Virginia colony


Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the Western Hemisphere (1607) and the core of what would later become the royal colony of Virginia (1624). English entrepreneurs had become interested in the Chesapeake region in the 1570s but received little support from Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603). The failed attempts to established Roanoke colony (1584–1587) forestalled English efforts in the New World. By the early 17th century, an intense rivalry with Spain and development of the jointstock company provided both the diplomatic motive and the financial means for launching a successful enterprise. On April 10, 1606, James I (r. 1603–25) granted the first Virginia charter, authorizing the London Company (soon renamed the Virginia Company) to establish settlements in the region of Chesapeake Bay. In December, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery landed 104 men and boys whose first concern was to locate a position that could be secured from attack. Although early reports observed “faire meaddowes and goodly tall trees,” Jamestown had many weaknesses as a site. Located on a marshy peninsula more than 30 miles from the mouth of the James River, it was disease-ridden, deficient in pure water, and located in territory controlled by the powerful Powhatan confederacy. Furthermore, the group consisted of many immigrants of noble birth who were searching for easy wealth: In the first year, disease, laziness, and greed nearly destroyed the colony, with only about 40 men surviving into the new year. The colony was saved only by an influx of immigrants and the discipline imposed by Captain John Smith, who gained control of the council in 1609.
A new royal charter in 1609 gave more power to the Virginia Company, which again sought colonists and investors, but military rule prevailed and conditions remained desperate until John Rolfe successfully developed a mild tobacco that appealed to Europeans. Between 1617 and 1622, settlers abandoned all other work in order to profit from the new cash crop. Sir Edwin Sandys led stockholders in a series of reforms designed to make the colony more attractive to speculators, including establishing America’s first representative assembly, the House of Burgesses (1618) and the “headright” colonizing system for distributing land, which provided 50-acre plots for those paying their own way to the New World and additional headrights if they also paid for the passage of servants.
The lure of land and tobacco worked. Between 1619 and 1622, more than 3,000 people immigrated to Virginia. Most were young, indentured Englishmen (see indentured servitude), though there were significant numbers of Scots-Irish and Irish and a few Germans who had been recruited by the Virginia Company. Except for a few years of prosperity linked to high tobacco prices, however, Jamestown was a failure. By 1622, disease, contaminated water, attacks by Native Americans, and emigration had reduced the population to some 1,200, of whom only 270 were women or children, less than 8 percent of the total number of 15,000 immigrants since 1607.
In 1624, James I transformed Virginia into a royal colony, and life there gradually improved. By 1635, the population grew to 5,000. Although the Crown appointed a governor and council, settlers insisted on maintaining the House of Burgesses, which was officially recognized by Charles I (r. 1625–49) in 1639. Life in Virginia remained precarious, however, until the 1680s, with a population in flux as a result of frequent deaths, immigration, acquired freedom, and the gradual importation of slaves. Indentured servants who had gained their freedom were usually forced to the frontier and excluded from governance, grievances that led to their support of Nathaniel Bacon’s rebellion in 1676. Concern over the growing number of Scots-Irish servants around 1698 led to restrictions, with only 20 allowed at any river settlement.
Slavery grew slowly in Virginia. The first Africans were purchased in 1619, probably as indentured servants, but by 1650, there were only 300 Africans in a population of 15,000. While slavery was practiced, it was still possible for slaves to gain freedom through manumission or conversion to Christianity. As a result, a small group of free blacks emerged in Virginia. Gradually, however, stipulations regarding lifetime service became more common in sales and court decisions. The system of perpetual slavery was strengthened with the passage of slave codes, which legalized the institution. The first codes were passed by the Virginia General Assembly in March 1661, enacted to avoid confusion over the status of children born of mixed-race relationships. Turning traditional English law on its head, the Assembly declared that the status of children should be determined by “the condition of the mother,” thus ensuring that almost all biracial children would remain slaves. In 1667, the assembly determined that “the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedome.” A 1691 law made slaveholders responsible for the costs of transporting manumitted slaves out of the colony, thus reducing the tendency to manumit. In 1705, the dozens of enactments regarding the rights and protections of slaves were combined and strengthened into a comprehensive slave code, forbidding Africans to bear arms, own property, bear witness against whites, or travel without permission. Punishment for specific crimes by maiming, whipping, branding, and execution was sanctioned. The few provisions that protected slaves were usually ignored, while those protecting planters were rigidly enforced.
Virginia was by far the most populous colony at the beginning of the 18th century. Tobacco cultivation dictated the pattern of Virginian settlement. A handful of English planters dominated politics and society from their widely dispersed plantations, with slavery as the dominant labor system. Of 80,000 Virginians in 1708, 12,000 were slaves. According to one leading planter in 1705, Virginia still did not have any place that might “reasonably bear the Name of a Town.” Colonial governors were staunchly Anglican, requiring presentation of credentials and expelling a number of Puritan ministers. In the western backcountry, a small number of Pennsylvania Germans settled alongside Scots- Irish and English freedmen. From the 1680s, lower mortality rates began to produce a stable American-born ruling class, and from this emerged the permanent patterns of 18th-century Virginian life. The College of William and Mary was established in 1693, and six years later, the capital was transferred from Jamestown to Middle Plantation, renamed Williamsburg.

A–Z index