain, Philip II, on the throne in memory of his late wife, Elizabeth’s sister Bloody Mary. 

*Philip II gathered a vast fleet, known as the Invincible Armada.  The Armada was made up of 130 warships and converted merchant vessels, 8,000 sailors, 18,000 soldiers, and 2,500 cannon.  It was to sail from Spain, meet up with 30,000 Spanish troops in the Netherlands, and invade England, with the support of Pope Sixtus V, who regarded it as a crusade against Protestantism.

*The Spanish fleet was met by a smaller, but better organised, English fleet led by Sea Dogs like Sir Francis Drake.  The English also used fireships to disrupt the Spanish lines of battle and eventually to scatter out of fear in the night.  Once scattered, the smaller but more manœuvrable English ships closed with the Spanish and outfought them, for the English were better cannoneers and marines.

*As the Spanish fleet was divided and weakened, it tried to sail home around Scotland and Ireland, where North Atlantic storms sank and shipwrecked more vessels (and many sailors who made it to shore were killed by English soldiers in Ireland).  This storm was later called the Protestant Wind.

*This did not end Spain's power, but it weakened it.  After this, England, the Netherlands, and France could begin to explore and colonise the world successfully, and although Spain would remain wealthy for centuries, her military would never enjoy the pre-eminence it had held for nearly a century.  It was also seen as a great symbolic victory for Protestants everywhere.

*Hostilities with Spain prevented Roanoke from being re-supplied until 1590, by which point the settlers had vanished.  The word Croatoan was carved in a local tree, and some local Indians have legends that involve adopting some of the colonists.  A number of their surnames survive in the some Virginia tribes.  Others may have fled inland and survived for years, only to be killed by the Indian chief Powhatan in early 1607.

*In 1606, King James I divided English claims in North America between two private companies, the Virginia Company or London Company (34th–41st parallel) and the Plymouth Company (38th–45th) giving them lands stretching to the South Seas, and guaranteeing colonists who settled under their leadership the Rights of Englishmen.  Both of these were joint-stock companies, in which a number of ‘adventurers’ could invest in the company’s expeditions and reap a portion of the profits (if any), raising more money than any individual and also requiring little investment by the government.

*In 1607, 100 men arrived in Virginia and established a colony they named Jamestown.  Most of these men, and the Virginia Company itself, hoped to find ready supplies of gold such as those they imagined existed in Spanish territories.  They also imagined that most of the hard work of mining the gold might be done by Indians.  Therefore, the colonists who went to Virginia were not farmers or woodsmen, but gentlemen unaccustomed to labour and skilled craftsmen meant to work the gold and silver they were certain to find.

*Sadly, the colony was established in a bad, swampy, malarial location, had too few willing workers, sought quick profits, and was surrounded by hostile Indians under Powhatan.  Despite an abundance of fish and game, the colony could not even feed itself due to the lack of practical skills and work ethic amongst the early colonists.

*Furthermore, the London Company investors attempted a plan of communal work that failed miserably, as individualistic Englishmen were not eager to work for the good of the community as a whole. 

*The colony seemed to be a failure, and remained one for some time.  In the first 15 years of the colony, at least 3,300 of 4,270 settlers died of disease and conflict with the Indians, a death rate approaching 80%.

*In December, 1607, Captain John Smith was captured by Chief Powhatan’s Indians, and apparently sentenced to death by having his skull crushed by a war club.  Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas threw herself across him and saved his life, in what Smith reported as an act of love but which was probably a ritual meant to show Powhatan’s power and dominance over the region.  Nonetheless, Pocahontas remained an important friend of the colonists.

*In 1608 the first relief ship arrived and found 62 of the original 100 settlers were dead.  At this time, John Smith took command of the colony, which was all that kept the town alive, particularly his famous dictum ‘He who shall not work shall not eat.’  During the second winter, only 12 of 200 settlers died. 

*In 1609 a second relief expedition set out from England but got shipwrecked in the Bahamas.  Furthermore, the remaining grain stored in Jamestown was eaten by rats.

*The winter of 1609-10 was known as the Starving Time.  Indians killed livestock and settlers starved or ate cats, rats, dogs, snakes, horsehides, and even exhumed dead bodies.  One man was convicted for killing, salting and eating his wife, for which he was executed. 

*In May, when the surviving settlers who had been stranded in the Bahamas made it to Virginia, they saw no point in staying, and set off down the James River with the 60 survivors.  On the way down the river, they met an expedition led by Lord De La Warr.  He led them back to Jamestown and ended the communal system and established private ownership of land, and the colony became more efficient.

*What finally made the colony profitable was not gold (which they never found) nor conquest of the Indians (which did not come any time soon), but rather a crop that the Spanish were already selling profitably in Europe, tobacco, which John Rolfe began to raise and cure for transport in 1612.

