The British Empire in North America

The Coming of the English

The 17th century marked the early beginnings of English rule in the Americas with the establishment of the Thirteen Colonies.

Learning Objectives

Analyze and recall the early colonization attempts of the English Colonial Empire

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Sir Walter Raleigh established what is now known as the “Lost Colony ” of Roanoke in the late 16th century.
  • The 17th century saw a rapid increase of English colonial activity, driven by the pursuit of new land, trade, and religious freedom.
  • The London Virginia Company created the first successful English overseas settlements at Jamestown in 1607, and the Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629.
  • The colonial South included Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, and Carolina, and the Middle Colonies consisted of the present-day states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

Key Terms

  • London Virginia Company: An English joint stock business established by royal charter and James I of England on April 10, 1606, with the purpose of establishing colonial settlements in North America.
  • Plymouth Company: An English joint stock business founded in 1606 by James I of England with the purpose of establishing settlements on the coast of North America; also called the Virginia Bay Company.

Early British Attempts to Colonize

The first serious attempts to establish English colonies overseas were made in the last quarter of the 16th century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Financed by the Muscovy Company, Martin Frobisher set sail in 1576, seeking the Northwest Passage. In August of 1576, he landed at Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island. In 1578, he reached the shores of Greenland and made an unsuccessful attempt at founding a settlement in Frobisher Bay. At the same time, between 1577 and 1580, Sir Francis Drake was circumnavigating the globe. In 1579, he landed somewhere on the western coast of North America, claiming the area for Elizabeth as “New Albion.”

The Founding of Roanoke

In 1584, Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter for the colonization of an area of North America which was to be called Virginia. Raleigh and Elizabeth intended that the venture should provide riches from the New World and a base from which to send privateers on raids against the treasure fleets of Spain. He called his new privately-funded colony, Roanoke, and founded it on an island off the coast of present-day North Carolina, where it would be relatively isolated from existing settlements in North America.

The colony was small, consisting of only 117 people, who suffered a poor relationship with the local American Indians, the Croatans, and struggled to survive in their new land. Their governor, John White, returned to England in late 1587 to secure more people and supplies; by the time he returned in 1590, the entire colony had vanished. The only trace the colonists left behind was the word “Croatoan” carved into a fence surrounding the village. Governor White never knew whether the colonists had decamped for nearby Croatoan Island (now Hatteras) or whether some disaster had befallen them all. Roanoke is still called “the Lost Colony” today.

The Beginning of the Thirteen Colonies

England made its first successful efforts at the start of the 17th century. Most of the new English colonies established in North America and the West Indies, whether successful or otherwise, were proprietary colonies. Proprietors were appointed to found and govern settlements under mercantile charters granted to joint stock companies. Soon, there was a rapid increase of English colonial activity, driven by the pursuit of new land, trade, and religious freedom.

The Thirteen Colonies were the colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America, starting with Virginia in 1607, and ending with Georgia in 1733. The colonies were Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Each colony developed its own system of self-government.

Jamestown

In 1606, James I sold a charter containing lands between present-day South Carolina and the U.S.-Canada border to two competing groups of investors. The Plymouth Company was given the northern portions, and the London Company was given the southern portions. The Northern Plymouth settlement in Maine faltered and was abandoned. However, the London Virginia Company created the first successful English overseas settlements at Jamestown in 1607. Its first years were extremely difficult, with very high death rates from disease and starvation, wars with local American Indians, and little gold. The colony survived and flourished by developing tobacco as a cash crop for the colony; it served as a beginning for the colonial state of Virginia.

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London Company and Plymouth Company Grants: This map illustrates the 1606 grants by James I to the London and Plymouth companies. The overlapping area (shown in yellow) along the northeastern coast of the United States was granted to both companies on the stipulation that neither found a settlement within 100 miles (160 km) of each other. The location of the Jamestown Settlement (“J”) is shown just south of the overlapping area, 60 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Puritans (a much larger group than the Pilgrims) established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629 with 400 settlers. They fled England, and in America, they attempted to create a “nation of saints” or a “City upon a Hill”—an intensely religious community designed to be an example for all of Europe. Other colonists who disagreed with the Puritans in Massachusetts settled to the north, mingling with adventurers and profit-oriented settlers to establish more religiously diverse colonies in New Hampshire and Maine.

Unlike the cash crop-oriented plantations of the Chesapeake region, the Puritan economy was based on the efforts of self-supporting farmsteads who traded only for goods they could not produce themselves. Along with agriculture, fishing, and logging, New England became an important mercantile and shipbuilding center, serving as the hub for trading between the southern colonies and Europe.

The Middle Colonies and Colonial South

The Middle Colonies, consisting of the present-day states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, were characterized by a large degree of religious, political, economic, and ethnic diversity. In 1664, England took over the Dutch colony of New Netherland, including New Amsterdam, and renamed it the Province of New York. Pennsylvania was founded in 1681 as a proprietary colony of the Quaker, William Penn.

The colonial South included the plantation colonies of the Chesapeake region—Virginia and Maryland—and the lower South colonies of Carolina and Georgia. Carolina was not settled until 1670. The original settlers in South Carolina established a lucrative trade in provisions, deerskins, and American Indian captives with the Caribbean Islands. The settlers came mainly from the English colony of Barbados and brought African slaves with them.

Population Growth

By 1640, 20,000 settlers had arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Between the late 1610s and the American Revolution, the British shipped an estimated 50,000 convicts to its American colonies; the first convicts in the colonies arrived before the Mayflower. After 1700, most immigrants to Colonial America arrived as indentured servants—young unmarried men and women seeking a new life in a much richer environment. Philadelphia became the center of the colonies; by the end of the colonial period, 30,000 people lived there, having come from diverse nations and practicing numerous trades.

