Before the arrival of the English, the Spanish influence in the New World extended from the Chesapeake Bay to the tip of South America. Spanish possessions included the developing cities of Mexico, Peru, and Cuba. Along the northern edge of Spain’s land were small missions and “presidios” or fortresses that stretched from the Atlantic coast, ran along the Gulf of Mexico and extended into the plains of Texas and the Rio Grande River valley. In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh took on one of the first English settlement attempts. He set up a colony of about 100 men on the east coast of North America, on land he named Virginia after Queen Elizabeth I, who being unmarried, was known as the “Virgin Queen.” These settlers only lasted for a year before returning home. Then, in 1587, Raleigh made a second attempt at settling a colony at Roanoke, Virginia. The supply ships sent to the colony never arrived and in 1590 when help did come, evidence of the existence of the entire colony had disappeared except for the word “Croatan” inscribed on a post.
Soon after England’s first colonization efforts, several changes took place that strengthened their ability to colonize America in the early 1600s: the Protestant Reformation, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the changes in the English economy.
In the early 1500s, England and Spain had a strong connection based on their dedication to the Roman Catholic Church and the marriage between Henry VIII of England and Catherine of Aragon. Then, in the 1530s when Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic Church so he could divorce Catherine, the efforts of English Protestant reformers gained official support and the once close relations between England and Spain broke down.
Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage of 20 years to Catherine of Aragon because she had only provided him with female heirs. However, Catherine was the aunt to the King of Spain, Charles V, whose support was vital to the Holy Roman Empire, so the pope refused the annulment. In a political move, Henry severed the connection with Rome, declared himself head of the Church of England, named a new archbishop who granted his annulment, and remarried. Ironically, his new wife did not present him with the male heir he wanted, but instead a daughter named Elizabeth who later reigned from 1558 to 1603.
Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, came to the throne after her father’s death and attempted to bring England back into the Catholic fold. Following the unpopular reign of Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth I came to power and embodied both an ambition in world affairs and a strong but pragmatic Protestantism that renewed the tensions between England and Spain. The English, quietly backed by Queen Elizabeth, began to plunder Spanish merchant ships. The most famous “sea dog” was Captain Francis Drake. He captured a Spanish treasure ship and netted profits of about 4,600 percent for his financial backers.
King Philip II of Spain was angered by the English raids on his ships and began to assemble an Armada of ships to invade England. One of his goals was to bring England back into the Catholic fold once and for all. In 1588, the Spanish Armada consisting of some 130 ships and 30,000 men sailed to the English Channel. The Dutch, who were themselves resisting Spanish rule, helped the English disrupt the Armada’s plans. The English fleet fought back with ships that were faster and more maneuverable and crushed the Armada. Then a series of storms scattered the remainder of the Spanish flotilla as it attempted to circle the British Isles, completing the destruction. This historically significant win for England ensured their naval dominance in the North Atlantic and built their confidence and their ambition to secure settlements in the New World.
Although Elizabeth produced no heirs to the throne, the influence of her reign continued in 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of Great Britain, uniting Scotland and England under one monarchy. This was an era of great social, economic, and political development for England. William Shakespeare produced plays for London’s Globe Theatre. The Crown’s patronage of scholars resulted in the King James translation of the Bible in 1611. Investors and companies such as the Muscovy Company and the East India Company tapped into the world’s developing trade networks. Where networks were established, the English built ties to local merchants and set up new trade routes and port facilities with the goal of building wealth for England.
Colonial expansion was fueled by a number of factors. England’s population was growing at a rapid rate. Economic recession left many without work, even skilled artisans could earn little more than enough to live. Poor crop yields added to the distress. In addition, the Industrial Revolution had created a growing textile industry, which demanded an ever-increasing supply of wool. Landlords enclosed farmlands for sheep grazing, which left the farmers without anywhere to live. The law of primogeniture (first born) stated that only the eldest son inherited an estate, which left many entrepreneurial younger sons to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Colonial expansion became an outlet for these displaced populations.
The development of joint-stock companies encouraged commercial expansion and provided the financial backing. The joint-stock company allowed several investors to pool their capital and share the risks and profits, becoming the predecessor of the modern corporation. All such activity had to take place with the approval of the monarch, who granted a charter that outlined the basic terms of the venture. When overseas, the charter reinforced the idea that those involved were extensions of England and English customs. The charter later became an important document in American history because it guaranteed the settlers the same rights as the people of England.
In 1606, King James I granted a charter to colonize Virginia, the whole area claimed by England in the New World, to a joint-stock company called the Virginia Company of London. The charter revealed the primary motivation for colonization of both King James and the company: the promise of gold. Secondary motivations included finding a sea passage through the New World to Asia and the Indies, establishing colonies and outposts to demonstrate English power and influence, and spreading Christianity and a European definition of civilization to the native people. The English assumed that the riches and native populations that the Spanish found in Mexico and Peru existed throughout the Americas.
In late 1606, the Virginia Company set sail with about 100 male settlers aboard. On May 24, 1607, their three ships landed near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay area on the banks of the James River. Here they founded Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in the New World.
