The Development of Virginia Society
The early years of the Virginia colony were so grim that the colony's survival was often in doubt. Several developments, however, laid the foundation for future stability and prosperity. One of the most important was the beginning of tobacco cultivation, which eventually provided most of the colony's wealth. A second development was the introduction of the headright system several years later. This led to a flood of immigrants to the colony, most of them indentured servants.
|1607||Virginia Colony founded with settlement at Jamestown.|
|C. 1607-1619||Virginia Colony struggles to survive.
Tobacco cultivation begins, gives colony profitable economic basis
|Ca. 1619||Virginia Company introduces reforms to save colony:
|1619||First black slaves arrive.|
|1620s||Settlers--mostly indentured servants--pour into Virginia.
Conditions unhealthy, mortality high.
War with Powhatan Indians.
|1630s & 1640s||Society becomes increasingly stable.
Planter elite establishes political and social dominance as sheriffs & justices of the peace, heads of local militia, and representatives to the House of Burgesses.
Conditions become healthier; more servants survive indentures and acquire land.
Indentured servants continue coming to colony.
|1660s & 1670s||Hard times for small planters. Many have trouble acquiring land.|
|After 1680||African slave importations increases. Second phase of slavery
Conditions for small planters--the majority of the white population--improve and stabilize.
Second phase of slavery begins.
Chesapeake society becomes composed of
Through the 1620s, however, the situation remained
bad. Conditions were so unhealthy that most indentured servants
died before they had served out their seven-year indentures. In addition,
Indian attacks, resulting from increasing English encroachment on Indian
land, added to the hazards of life in Virginia.
In the 1630s life improved. A war against the Indians had eliminated the threat of attack. Conditions became healthier, the death rate dropped, and the majority of indentured servants began to survive their indentures. Most were then awarded land and became small-scale, or yeoman, farmers.
Also during the period the structures of local government became organized. The colony was divided into counties, as in England. The counties became the basic unit of local government. In the counties wealthy planters emerged as the dominant group. The members of this planter elite won election to the major offices. They were elected as sheriffs and justices of the peace, members of the House of Burgesses, and vestrymen--members of the vestry which controlled the local parish of the Church of England, the official church of the colony. From 1650 on, this elite grew, as wealthy English families, many of them members of the gentry and merchant classes--sent younger sons to Virginia to begin large plantations. These families included the Lees, ancestor of Robert E. Lee; the Harrisons, ancestors of Presidents William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison; the Jeffersons; the Madisons, and the Washingtons. They dominated Virginia society until the end of the Civil War.
The 1660s and 1670s brought new challenges to the stability of the colony. The Navigation Acts, passed in England, taxed all tobacco exported. This hurt small farmers particularly badly. In addition, the increasing numbers of servants finishing their indentures put a strain on the availability of land, leading to large numbers of landless young men. These tensions exploded in Bacon's Rebellion, which broke out in 1676. The Rebellion fizzled, but the Virginia elite responded by improving conditions for the white colonists. They took more land away from the Indians and made it available to white men. Qualifications for voting were eased, so that most white farmers were able to vote.
Finally, an improvement in health--the fact that most people survived far longer than the seven years of an indenture--led to a hug increase in the importation of African slaves. As their numbers increased, the colonial government erected higher and higher barriers between blacks and whites and between slaves and everyone else. This increased the status of ordinary whites.
By the end of the 1600s, therefore, Chesapeake society had achieved its permanent form. At the top was the gentry--wealthy planters usually owning hundreds of slaves and thousands of acres. Almost all elected leaders came from this group. Next were small farmers,who made up the vast majority of the white population. Most owned their own land, but few owned many slaves. Men from this group were allowed to vote and usually elected members of the gentry as sheriffs, justices of the peace, and members of the House of Burgesses. In addition, they served in the local militia under officers from the gentry class. Finally, there were the increasing numbers of slaves, effectively cut off by race and servitude from the rest of society. This is the social structure of the slave-owning South, which lasted through the Revolution to the end of the Civil War.
Chesapeake society in both Maryland and Virginia was rural. There were few towns. Most people lived in the middle of plantations, far from neighbors. This pattern of settlement contrasted sharply with that of New England, which we will study in the next chapter. And it remained the dominant pattern of the South until after the Second World War. Today the South is still one of the most rural regions of the United States.
