World History 2 81 - 6.1.2 English Settlements in North America

The English began their colonization efforts in the Americas nearly a century after the Spanish, motivated by both economic and ideological goals. In 1584, Queen Elizabeth gave Sir Walter Raleigh a charter, a royal document that authorized him to establish a colony in North America. The Protestant queen wanted colonies that would act as an ideological counterweight to Spanish Catholicism in the Americas and provide a base of operations for privateering expeditions that would raid Spanish shipping.

Roanoke Island

In July 1587, about 150 settlers led by explorer and artist John White established a colony on Roanoke Island, off the coast of modern North Carolina. The colonists baptized Manteo, a friendly member of the Croatoan tribe, and named him the Lord of Roanoke in an effort to build congenial relationships with the local Native Americans. In late August, White left for England with plans to gather additional investors to fund the colony. Once there, he convinced English merchants to invest in the colony in exchange for trading rights, but the arrival of the Spanish Armada in 1588 delayed his departure. When White finally returned to Roanoke Island in 1590, the colony was gone.

The only clue White found was the word “Croatoan” carved into a tree. There are clear signs the settlers intermarried with the Native American population and joined their society, but Europeans of the era dismissed this possibility (Figure 6.6), perhaps because they found it impossible to believe Europeans would willingly join a non-White society. It is also possible the word had nothing to do with the colony’s disappearance. John White was forced to leave before completing a thorough investigation. Today, Roanoke Island is known as “the lost colony,” and its fate remains a mystery.

A black and white drawing shows men standing in front of a tree on a grassy field. A tall, wooden fence runs behind the tree and the men. Four men stand in the forefront – one with his back showing. They wear helmets, hats, coats, pants, and have moustaches and beards. They hold sticks, and one man points to the word “Croatoan” carved in a tree. Six men in the far background stand looking down at a map and one man kneels in front of them. They are dressed in hats, coats, and pants.
Figure 6.6 In this engraving from a nineteenth-century history of the United States, John White discovers the single word Croatoan carved in a tree on Roanoke Island in 1590. It was the only clue found after the disappearance of the colonists. (credit: “Croatoan” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)


The creation of joint stock companies provided English colonial efforts after Roanoke Island with improved funding that the English monarchy could not offer. A joint stock company, much like a modern corporation, raised money for its ventures by selling shares to investors. The company then used the pooled funds to conduct operations, including colonization efforts in the Americas. Shareholders were not legally liable for the actions of the company and could not lose more than the amount of their investment, but they could earn large profits if the joint stock company were successful. The combination of limited liability with the possibility of rich returns made joint stock companies an appealing investment for members of England’s growing merchant class, and the companies raised huge sums of money beginning in the early 1600s. England promoted colonization for religious and political reasons, but its reliance on private investors for funding often steered the effort toward profitable activities.

In 1606, the Virginia Company, a joint stock company named for Queen Elizabeth (who was known as the “virgin queen” because she never married), received a charter and sent 144 men and boys to North America. In 1607, these colonists founded Jamestown, named for the new English king, James I, on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay in what is now Virginia. Many of the settlers were the desperate younger sons of elite families who would not inherit property claimed by their older brothers in England. Many others were artisans, including goldsmiths and jewelers, unused to the hard physical labor that building a colony on a new continent required.

The settlers of Jamestown, like many Europeans of the 1600s and 1700s, rooted their economic ideas in mercantilism, an economic theory in which the world’s wealth, as measured in gold and silver, is assumed to be finite, so a gain of wealth for one nation is a loss for another. Mercantilist nations expected their colonies to export raw materials, most importantly precious metals like gold and silver, back to the home country and to purchase goods from it in turn. The English government hoped the Virginia Company would find gold to improve the nation’s trade balances and increase its wealth. Many in Jamestown also hoped to find gold and thereby get rich without having to work hard or suffer any hardships.

The Jamestown settlers did not find gold because there was little mineral wealth in the region, but they did find suffering due to bad weather, starvation, disease, internal political disputes, and military conflicts with the Powhatan tribe (named after its chief). The Powhatans grew to loathe the newcomers for bringing disease and violence to their homeland. Many colonists died during the winter of 1609–1610, known as “the starving time.” By May 1610, fewer than a hundred remained, and the colony, which had not produced a profit for the Virginia Company, almost failed.

Early Virginia colonists did find wealth and success in tobacco cultivation, however. Despite the need for hard work in difficult conditions, by 1614 Jamestown began exporting tobacco to Europe and earning profits for the Virginia Company. Smoking the highly addictive dried leaves of the plant became a popular habit in Europe.

Like their rivals the Spanish, English colonists struggled to produce agricultural goods using only their own labor. Instead, they relied heavily on indentured servants, European immigrants who typically agreed to work four to seven years in exchange for transportation to the colony and the hope of a new life there after completing their service. Up to 100,000 people, mostly poor men in their twenties, traveled to the English colonies as indentured servants in the 1600s. Many died of disease, exposure, and overwork, but those who survived their term of service often became reasonably comfortable and respected members of the growing settlements. A fortunate few even became wealthy planters.

In 1619, the first Africans arrived in Virginia. Initially they enjoyed the same opportunities to earn their freedom and build wealth as immigrants from Europe, but their condition quickly deteriorated. They were part of a trend that began with the importation of the first Africans into the Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese a century earlier. By the middle of the 1600s, policies were beginning to develop in the Americas that bound Africans to servitude for life, unlike European indentured servants who regained their freedom once they had completed their term of service.

