Introduction to Colonial American History – Settlement Patterns

March 11, 2011
American League Central
by wallyg

What should Englishmen have learnt about colonizing the Americas by 1732 ?

In 1732 the Bray Associates petitioned the Crown for the territory of Georgia and received a charter. This was to be the last colony founded by the British but they already had a long history of colonization behind them, stretching back to 1607. It is important to understand the nature of colonization if we are to draw conclusions as to what Englishmen should have learnt about colonizing the Americas.

It is extremely difficult to generalize about the American colonies. The seventeenth century seems to have been an era of experimentation and a wide variety of motives had inspired the promoters of colonial schemes. Neither in England nor America did anyone worry about the unity of purpose or objectives.

Edmund Burke observed in 1757 ‘the settlement of our colonies was never pursued upon any regular plan, but they were formed , grew and flourished as accidents, the nature of the climate, or the disposition of the private men happened to operate.’ We should bear such variety in mind when attempting to answer the question posed. In addition it may be helpful when referring to Englishmen to split the group into individual colonists on the one hand and the English government on the other. This approach has been adopted here for clarity’s sake.

On the micro-level the individual settlers had learnt much since Jamestown. The first permanent colony was beset with problems. Many historians have traditionally placed the blame for this firmly on the shoulders of the first settlers. The regime of Smith, Gates, de la Warr and Dale were all seen as being too lax in retrospect. The textbook reasons for this laxity were that there were too many gentlemen and too much hunger and disease to allow a steady rate of work. In addition there was little incentive to work because the Virginia Company would support those who did not labour because of the communal basis of the colony. Fortunately such ideas have been supplemented by the work of E.S. Morgan. His claim that it was the English settler’s attitude to work that was the dominant influence is convincing.

Perhaps Arthur Barlow and Hakluyt had deceived many. America was seen as an Eden and the Indians could be put to work relatively easily. Such ideas were reinforced by English working habits. Low wages encouraged low productivity which in turn justified low wages. Morgan draws a parallel between the pasture farming areas of England and Jamestown as a possible explanation for patterns of work and states that the militaristic nature of the colony was hardly conducive to planting the essential crops. Morgan’s work suffers from a certain lack of supporting evidence. Attitudes are usually hard to study even with an abundance of information. For early colonial America there is no such abundance and Morgan draws on studies attitudes in England. Perhaps more convincingly he writes of the continuance of privilege and custom and the utopian ideal of the Commonwealth. This lead to the presence of unneeded skills and absence of carpenters, blacksmiths and plowmen which were essential to the survival of Jamestown.

I think Englishmen’s attachment to many Old World ideas is central to this discussion. It was only when old techniques were adapted to suit the environment that the colonies prospered. It is true that were numerous continuities between England and America. Peter Laslett has shown interrelationships between the Kent Gentry and the settlements around the James River beginning with the foundation of the Virginia Company in 1606. Sandys and Sir Samuel Argall were of Kentish stock. Despite the three thousand mile journey wives were brought in from Kent and plantations left in wills to relatives in England.

However, any attempt to set up utopian colonies modelled on England would probably fail in the Americas. The ability of Englishmen (and Scots and Germans for that matter) to adapt to new circumstances in the Americas was the most valuable lesson learnt by 1732.. This seems obvious in retrospect but to the first settlers trial and error learning was a harsh and often fatal method of learning. We can illustrate this point by several specific examples. C.V. Earle’s study of mortality in early Virginia shows the staggering mortality encountered. He establishes a correlation between the estuarine hydrology of the area and the pattern of mortality. The relatively healthy period of 1613-1616 in Jamestown when typhoid , dysentery and salt poisoning cases were fewer occurred because or re-settlement away from the oligohaline zone by Thomas Dale. But the death rate increased under Argall’s policies. Perhaps Earle tries to be too precise when he ascribes 24-28% of death’s in Virginia during Argall’s governorship to his mismanagement .