Eventually, Maryland came to resemble Virginia, but its early history was sharply different. Unlike Virginia, Maryland was founded as the private property of the Calvert family, the head of whom held the title of Lord Baltimore. King James I of England simply gave Lord Baltimore the territory (In this instance he acted as the king of Spain had done when he gave his favorites huge grants of land in Spain's American colonies). Lord Baltimore wanted to create a refuge for English Catholics, a tiny minority of the population who had numerous legal difficulties in practicing their religion in their home country. He also wanted to make the colony profitable, and since the number of English Catholics was small, he invited Protestants as well, who quickly outnumbered the Catholic settlers.
|1630s||English settlement begins.
Conflict between settlers and the Calvert's government; conflict between Protestants and Catholics
Lord Baltimore issues declaration of toleration for most Christians.
|By 1700||Maryland resembles Virginia|
Although Maryland enjoyed relatively peaceful relations
with the indigenous Indians, conflict among the settlers racked the
colony. One source of conflict was Lord Baltimore's desire to establish
near-feudal conditions. The colony's charter had made him a proprietor
with almost absolute power. He then attempted to add another layer of feudal
hierarchy by naming every wealthy settlers who bought 6,000 acres a lord
of the manor. This was a a title from Europe's feudal age.
It empowered the landowner to conduct his own court on his lands.
But in Maryland, other, less wealthy settlers refused to accept these conditions.
An elected assembly quarreled with Baltimore about the restrictions the
restrictions he attempted to place on their powers--just as the the English
Parliament resisted kings' attempts to curtail their powers. For
much of the time armed vigilantes roamed the countryside. In the
1640s one group drove the proprietor temporarily out of the colony.
In 1655 civil war broke out. In 1689 Coode's Rebellion under the
leadership of John Coode captured the governor and led to the English authorities
stripping the Calvert family of their power.
Another source of conflict was religion. Among the settlers, Protestants quickly outnumbered Catholics. In 1649, partly to pacify the Protestant majority, Lord Baltimore issued his famous "Act concerning Religion," granting toleration to all who accepted the divinity of Jesus.
Eventually, Maryland became very similar to Virginia. Both colonies specialized in growing tobacco for export. Both depended on the labor of black slaves. Both had similar social hierarchies. And both had governments with an elected assembly, an institution inherited from England.
Stages of Slavery
During the seventeenth century, slavery in the Chesapeake colonies changed significantly. The situation was similar in both Maryland and Virginia, but since Virginia was the larger colony, we will focus on it in describing the changes. In understanding them, it is helpful to think of two phases of slavery during the 1600s.
Most blacks came from English colonies in the Caribbean.
Familiar with English ways.
Similar treatment to white indentured servants.
Not all slaves.
Race less important than in Phase II.
|II||C. 1680--||Large numbers--40% of all Virginians by 1740.
Most came directly from Africa.
Initially did not speak English and unfamiliar with English society.
Slaves treated much differently than white indentured servants.
Rigid slavery the norm.
Race very important.
The first phase lasted from the arrival
of first black slaves in 1619 to the 1680s. During this period slaves
made up a small part of the work force, most of which were white indentured
servants. Most blacks came from England's Caribbean island colonies
rather than Africa itself. This meant that some spoke English, had
adopted Christianity, and were familiar with English ways. Most were
also treated similarly to the much more numerous indentured servants.
They socialized and formed sexual relationships with them. In fact,
some blacks were themselves indentured servants rather than slaves;
a few were either free or were emancipated; and a small number even owned
plantations and slaves.
The second phase began approximately in the 1680s and lasted into the following century. As conditions became healthier and life expectancy increased, planters found slaves more economically advantageous than indentured servants. In the earlier period, when few servants survived their periods of indenture, it made more sense to purchase cheaper indentured servants than slaves. In healthier conditions, when people began living their normal life spans, however, it became more economical to pay more for slaves, who would work their entire lives. During this time the number of slaves increased dramatically; by 1740, in the next century, fully 40% of all Virginians were black.
To secure such large numbers, colonists began to import almost all slaves directly from Africa . This meant that few spoke English or were familiar with English customs. They were therefore more isolated from white society.
Almost all of these new immigrants were lifetime slaves. New laws increased the separation of slaves from the rest of society and divided blacks from whites along racial lines. This rigid division of slave from free and black from white--different from Latin America--became an integral characteristic of Southern society, which lasted to the Civil War and continued even afterwards to cast a shadow over American society.
Back to course home page
Send a question or comment to Dr. Clark