European colonists in Virginia, like those in Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean, sought ways to maintain a permanent labor force, especially when it proved difficult to recruit sufficient indentured servants from Europe. Attempts to coerce the labor of fellow Europeans would have met with too much resistance. Faced with a growing underclass of embittered poor White former servants, who in 1676 sought to overthrow the colony’s government, Virginia’s elite sought to solve their problems by drawing legal distinctions between people of European and African ancestry. They extended privileges to Whites that were denied to Blacks and encouraged European settlers to perceive Africans as inferior people fit only for manual labor, while simultaneously depriving Africans of their freedom. In this way, slavery became associated with African ancestry and racial divisions were created that had not existed before. Racism became the basis on which the colonial labor system was built.

In 1680, the Virginia legislature passed “an act for preventing Negroes Insurrections” that forbid enslaved Africans from carrying weapons, gathering in public, and traveling without permission. Enslaved Africans became the most important source of coerced labor in Virginia, as well as the other English colonies established in the southern part of what became the United States, stretching from Maryland, the colony founded as a haven for English Catholics just north of Virginia, to Georgia. This enslavement in the United States ended only in 1865, after a devastating civil war and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Slavery continued in other parts of the Western Hemisphere, with Brazil not abolishing it until 1888.

New England

In 1620, Puritan Separatists led by William Bradford left Plymouth, England, on the Mayflower and founded a colony they called Plymouth near what is now Boston, Massachusetts. The Separatists wanted to leave England to escape the Church of England, which they felt was corrupt, and whose interpretation of scripture the Separatists considered lax. Before landing, their leaders signed the Mayflower Compact, a document that emphasized their desire to found a colony for “the glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country.” More than just a religious document, the Mayflower Compact also had a major political impact with its support of direct democracy and of building governments that reflected the will of the people.

Like the English settlers far to the south in Virginia, the Separatists struggled to survive in their new homes. Roughly half died of starvation, disease, malnutrition, and cold during the difficult winter of 1620–1621. Many of the survivors became too weak to work, and soon the entire colony was dependent on the seven who were healthy enough to do so. Political disputes broke out, and the first English colony in New England almost died. Just when Plymouth seemed doomed, Native Americans decided to help. They included Samoset, a member of the Abenaki tribe who had been living with the Wampanoag tribe, and Tisquantum (Squanto) of the Pawtuxet tribe, who had learned to speak some English from fishers who visited the coast before the Separatists arrived. Tisquantum had been kidnapped by English explorer Thomas Hunt and sold into slavery in Spain but had managed to escape to England. There, he joined the Newfoundland Company, another English joint stock company, and had returned to North America in 1619. Samoset, Tisquantum, and other friendly Native Americans helped the English negotiate treaties with nearby tribes and taught them to grow corn, which became the colony’s main food source. But a relationship that may have begun as a friendly attempt to help starving strangers quickly shifted to conflict as the colonizers began seizing Indigenous lands.

A larger group of Puritans followed in 1630 and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their leader John Winthrop gave a speech titled “A Model of Christian Charity,” which expressed his hopes that the Puritan community in the Americas would embrace the twin goals of building economic prosperity and founding a “City upon a Hill” that would serve as a shining example of an ideal Christian community to the entire world.

The Puritan colonies were also scenes of religious conflict from which dissenters like Anne Hutchinson, who questioned the all-male church leadership, and Roger Williams, who championed religious toleration, were exiled. The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s darkest moment may have come during the 1692 Salem witch trials, when Puritan leaders executed nineteen people for witchcraft. Despite such conflicts, the Puritan colonies eventually became self-sustaining communities that mostly achieved their twin objectives of promoting Puritan religious ideology and building a strong economy.

Puritan settlers hoped a strong economy would allow their colony to flourish, attract new settlers, and provide evidence of God’s favor. Like many Europeans of the 1600s and 1700s, they rooted their economic ideas in mercantilism. The desire to build economic wealth was the primary motive in many colonial ventures, such as Jamestown in Virginia, and provided a secondary motivation in more ideologically driven communities like those set up by the Puritans (Figure 6.7).

A map is shown of the southeastern coast of Canada and the eastern coast of the United States. An area in Canada, from the Atlantic Ocean on the east to the St. Lawrence River in the west, from Penobscot in the north, heading south through Abenaki and Kennebec in Canada, down through Narragansett and Pequot in the US is highlighted yellow, indicating “English colonies.” A small piece next to Mohawk Oneida is also highlighted yellow. Locations labeled in this area, from north to south, are: New Hampshire 1623, Plymouth (1620-1691), Rhode Island 1636–1643, Connecticut 1636–1639, and New Haven 1636–1664.  In the Atlantic Ocean to the east the map is labeled: Massachusetts Bay 1629-1630. Another yellow area runs from just east of the Great Lakes south to Georgia, east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to the Lower Cherokee. It is labeled, from north to south: New Netherlands 1624, New Sweden 1638, Pennsylvania 1681, Maryland 1634, Virginia 1606–1607, Carolina 1663, and Georgia 1732. Locations in this area include Jamestown (1608), Roanoke (1586–1588), Catawba, Yamasee, and Lower Cherokee. The rest of the map is not highlighted with these areas labeled, from north to south: Quebec (1608),  Huron, Ottawa, Onondaga Cayuga, Ottawa (twice), Seneca, Iroquois, Tuscarora Delaware, Western Delaware, Shawnee, Upper Cherokee, Middle Cherokee, Upper Natchez, Lower Natchez, and Creek. New France 1534 is in the north next to Huron, and Florida 1513 is in the south next to Creek.
Figure 6.7 This map shows English colonies and key settlements in North America in the 1600s, as well as the neighboring territories inhabited by Native American tribes at the time. Many more tribes inhabited this region than the few whose names appear on the map. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax