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Colonization of the U.S. (1600 – 1763)

Colonial Settlement, 1600 – 1763


Editor’s Note: This entry (with the exception of the images) was copied from content on The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities>Time Line

Background: When the London Company sent out its first expedition to begin colonizing Virginia on December 20, 1606, it was by no means the first expedition to begin colonizing Virginia. In 1564, for example, French Protestants (Huguenots) built a colony near what is now Jacksonville, Florida. This intrusion did not go unnoticed by the Spanish, who had previously claimed the region. The next year, the Spanish established a military post at St. Augustine; Spanish troops soon wiped out the French interlopers residing but 40 miles away.images

Meanwhile, Basque, English, and French fishing fleets became regular visitors to the coasts from Newfoundland to Cape Cod. Some of these fishing fleets even set up semi-permanent camps on the coasts to dry their catches and to trade with local Indians, exchanging furs for manufactured goods. For the next two decades, Europeans’ presence in North America was limited to these semi-permanent incursions. Then in the 1580s, the English tried to plant a permanent colony on Roanoke Island (on the outer banks of present-day North Carolina), but their effort was short-lived.

In the early 1600s, in rapid succession, the English began a colony (Jamestown) in Chesapeake Bay in 1607, the French built Quebec in 1608, and the Dutch began their interest in the region that became present-day New York. Within another generation, the Plymouth Company (1620), the Massachusetts Bay Company (1629), the Company of New France (1627), and the Dutch West India Company (1621) began to send thousands of colonists, including families, to North America. Successful colonization was not inevitable. Rather, interest in North America was a halting, yet global, contest among European powers to exploit these lands.

There is another very important point to keep in mind:  European colonization and settlement of North America (and other areas of the so-called “new world”) was an invasion of territory controlled and settled for centuries by Native Americans. To be sure, Indian control and settlement of that land looked different to European, as compared to Indian, eyes. Nonetheless, Indian groups perceived the Europeans’ arrival as an encroachment and they pursued any number of avenues to deal with that invasion. That the Indians were unsuccessful in the long run in resisting or in establishing a more favorable accommodation with the Europeans was as much the result of the impact on Indians of European diseases as superior force of arms. Moreover, to view the situation from Indian perspectives (“facing east from Indian country,” in historian Daniel K. Richter’s wonderful phrase) is essential in understanding the complex interaction of these very different peoples.

Finally, it is also important to keep in mind that yet a third group of people–in this case Africans–played an active role in the European invasion (or colonization) of the western hemisphere. From the very beginning, Europeans’ attempts to establish colonies in the western hemisphere foundered on the lack of laborers to do the hard work of colony-building. The Spanish, for example, enslaved the Indians in regions under their control. The English struck upon the idea of indentured servitude to solve the labor problem in Virginia. Virtually all the European powers eventually turned to African slavery to provide labor on their islands in the West Indies. Slavery was eventually transferred to other colonies in both South and North America.

Because of the interactions of these very diverse peoples, the process of European colonization of the western hemisphere was a complex one, indeed. Individual members of each group confronted situations that were most often not of their own making or choosing. These individuals responded with the means available to them. For most, these means were not sufficient to prevail. Yet these people were not simply victims; they were active agents trying to shape their own destinies. That many of them failed should not detract from their efforts.

The English Establish a Foothold at Jamestown

The First Thanksgiving
The First Thanksgiving

On December 20, 1606, ships of the London Company set sail from England to establish a colony in Virginia. The would-be colonists arrived in Chesapeake Bay in April 1607. On board were 105 men, including 40 soldiers, 35 “gentlemen,” and various artisans and laborers.

The Company had instructed Captain Newport, the commander of the ships, to find a site for a colony that was secure from Spanish discovery and attack but that also had easy access to the sea. He therefore sailed up a river (which the English named the James) and fifty miles from its mouth found a low-lying, marshy peninsula that seemed to meet all specifications. There they established what they called James towne.

At first, things seemed to go well. The colonists cleared some land and erected a palisade for protection. Inside the palisade they built small, rather rude, dwellings. The colonists also began to clear some land for planting crops. Meanwhile the natives in the area, a confederation of tribes led by Powhatan, seemed to change from initial hostility to friendship and hospitality. With the natives’ offers of food and friendship, the English began to pay less attention to planting crops and more to exploring the region for quick riches.

Despite the early promise of success, there were already danger signs. During the summer and autumn, many colonists began to sicken and die. In part, we now know, illness and death were caused by siting Jamestown at a very swampy, unhealty location. In addition, many colonists had brought with them typhoid and dysentery (what people at the time called “the bloody flux”), which became epidemic because the colonists did not understand basic hygiene. Further, the water supply at Jamestown was contaminated both by human wastes and seawater.

Moreover, by autumn it became obvious that the colonists had insufficient food to get them through the winter. Not enough land had been cleared and not enough crops had been planted and harvested. Part of the problem here was that the “gentlemen” resisted working like mere laborers. Fortunately for the colonists, Powhatan remained friendly and supplied the English with food. Even so, by the time the “first supply” of more settlers and provisions arrived in early 1608, only 35 of the initial colonists had survived.

Although the evidence is skewed in his favor, there is little question that Captain John Smith saved Jamestown. He organized the colonists and forced them to work in productive ways. He was also able to trade with the natives for food stuffs; when they were reluctant to trade, he took what he needed, souring relations with the natives. Although Smith soon returned to England, his and other colonists’ reports back to the London Company led that body to change some of its methods. Essentially it codified Smith’s dictatorial regime by bestowing much greater authority on the colonial governor.