*In 1617 the first shipment of tobacco arrived in England.  It initially sold at three shillings a pound.  This was far less than Spanish tobacco (18 shillings a pound), but was still very profitable, and the first thing in the colony to really turn a profit of any kind.  However, it was labour intensive, so Virginians needed labour. 

*At first, some Virginians attempted to enslave Indians, but it was too easy for them to escape, while others simply died of disease or overwork.  Some labour, especially at first, came from indentured servants (who initially worked for the Company, and later for individuals), and some—eventually the majority—came from African slaves. 

*The first Africans sold in the English colonies were purchased from a Dutch warship in 1619, although it is possible that they were indentured servants of some kind rather than chattel slaves.  Slavery did not become deeply entrenched in the colony until the second half of the 17th Century.

*At first, Virginia did depend on indentured servants.  These were people who (typically) chose to come to the New World and work for a set number of years (usually 4-7) for the man who paid their way (or perhaps someone else to whom he sold the indenture).  At the end of their term, such indentured servants were freed and given a token payment for their labour, such as clothing, some tools, and possibly a small parcel of land. 

*Under the headright system used in Virginia and Maryland, whomever paid the passage of a labourer received the right to fifty acres of land, putting ever more land in the hands of the wealthy while encouraging the importation of more and more indentured servants, although any free man who paid his own way also got fifty acres of land for himself, creating a small, but growing, population of small farmers.

*These free men felt that, as Englishmen, they deserved a say in their government, and in 1618 the Virginia Company agreed to let the colonists elect an assembly, which met for the first time in 1619 as the House of Burgesses.  Although it did not initially accomplish much, it was the first representative government in the English colonies, and set a precedent of self-government in America.

*With indentured servants, slaves, and other immigrants coming as a result of the tobacco boom, the Indians grew increasingly concerned.  They had always been violent and dangerous, and they and the English had fought before, generally in a brutal manner.  In 1614, Pocahontas married John Rolfe of Virginia, once again restoring the peace.

*However, the English had also shown how dangerous they could be (especially under the leadership of Lord De La Warr) with their weapons and their diseases, and that they could provide some valuable trade goods.  The combination of these facts led the otherwise brutal Powhatan (who ruled a petty empire of subjugated local Algonquian tribes) to be peaceful with the English.  After his death, the new chief Opechancanough, initially seemed friendly, but alarmed by the growth of the English colony, decided to drive the English from Virginia.  Happily, an Indian who had converted to Christianity warned his employer ahead of time so that Jamestown was saved.

*In 1622 the Indians under Opechancanough massacred 347 of 1,240 colonists, about 28% of the population.  The surviving English descended upon the Indians just before the harvest, killed all they could, burnt their corn, and made treaties with the intention of breaking them in order to gain advantages. 

*These tactics, especially burning crops and villages, were so dirty they were called ‘Irish Tactics,’ because that was the only group hitherto despised enough for the English to use them against.  The goal in dealing with the Indians this way (at least for the moment), even more so than with the Irish, was to utterly wipe them off the earth.  There may have been 20,000 Indians in Virginia when the English arrived.  The official count in 1669 was 2,000.

*The massacre hurt the English badly at first, but hurt the Indians much more within a year or two as the English had their revenge, and it also hurt the colony as a whole, as fear of the Indians stopped attempts at creating glassworks and ironworks and mining out in the backcountry.  This was one more reason Virginia adopted so fully the tobacco economy and ultimately dependence upon chattel slavery.

*The failure of the Virginia Company to turn a profit led King James I to dissolve its charter in 1624 and make Virginia a royal colony under direct royal control.

*The tobacco monoculture of Virginia was labour-intensive and also required large amounts of land, because tobacco rapidly depletes the nutrients in the soil, making it ruinous for farmland.  Tobacco planters needed to continually expand in order to keep their economy viable.

*Initially, the headright system solved both of these problems:  paying for indentured servants to come to Virginia led to large land grants for the wealthy planters and provided them a workforce to farm it (or at least the parts they cultivated—a lot was left fallow until needed).  Furthermore, the high mortality rate in Virginia meant that relatively few indentured servants outlived their term of service (although many planters died young, too, and their widows—often serial widows—sometimes accumulated large estates and a fair amount of unofficial social influence).  In the first few generations of Virginia’s existence, this kept the colonial elite firmly entrenched at the top of society.

*There were exceptions, however:  some people did manage to pay their own way to the new world, and created a small class of independent yeomen farmers with a small plot of their own.  Furthermore, as time passed, indentured servants began to survive until they gained their independence, and needed land of their own.

*Virginia began to stratify into two societies:  the Tidewater aristocracy near the coast and the Backcountry people of the Piedmont.  This led to tension between the two groups and between the colonists and the Indians.

