Connections Essay - Colonial Virginia
Growth of Virginia
The arrival of three English ships bearing 104 passengers marked the inauspicious beginning of the Virginia colony. Like other Europeans, the English sought to establish a foothold in what they called the “New World.” This colony’s sponsors, the Virginia Company of London, expected it to turn a profit, as did the settlers, mostly gentlemen-adventurers and poor migrants, who hoped that Virginia would produce gold or some other valuable commodity. In 1607, these men established Jamestown, England’s first permanent American colony.
Jamestown grew slowly, as deaths from disease and starvation offset the numbers of new arrivals, who included the first women in 1608 and enslaved Africans in 1619. Settlers’ relations with the native Powhatans deteriorated as the Indians, who initially helped the English and gave them food, grew increasingly wary of unceasing demands for land and supplies. In 1622, the Powhatans attacked, killing roughly one-fourth of Jamestown’s inhabitants.
By 1625, roughly 8,500 people had come to Virginia, but only about 1,210 survived. These early colonists nonetheless attained some important mileposts. The convening of the House of Burgesses marked the beginning of representative government in English America. The successful cultivation and export of tobacco gave Virginia its profitable agricultural staple.
In the seventeenth century, white indentured servants far outnumbered African slaves in Virginia’s tobacco fields because white labor was cheaper, so long as poor white men continued to arrive and mortality rates remained high. In 1676, however, poor colonists rallied behind Nathaniel Bacon, a discontented gentleman, demanding access to protected Indian lands and better treatment by Governor William Berkeley’s corrupt government. Planter elites instituted reforms after Bacon’s Rebellion to quiet poplar unrest. Perhaps more important, however, was Virginia’s conversion to slave labor. Because enslaved Africans had few rights and were subject to draconian discipline, they were unlikely to rebel. Slavery became a basis for social stability in the colony.
In the eighteenth century, tobacco and slavery spread westward to the Piedmont, while Scots-Irish and German immigrants streamed south from Pennsylvania into the Shenandoah Valley. By 1776, Virginia’s population approached 500,000—about 300,000 whites and 200,000 blacks—making it the most populous of the thirteen mainland British colonies.
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