During the time period between 1606 and 1700 hundreds of settlers flocked to the Virginia colony seeking riches – only to find hardship, and no gold. However, after many years, and much effort, the Virginians managed to secure a solid social and economic system that would eventually make Virginia one of the most important North American colonies. Document A demonstrates one hardship that Virginians had to face while developing their colony. Documents B, C, and D demonstrate solutions to various problems the Virginians faced during the 18th century.
Some of the first – and most obvious – hardships that the early Virginia settlers faced were disease, malnutrition, and starvation. When they arrived, the inexperienced settlers spent valuable time searching for gold, instead of making preparations and gathering provisions for the difficult winter to come. Once winter did come, the settlers died “with cruel diseases as swellings, [and] burning fevers” (Doc. A). The settlers were accustomed to their gentlemanly ways of life back in Britain and were never “in such misery as we were in this new discovered Virginia”. However, the Virginians were saved by the leadership of Captain John Smith, who whipped the colonists into shape and saved the colony from an early demise. Ironically, Smith’s efforts to improve the Virginia colony were rewarded when he was kidnapped by the local Powhatan Native American tribe and subjected to an “execution”. Luckily for Smith, the Powhatan’s desired a peaceful relationship with the Virginians, and did not actually harm him. Smith, along with the Native American princess Pocahontas, helped negotiate the trade of much needed food for the colonists. Smith provided the leadership that helped the Virginians survive the first few harsh winters and acquire food.
At this point, the Virginia colonists needed a source of revenue to aid them in the development of their colony. The colonists realized that they were not going to find gold in Virginia so they desperately searched for something else. Then, John Rolfe came to their rescue when he perfected the methods of raising tobacco – a product in high demand in Europe. John Rolfe’s efforts put Virginia on stable economic ground and also had lasting effects on countless people’s health – effects which can be seen in America until this day. As seen in the tobacco advertisements of the time (Doc. B), the tobacco industry was vital to Virginia’s economic well-being. Colonists and Britons were encouraged to “Fear not Death, nor killing Care; Whil’ st we have best Virginia here.” This demonstrates the value of the tobacco crop to the Virginians. In fact the Virginians valued tobacco so much that in many cases they would plan tobacco before they planted food crops! However, one negative aspect that arose because of this fact was Virginia’s dependence on tobacco. The entire prosperity of the Virginia colony was enchained to the unpredictable prices of a single crop. Clearly, tobacco was of economic significance to Virginia in more ways than one.
With massive land ownership, comes the inherent necessity of finding a cheap labor force to work the land. Labor was another challenging issue that the Virginians faced – however, like they had done on more than one occasion, the Virginians overcame their hardship in a way that would profoundly influence the society and economics of their colony for many centuries to come. While tobacco was a poor man’s crop (in that it could be planted easily and produce commercially marketable leaves in under a year), landowners were faced with the difficult task of procuring laborers to work their massive land tracts. At first, the Virginian’s captured Native Americans and put them to work on the land; however, the European diseases wreaked havoc among the natives, killing 90% of them within weeks. At this point, Virginians were desperately in need of a more reliable labor source – one that was cheap and profitable. They found their answer in indentured servants.
Indentured servants are laborers who are under contract to work for a specific amount of time. As seen in Document C, indentured servants in Virginia were expected to serve their masters for a set period (usually 5 to 7 years), in exchange for paid passage across the Pacific Ocean and the promise of “freedom dues” – usually a new suit of clothes and a small plot of land – at the end of the term. This worked out wonderfully for the landowners – even more so with the establishment of the Headright system in 1618 which promised 50 acres of land to anyone who paid for the passage to Virginia for someone else. Rich landowners began to bring pay for the passage of hundreds and hundreds of indentured servants. In this manner, the rich landowners were able to increase their land holdings and obtain cheap labor in one fell swoop.
However, in many cases, freed indentured servants were not being given their justly earned freedom dues at the end of their terms. In other cases, indentured servants received land far out on the frontier of the colony, vulnerable to Native American attack. A growing group of malcontents began to form in Virginia, and many well-to-do Virginians feared for their lives. In 1676 their fears came true. Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion, later known as Bacon’s Rebellion, against the rich landowners and the Native Americans killing several and setting fire to the Capitol. Bacon’s Rebellion pitted the landless freemen against the lordly landowners, and shook Virginia in near-civil war. However, the rebellion was soon crushed, but the landowners had learned their lesson; they were on the lookout for less troublesome laborers.
African slaves proved to be the next-best solution. Though they were very expensive, they had many benefits. They were more manageable than indentured servants because they could easily be recognized as a slave from far away due to their dark skin; this deterred runaway slaves. Additionally, they could be worked harder because they were “property” and not actually human in the eyes of their masters. In many cases, it was cheaper to work slaves to death and then buy new ones, rather than treat the slaves humanely. Unlike the indentured servants, slaves were abused, threatened, and beaten on a regular basis and reduced to the lowest position in society. Most slaves were procured by kidnappings and attacks on African villages. Slaves were packed onto ships for the agonizing Middle Passage. As seen in Document D, the slaves were packed into the ships in the most inhumane of conditions. Often slaves were forced to lie below deck for up to 6 months, sitting in their own feces, chained to several other dead slaves. After they arrived in America, things did not get any better. The adoption of “slave codes” took away every basic freedom from the slaves, and started the racial discrimination against blacks that can still be seen today. Clearly, slaves were at the lowest social level in Virginian society – after children, women, indentured servants, freemen, and the aristocratic landowners – a fact that would remain true until the Thirteenth Amendment freed slaves in 1865.
After many years, and much effort, the Virginians overcame the hardships they faced and developed unique social and economic systems. Through the growing of tobacco and the employment of, at first, Native Americans, followed by indentured servants, and then slaves, the Virginia colonists managed to secure a solid social and economic system that would eventually make Virginia one of the most important North American colonies.
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