*There were also tensions in England that spilled over into the New World.  For years there had been growing tension between King Charles I, who believed in absolute royal authority and supported a conservative Church of England, and an English middle class who prized having a voice in Parliament and many of whom were Puritans who wanted to reform the Church of England to purify it of what they saw as Catholic traditions, decorations, central authority, and the doctrine of Arminianism (which, among other things, taught that men had free will to choose to follow God’s will or not).  In 1642 this tension broke out into Civil War.

*The English Civil War was fought between the supporters of the King, called Royalists or Cavaliers, and the supporters of Parliament who came under increasingly radical Puritan leadership, and who were known as Parliamentarians or Roundheads.  Under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, the Roundheads won and executed the King, although under Cromwell’s leadership, England became essentially a military dictatorship (although ruled in theory by an elected parliament), and in 1660 the Monarchy was restored under King Charles II, son of the late king. 

*Many Cavaliers fled to Virginia, now known as the Cavalier State. 

*Governor William Berkeley also faced difficulty from the backcountry.  After Opechancanough was killed in 1646, the Tidewater gentry tried to keep the peace with the Indians.  However, for some small farmers and for the mass of newly-free indentured servants, the only land free for the taking was controlled by Indians, and they came into conflict with them.  They wanted the colonial government to protect them and to help them expand into Indian lands, but Berkeley refused.

*The man who took advantage of this frontier discontent was a recent immigrant from England, Nathaniel Bacon.  He had come from a wealthy family in England, but had gotten in trouble for marrying a woman without her father’s permission and supposedly defrauding someone else, so his family sent him to Virginia with enough money to purchase two plantations on the frontier. 

*With his background, he saw himself as better than the Tidewater gentry (who in turn excluded him from the local circles of power), who might have been at the top of the social pyramid in Virginia but who would have been of no great account in England.  He also saw the discontent on the frontier, and decided to organise it, leading Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.

*Former indentured servants, small frontier farmers, and even some slaves followed Bacon to massacre local Indians and overthrow the colonial government and burned the capital in Jamestown (afterwards it would be located in Williamsburg), forcing Berkeley to flee and a new House of Burgesses to be elected.  It gave the right to vote to landless men (who had it in the early days of the Burgesses, but lost it in the mid-1600s), limited the power of the governor, and issued the Declaration of the People of Virginia, criticising Berkeley for unfair taxes, appointing friends to government offices, and not protecting the people from the Indians.  This is sometimes seen as a fore-runner of the American Revolution, with people demanding more rights and more representation.

*On 26 October, 1676, Bacon died of dysentery.  Some of his followers were tricked into giving up their weapons by the offer of a pardon and others simply gave up.  Some of the rebels were hanged, but most were pardoned and some of their leaders became part of the Virginia ruling class.  Berkeley himself briefly returned to power before being replaced by the King.

*One way Virginia’s planters tried to avoid having a free underclass of former indentured servants that could revolt was by vastly increasing the percentage of their labourers who were slaves.  Slavery increasingly came to be defined by race as well.  This creation of a permanently enslaved underclass also created a sense of equality among the white people of Virginia, so that both poor and rich saw themselves as, in some ways, being part of the same class and all being, in some way, free and equal.

*Virginia also had other problems, particularly as the over-production of tobacco led to falling prices. 

*Many Virginia planters also ended up in debt to the merchants in London who sold their tobacco for them and purchased the latest and most fashionable luxuries for on their behalf. 

*On the other hand, Virginia slowly but surely expanded westward, reaching the Appalachian Mountains by the early 1700s and expanding into the Shenandoah Valley in the mid-1700s, fighting with the Indians along the way.

*Economically, Virginia was very similar to its neighbour to the north, Maryland, and they are sometimes grouped together as the Chesapeake colonies (as is Delaware, economically but not politically).  Politically, though, there were some significant differences between Maryland and Virginia.

*In the mid-1500s and throughout the 1600s, Catholics were faced significant legal and social difficulties in many parts of England and Scotland, even though in the mid-1600s, the British Kings were sympathetic to them. 

*In fact, in 1634, King Charles I granted what is now Maryland to Lord Baltimore, an influential Catholic nobleman, who set up Maryland as a home for Catholics, although firmly under his control—making it what is called a proprietary colony, because he owned all the land there.  However, a General Assembly was created there like the House of Commons in England.

*Although Catholics were encouraged to settle in Maryland, and the large landowners who made up the local upper-class were Catholic, many Protestants settled there as well, and there was some fighting during the English Civil War, both within the colony and between the colony and Parliamentary forces who tried to seize it. 

*Worried that a growing number of Protestants might use their voice in the General Assembly to limit the rights of Catholics in the same way they had in England, the General Assembly passed the Act of Religious Toleration in 1649, offering toleration to all Christians (but not other groups) so that they would still be safe once they ceased to be the majority.  Catholics were eventually outnumbered by Protestants in Maryland, but remained quite numerous and influential.


This page last updated Saint Valentine's Day, 2020.
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