Virginia’s Early Relations with Native Americans

The Indians living in the area where Jamestown was settled must have had mixed feelings about the arrival of the English in 1607. One of their first reactions was hostility based on their previous experience with Spanish explorers along their coastline. They attacked one of the ships before the English actually landed. Yet the Indians soon began to offer food and traditional Indian hospitality to the newcomers. At first, Powhatan, leader of a confederation of tribes around the Chesapeake Bay, hoped to absorb the newcomers through hospitality and his offerings of food. As the colonists searched for instant wealth, they neglected planting corn and other work necessary to make their colony self-sufficient. They therefore grew more and more dependent on the Indians for food.

imgres-1As the colony’s fortunes deteriorated during its first two years, Captain John Smith’s leadership saved the colony. Part of this leadership involved exploring the area and establishing trade with local Indians. Unfortunately for the Indians, Smith believed that the English should treat Indians as the Spanish had: to compel them to “drudgery, work, and slavery,” so English colonists could live “like Soldiers upon the fruit of their labor.” Thus, when his negotiations with Indians for food occasionally failed, Smith took what he wanted by force.

By 1609, Powhatan realized that the English intended to stay. Moreover, he was disappointed that the English did not return his hospitality nor would they marry Indian women (an affront from the Native perspective). He knew that the English “invade my people, possess my country.” Indians thus began attacking settlers, killing their livestock, and burning such crops as they planted. All the while, Powhatan claimed he simply could not control the young men who were committing these acts without his knowledge or permission. Keep in mind, however, that Powhatan’s reactions and statements were reported by John Smith, hardly an unbiased observer.

In the next decade, the colonists conducted search and destroy raids on Indian settlements. They burned Indian villages and their corn crops (ironic, in that the English were often starving). Both sides committed atrocities against the other. Powhatan was finally forced into a truce of sorts. Colonists captured Powhatan’s favorite daughter, Pocahontas, who soon married John Rolfe. Their marriage did help relations between Indians and colonists.

With the reorganization of the colony under Sir Edwin Sandys, liberal land policies led to dispersion of English settlements along the James River. Increasing cultivation of tobacco required more land (since tobacco wore out the soil in three or four years) and clearing forest areas to make land fit for planting. Expanding English settlements meant more encroachment on Indian lands and somewhat greater contact with Indians. It also left settlers more vulnerable to Indian attack. By this time, the Indians fully realized what continued English presence in Virginia meant–more plantations, the felling of more forests, the killing of more game–in sum, a greater threat to their way of life. The self-proclaimed humanitarian efforts of people like George Thorpe–who sought to convert Indian children to Christianity through education–did not help either. Finally, the deaths of Powhatan and Pocahontas further hastened hostilities.

The Indians, led by Powhatan’s brother Opechancanough, bided their time. Pretending friendship, they were waiting for an opportunity to strike the English and dislodge them from Virginia. In early 1622, they struck. In all, nearly 350 colonists were killed; Jamestown itself was saved only by the warning of an Indian Christian convert. One result was an ever-hardening English attitude toward the Indians. Another was bloody reprisals against local Indians.

Establishing the Georgia Colony, 1732-1750

In the 1730s, England founded the last of its colonies in North America. The project was the brain child of James Oglethorpe, a former army officer. After Oglethorpe left the army, he devoted himself to helping the poor and debt-ridden people of London, whom he suggested settling in America. His choice of Georgia, named for the new King, was also motivated by the idea of creating a defensive buffer for South Carolina, an increasingly important colony with many potential enemies close by. These enemies included the Spanish in Florida, the French in Louisiana and along the Mississippi River, and these powers’ Indian allies throughout the region.

Twenty trustees received funding from Parliament and a charter from the King, issued in June 1732. The charter granted the trustees the powers of a corporation; they could elect their own governing body, make land grants, and enact their own laws and taxes. Since the corporation was a charitable body, none of the trustees could receive any land from, or hold a paid position in, the corporation. Too, since the undertaking was designed to benefit the poor, the trustees placed a 500-acre limit on the size of individual land holdings. People who had received charity and who had not purchased their own land could not sell, or borrow money against, it. The trustees wanted to avoid the situation in South Carolina, which had very large plantations and extreme gaps between the wealthy and the poor.

The undertaking was paternalistic through and through. For example, the trustees did not trust the colonists to make their own laws. They therefore did not establish a representative assembly, although every other mainland colony had one. The trustees made all laws for the colony. Second, the settlements were laid out in compact, confined, and concentrated townships. In part, this arrangement was instituted to enhance the colony’s defenses, but social control was another consideration. Third, the trustees prohibited the import and manufacture of rum, for rum would lead to idleness. Finally, the trustees prohibited Negro slavery, for they believed that this ban would encourage the settlement of “English and Christian” people.

Georgia’s first year, 1733, went well enough, as settlers began to clear the land, build houses, and construct fortifications. Those who came in the first wave of settlement realized that after the first year they would be working for themselves. Meanwhile, Oglethorpe, who went to Georgia with the first settlers, began negotiating treaties with local Indian tribes, especially the Upper Creek tribe. Knowing that the Spanish, based in Florida, had great influence with many of the tribes in the region, Oglethorpe thought it necessary to reach an understanding with these native peoples if Georgia was to remain free from attack. In addition, the Indian trade became an important element of Georgia’s economy.

It didn’t take long, however, until the settlers began to grumble about all the restrictions imposed on them by the trustees. In part, this grumbling may have been due to the fact that most of those moving to Georgia after the first several years were from other colonies, especially South Carolina. These settlers viewed restrictions on the size of individual land holdings as a sure pathway to poverty. They also opposed restrictions on land sales and the prohibition against slavery for the same reason. They certainly did not like the fact that they were deprived of any self-government and their rights as Englishmen. By the early 1740s, the trustees slowly gave way on most of the colonists’ grievances.

Source: The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities –
(Accessed: November 25, 2015)

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