By 1776, about 85% of the white population in the British colonies was of English, Irish, Scottish, or Welsh descent, with 9% of German origin and 4% Dutch. These populations continued to grow at a rapid rate throughout the 18th century, primarily because of high birth rates and relatively low death rates. Immigration was a minor factor from 1774 to 1830. Over 90% of people were farmers. Several small cities that were also seaports linked the colonial economy to the larger British Empire.

Indentured Servants

Colonial farmers, planters, and shopkeepers hired servants from Europe who agreed to work for a number of years in exchange for their passage to America.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the rise and decline of indentured servitude in colonial North America

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Indentured servitude was a method of increasing the number of colonists, especially in the British colonies, as well as a system of labor to support the new colonies. Indentured servants received passage to the colonies and would work for several years to pay off the debt of their travel costs.
  • The servants were not paid wages, but were provided food, room, clothing, and training (also called the “terms of indenture”).
  • In the 17th century, nearly two-thirds of English settlers came as indentured servants.
  • Unlike slaves, servants could look forward to a release from bondage once their contract had been served. While slaves themselves were bought and sold as property, only a servant’s labor was sold, maintaining them as a free person. Indentured servitude was a major element of colonial labor economics from the 1620s until the American Revolution. As indentured servants became more expensive, their labor was replaced by African slaves.

Key Terms

  • terms of indenture: A legal contract that specifies the conditions, timeline, and exchange involved in servitude.
  • redemptioner: An immigrant, generally from the 18th or 19th century, that gained passage to America by selling themselves as an indentured servant.

Background: Indentured Servitude in the Colonies

In colonial North America, farmers, planters, and shopkeepers found it very difficult to hire workers, primarily because cash was short and it was easy for those workers to set up their own farms. Consequently, the more common solution became to pay the passage of a young worker from the British Isles (including Ireland, Wales, and Scotland) or Germany, who would work for several years to pay off the debt of the travel costs. Tens of thousands of workers, usually Europeans, immigrated as indentured servants (also known as redemptioners), particularly to the 13 colonies of British North America.

An indenture was a legal contract enforced by the courts. Europeans who were displaced from their land or unable to find work signed contracts of indenture and took passage to the Americas. Some indentured servants were deported from their country and sent to the New World as punishment for law breaking. Prior to the American Revolutionary War, an estimated 50,000 convicts from the United Kingdom were transported to the American colonies and served out their time as indentured servants before receiving an official pardon. Labor was in demand in North America, and so free persons were also recruited in exchange for passage to the Americas. Many recruiters abused the system, however, including lying to recruits.

Indentured servitude was a method of increasing the number of colonists, especially in the British colonies. Voluntary migration and convict labor only provided so many people, and because the journey across the Atlantic was dangerous, other means of encouraging settlement were necessary. Contract-laborers became so numerous that the United States Constitution counted them specifically in appointing representatives.

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Indenture contract signed with an X by Henry Meyer in 1738: This image illustrates an indenture contract signed with an “X”.

Process

Indentured servants or their parents would make arrangements with a ship captain in Europe, who would not charge any money. The captain would transport the indentured servants to the American colonies and sell their legal papers to someone who needed workers. When the ship arrived, the captain would often advertise in a newspaper that indentured servants were for sale. When a buyer was found, the sale would be recorded at the city court. One could buy and sell indentured servants’ contracts, and the right to their labor would change hands, but not the person as a piece of property.

In the 17th century, nearly two-thirds of English settlers came as indentured servants. Given the high death rate, many servants did not live to the end of their terms. The servants were not paid wages, but were provided food, room, clothing, and training (also called the “terms of indenture”). Unlike slaves, servants could look forward to a release from bondage. At the end of their term they received a payment known as “freedom dues” and a new suit of clothes; they were then free members of society.

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Advertisement: This Philadelphia newspaper advertises the sale of an indentured servant’s labor, followed below by advertisements for various slaves. This illustrates the difference between indentured servitude (in which a person’s labor is owned) vs. slavery (in which a person is owned).

Abuses of the System

Abuse of indentured servants on board ships is well documented. If a person died more than half way across the Atlantic, the surviving family members had to pay the deceased’s fare as well as their own. The crew often pilfered their baggage, and while many travelers started their journey with sufficient funds to pay their way, they were often overcharged so that they arrived with a debt to settle in addition to their servitude contract. If the ship needed to sail before some of the passengers’ indentures had been sold, an agent in the American port kept them confined until a buyer presented himself.

Indentures could not marry without the permission of their contract’s owner, were subject to physical punishment (occasionally even resulting in death), and saw their obligation to labor enforced by the courts. To ensure uninterrupted work by the female servants, the law lengthened the term of their indenture if they became pregnant.

The British Parliament eventually enacted laws protecting British subjects from the worst abuses. The law required that the specific terms and conditions of servitude be approved by a magistrate in Great Britain and declared that any indentures not bearing a magistrate’s seal were unenforceable in the colonies. As a result, colonial masters increasingly sought servants from elsewhere.

Effects on the Economy

Indentured servitude was a major element of colonial labor economics from the 1620s until the American Revolution. The system declined as the price of indentured agricultural labor increased (for example, the cost of indentured labor rose by nearly 60% throughout the 1680s in some colonial regions). Few indentures arrived after 1775, and so southern planters turned increasingly to African slaves for their labor force, who were comparatively less expensive. Thereafter, Africans began to replace indentured servants in both skilled and unskilled positions.