However, his overall conclusions are convincing. It was only when settlers moved to healthier areas such as Henrico and lived on a more dispersed pattern that mortality rates were permanently reduced. The nexus of environment and mortality eluded many earlier settlers who mistakenly believed they would acquire immunity to dysentery and typhoid. The reluctance of Englishmen to adapt to their new environment was also illustrated by their colonization of the West Indies. From tomb counts, themselves a controversial form of evidence, R.S. Dunn claims that in Bridgetown, Barbados many settlers died young and it was hard to establish a healthy family structure on the island. Their diet was bad, the rich suffering from a surfeit and the poor from malnutrition and all drank too much. Clothing and housing were not adapted to the tropical conditions and many of the poor languished in their homes. However, the harsh lessons were eventually learnt.

In 1697 Hartwell described the lack of order in which the dispersed Virginia settlers lived. What he was in fact describing was the settlers’ practical response to the socio-economic conditions of the region. Not only had many colonists learnt to deal with their environment more favorably but they were now in tune to economic realities – namely the tobacco price and realized the advantages of a dispersed settlement pattern in Surrey County.

It is important to emphasize here that it was a change in the attitudes of prospective settlers towards the colonies and not a change in conditions within the country – its geography, its unproductive soil and relative lack of affluence that affected settlement . K.P Kelly’s study helps to show the dependence of settlement, in this case Surrey County, Virginia, on economic forces. This supports the argument that no area of Virginia was settled independently of the larger social and economic needs of the colony. This helps to illustrate the central theme of this essay. The changes in attitude and the acceptance of the limitations of the colonies was one valuable lesson that Englishmen should have learnt by 1732. However, I think its is questionable that Englishmen learnt their lesson fully.

America had initially been regarded as the ‘cornucopia for all the world’ and as a ‘cure for all the ills of mankind’. This illusion was shattered by the events of seventeenth century colonization but there was the continuing dream of utopia. Perhaps we should look in more detail at the founding of Georgia in 1732 to consider whether or not the English had leant anything over the century and if they applied their knowledge. The settlement of Georgia was the result of philanthropic, commercial and political motives which converged in the early 1730s. As L.B. Wright writes ‘the scheme for this border colony was a curious medley of Utopian idealism, hard headed mercantilism and resurgent imperialism’. Clearly there were still some vestiges of utopian ideas remaining. The Bray society was interested in the relief of thousands of debtors in England by sending them out to the colony. The scheme per se was not a success. However, the founding of Georgia was a political and economic success and we should now turn to the macro-economic issues involved.

By the 1690s, except for a confirmed mercantilist view that the colonies should supply the mother country with raw materials and must not compete in manufacturing Great Britain had as yet formulated no consistent policy of empire. The colonies did not think of themselves as part of a unified whole. The rise of France in the seventeenth century made Englishmen see the inadequacy of their system. There followed a tightening of royal control over the colonies. In 1678 New Hampshire was brought under the Crown. Massachusetts had its charter annulled in 1684 and when James II ascended to the throne of England the private property of New York was converted into a royal province – the Dominion of New England which contained all territory from Kennebec to the Delaware.

C. Andrews sees the years 1694 – 1754 as the foundation of the British colonial system. The Board of Trade and Plantations was set up, the Navigation Acts tightened. Thus Englishmen should have learnt the value of unity in colonizing America by 1732 if the French and Spanish were to be resisted. The events in the American colonies should be placed in their European context. The War of the League of Augsburg which ended in 1697 opened the eyes of the colonies to the need for mutual protection. The War of the Spanish Succession reinforced this and Britain gained Arcadia, Newfoundland and areas around Hudson Bay in Canada by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Despite this the French were still in a very strong position in North America and retained Louisiana, Great Lakes and the St Laurence. The colonial population of England’s possessions greatly outnumbered the French and Spanish in North America. There were some 250,000 inhabitants in the English colonies in comparison to 8000 French and Spanish in the French colonies and Florida respectively in

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