The English had been planting similar settlements in Ireland since the 1500s and so used a familiar model in the New World. As settlers, their goal was to transplant their way of life as much as possible. This made the early years of Jamestown difficult for the settlers. The land was hot, humid, and mosquito-infested, and the settlers were mostly aristocrats and artisans who did not know how to farm, fish, or hunt. Instead, they spent much of their time searching for nonexistent gold. Many of those who did not die on the trip to the New World died once they arrived from disease, malnutrition, and starvation.
The local Indians helped the colonists with food during their first hard winters and taught them how to farm and live off the land. The Powhatan leader for numerous Algonquian-speaking Indian tribes in the region took a position of cautious assistance and patient observation of the colonists. The Indians had experienced small parties of Spanish explorers and missionaries in the 1500s and wondered what these newcomers would bring. Europeans came to call these Indians the Powhatan Indians.
The directors of the Virginia Company of London failed to provide the colony with effective guidance and they continued to struggle. One colonist, John Smith, came to Jamestown after a career as a solider and provided much-needed leadership to the settlers. Smith was a fantastic soldier in Eastern Europe before he went to Jamestown. He fought many battles and triumphed in a variety of adventures, including freeing himself from his Turkish captors by killing his overseer to escape imprisonment.
The Virginia Company was impressed with Smith’s military experience and thus appointed him a member of the resident council to manage the colony in America. This proved to be a wise decision when Smith implemented a rule that “he that will not work shall not eat.” His rule kept the colonists from starving to death.
Smith bargained with the Indians so that he could explore and map the Chesapeake area. He had no reservations about taking advantage of the Indians in order to benefit the colonists. His leadership and resourcefulness saved the colonists from extinction. In 1607 Smith was kidnapped by the Powhatan Native Americans, and according to legend, rescued from death by appeal of the Indian Chief’s daughter, Pocahontas. This act of mercy enabled Pocahontas, who was only about ten years old, to preserve wavering peace and become a liaison between the Indians and the settlers.
Despite the Indian’s help and Smith’s leadership, the colony was failing. The winter of 1609-1610 was called the “starving time” when most of the settlers died of hunger and pestilence, leaving alive only 60 of the 400 who had come to Virginia by 1609. When spring arrived, the remaining colonists decided to head home to England. As they made their way down the James River they were met by a new Governor, Lord De La Warr, who sent them back to Jamestown.
The hardships continued for the colonists and the cultural clashes with the Indians increased. De La Warr’s troops raided Indian villages and took what they wanted. In 1614, a peace settlement ended the First Anglo-Powhatan War, and like many settlements of the time in Europe, was sealed with a marriage, in this case between a settler named John Rolfe and Pocahontas, who had converted to Christianity.In 1616, Pocahontas and Rolfe went to England to visit James I and John Smith, and during their trip, in 1617, Pocahontas died of disease and was buried in Gravesend, England.
The treaty with the Indians is not what saved the settlers, rather it was John Rolfe’s realization that tobacco could be sold profitably in England. This was a critical turning point for Jamestown. John Rolfe became the economic savior of the Virginia colony by importing tobacco seeds that were much smoother and milder than the local tobacco. As the profits from the cultivation of tobacco increased, the colonists no longer cared about looking for gold. Instead, they wanted to acquire large plots of land so they could grow more of the yellow leaf. By 1616, despite King James’ protests regarding his perception that tobacco could not be anything but a health risk, tobacco had become an export staple for Jamestown and finally put the colony on firm economic ground. However, these profits did not go to the London Company, because by the time tobacco became profitable most of the original colonists had served their seven years with the company. So the profits went to the planters who owned the farms, not the shareholders of the London Company.
The newly-developed tobacco plantation economy became the first commodity to save the south and provide wealth for the colonists, but it also had some negative consequences. It was the only source of fortune, and so the success of the Virginians was tied directly to the fluctuating price of tobacco. It was very hard on the soil and the vast plantation system required a large labor force. In 1619 a Dutch ship stopped in Jamestown and dropped off 20 Africans, establishing the beginning of the North American slave system. However, there were a limited number of slaves in all of the Southern colonies in the early 1600s, with only 300 blacks in Virginia by 1650. Instead, the planters had to rely on a white labor force of indentured servants.
By 1619, the London Company’s venture in Virginia had enough people to merit a form of self-government called the House of Burgesses. This allowed the settlers to choose delegates to advise the governor, and from these beginnings sprang a new pattern of representative self-government in America.
That same year, a ship arrived with 90 women aboard. These women were to be sold to likely husbands of their own choice for the cost of transportation, which was the equivalent of about 125 pounds of tobacco. The arrival of women to the colony sent a powerful message that Jamestown was there to stay.
The land-hungry settlers continued to push inland creating conflict with the Indians. The peace settlement from the First Anglo-Powhatan War had lasted only eight years. In 1622, the Indians attacked and left 347 settlers dead, including John Rolfe. The London Company embarked on a charge to decimate the Indians, spawning the Second Anglo-Powhatan War in 1644. The Indians were once again defeated. The peace treaty of 1646 banished the Chesapeake Indians from Virginia, sparking a chain reaction of westward movement of tribes, each group displacing the existing peoples, who then moved and displaced others.
In 1624, King James had appointed a commission to investigate the London Company and their management of Jamestown. The committee recommended the court dissolve the company, so the King revoked the charter, making Virginia a royal colony directly under his control. As a financial investment the London Company had been a disaster—the shareholders lost everything they invested. Although there were major financial losses, as the King took over, Virginia was firmly established and beginning to prosper in the New World.
The Anglican Church became England’s official church during Queen Elizabeth’s reign from 1558 to 1603. At this time there was growing tension between Catholics and Protestants dating back to when Queen Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VII, broke from the Catholic Church in the 1530s. English Catholics wanted the Church of England to stress traditional Catholic practices while English Protestants following Calvinist ideals wanted to return to the “pure” Christianity of the New Testament and remove the Catholic additions. The church under Queen Elizabeth tried to balance between the Anglo-Catholic factions and the Protestant groups. The solution was a compromise between the Catholic and the Protestant extremes allowing for some latitude as long as the monarch was accepted as the head of the church.
However, the more radical Protestants felt that the Anglican Church was still too much like the Church of Rome. This group wanted to “purify” Anglicanism, so they were called Puritans. As a guide for what they felt Christianity should be, they embraced the ideas of the sixteenth century French religious leader, John Calvin, who felt God was all-powerful and all-good and that humans were naturally weak and wicked. Calvinism also proposed that from the beginning of time everyone was either predestined for eternal bliss or eternal torment. Calvin advocated a society of the “elect” of God who chose their own leaders and who did not need the elaborate rituals of Catholic and Anglican worship.
The Puritans wanted the Church of England completely de-Catholicized. Puritans believed that only “visible saints,” or those who could demonstrate the grace of God to fellow Puritans, should be church members. Since the Church of England continued to accept all of the royal subjects, the Puritans had to share their churches with the “damned.” Puritans were not satisfied with the slow progress of the Protestant Reformation in England and what they felt was a corrupt and worldly Church of England. A small group of extreme Puritans called Separatists broke away from the Church of England completely.
In 1603, when King James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth I, the Puritans feared that England might slide farther back to its Catholic roots. At the same time, King James began to feel that if the Puritans did not see him as their spiritual leader, they might defy him as their political leader. So James began pressuring the Puritan Separatists to conform.
Finally, in 1606, the Separatists severed all ties to the Church of England. In an age when church and state were united, dissenting from the practices of the official Church of England was seen as treason. The Separatists went into exile departing for Holland in 1608 so that they did not have to conform to the beliefs set out by the Church of England. As fellow Calvinists, the Dutch tolerated the Separatists—and many others. After living with the Dutch customs and liberal ways for 12 years, the Separatist longed for their English lifestyle. Since they could not go back to England, they decided the next best option was to transplant their customs in the New World.
These “Pilgrims” negotiated with the Virginia Company of London and secured rights to establish a settlement near the mouth of the Hudson River. King James did not promise toleration, but he agreed to leave them alone if they went to Virginia. In 1620, about 100 people boarded the Mayflower for the New World, and less than half of them were Separatists. A storm made the group miss their destination, pushing them north of the Virginia Company where they settled off the coast of New England in Plymouth Bay. Rather than brave the stormy seas and try to make it south to the Virginia Company location, they stayed where they were.
The Pilgrims believed that Plymouth Bay was outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company. Although they did not have the monarch’s authority to establish a government, they drew up a formal agreement called the Mayflower Compact before going ashore. This compact established the first standard in the New World for written laws and was signed by forty-one adult men on the Mayflower.
The Pilgrims who signed the compact met as the General Court in open-discussion town meetings and chose John Carver as their first governor. They also chose his council of assistants and eventually others were admitted as members, or “freemen,” but only if they were church members. In April 1621, John Carver died and William Bradford was elected governor. Bradford served many terms as governor and was largely responsible for the infant colony's success through great hardships.
Having landed on the Massachusetts shore in the middle of winter, the Pilgrims’ first months spent trying to build the settlement were very difficult. About half of the settlers died during the first winter, but when the Mayflower returned to England in the spring all of the remaining Separatists stayed in Plymouth.
That spring, the Separatists met an Indian named Squanto who spoke English. Squanto introduced the Pilgrims to Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag tribe. The two groups formed an alliance to help protect one another from other Indian tribes. Squanto and his fellow Indians showed the Pilgrims where to fish and how to farm. The settlers worked hard and had a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1621. To celebrate their good fortune they prepared the first Thanksgiving feast for themselves and their Indian friends.
While the Pilgrims developed an economy based on fur, fish, and lumber, the colony never grew to be very large. In 1650 there were still fewer than one thousand settlers at Plymouth, and in 1691 it merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony because the Crown refused to grant the Plymouth Plantation a legal charter.