366 The Chesapeake


Colonisation of the Chesapeake would be driven by its climate and its most successful crop – tobacco, defining the social structure of the colonists and the society they would form, and the impact they would have on the indigenous peoples.

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This week then, is the third in our quarto of episodes about the English colonisation of the Americas in the first half of the 17th century. In two short and paltry episodes I have to try to do some sort of justice to the folks who met the enormous challenge of emigrating to a different world about which they knew nothing or little, the world they met there and the new ones they created, and their impact on the people who already lived there. Wish me luck, and I offer up in advance all the apologies I made two episodes ago – I am sorry for the egregious errors I will no doubt make, and don’t shout at me too loud, I look forward enormously to all the pronunciation corrections

In our period, the main colonising effort would come from two main areas on which we will concentrate, the area around Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and New England in the North East. I will hope to cast a net also over Canada, Long Island, but the colonising there at this stage is mainly French and Dutch, so I will be very brief, so sorry, and probably leave it to next episode.

Now then I have tried to be fair to all in this, with sweat on my fevered brow from the effort, in a way that reminds me of my mother’s command to a young David to go and try hard before a long journey though a rather different context, but I came to this subject with little knowledge. And one of the things that really fascinated me was the wild difference between the main areas of colonisation I am here among you to talk about in the next two episodes – on the Chesapeake Bay and New England. They were very different. The model I’d been taught was the City on a Hill, Mayflower thing. Little did I know how different things were on the Chesapeake. I read, as well as I could, an excellent doorstop, or chunkster as I believe they are known in the literary world, called Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fisher, [1]which Ken of this parish recommended to me back in the mists of time. You see Ken, I remembered you, see Ken, I am like an elephant. Enormously chunky with a big nose. Anyway, I suspect it’s very famous though far from being universally accepted, but it’s a fascinating thesis. In it, he talks about 4 waves of migration from England to the country to be known as the US of A; the first largely of people from the East of England, driven by puritanism to the north East, New England. The second a royalist elite and indentured servants from 1642-1675 ish to Virginia, largely from Western parts of England; a third from the midlands and Wales to the Delaware valley, 1675-1725 and the fourth English speakers from North Britain and Ireland. According to the thesis, they bring their ways and customs with them, and form the basis of American society, even to the modern day. The chronology does my head in a bit since we’ll start with Jamestown in 1607, but I commend it to you, though handle with care would also be the advice I think.

Well, I suspect I am not much different in having a flawed image of the model of Colonisation than did  the English worthies that put together the Virginia Company in the wake of peace with Spain, and in 1606 gained a charter from James I,

‘to make habitacion, plantacion and to deduce a colonie … into that parte of America commonly called Virginia’

The company was formed and reformed a couple of times before its belly, like a goldfish won at the local village fete, drifted to the surface and it was taken into royal control in 1624. But at the heart of expectations would have been the same approach that was driving plantations in Ulster, and the vision of Elizabethan Richard Hackluyt, who was incidentally one of the founders. It was expected that an English community and culture would be planted on a foreign shore, with benefit to all; the Gentry and investors would who build profitable landholdings, the poor tenants and ordinary people and servants who would go to build a better life, the Anglican church that would look after their spiritual health; and the indigenous peoples, who would be civilised from what the English assumed to be their noble but savage way of life, and therefore also be lead to a better life. The format of the new colonies would be built around a town which would drive commerce and industry, a varied and flexible agricultural economy based on landholders and their tenants in neat blocks and settlements. Relationships with the natives would be harmonious, since it was commanded in the charter that no harm be done to them[2]. Well, I meant they weren’t wrong in every respect but they were in many- maybe most? The colonies of Virginia were proof positive that to survive the colonists would need to adapt to their new environment.

Anyway, in 1607, 104 Englishmen – and I mean men specifically, an all bloke expedition – built a chapel on the banks of what they called the James River in Chesapeake Bay, nearby lands once inhabited by the Chesapeake nation. The consideration of Captain Newport was to find a place safe from Spanish attack; and indeed the distance of the Chesapeake from the Spanish Caribbean would be a major factor in the colony’s eventual success. But the first question I think to ask is whose lands were they building on.

South Eastern America was well populated by 1500 before De Soto’s raid; estimates put population at around 200,000 – with the normal health warning and all of that. The area in and around Chesapeake may have had something between 13,000 and 22,000 inhabitants, who were largely Algonquian speaking. There were many tribes around the complex Chesapeake bay and rivers – I commend a map on the podcast post to you – but they were not disunited. Since the later 16th century, the enterprising Wahunsenacawh of the Powhatan had turned himself into a mamanatowick or paramount chief of 6 nations. It is thought that maybe he was inspired by the example of the Iroquois great League of Peace we talked about two episodes ago; maybe also inspired by the news from the tribes further south of the havoc wreaked by De Soto, and the vicious nature of these mysterious new invaders; and also of course I assume by the visions of all empire builders, ambition, desire for power and dominion. All guess work is what I am saying. Either way, bit by bit, Wahunsenacawh built a confederation of 31 tribes; sometimes by agreement, sometimes by attacking them and replacing their chiefs, or werowances, lesser chiefs, with members of his own family. The league was powerful – Wahunsenacawh could command 600 warriors at a pinch – a federation held together by tribute, paid by each tribe. As this implies the organisational structure was loose rather than centralised; a primus inter pares arrangement. The confederacy was strengthened by regular raids against non confederacy tribes, in a similar way to the Iroquois confederacy – internal peace but external war. The raids also formed a vital social function, giving the younger warriors the chance to prove themselves. As elsewhere in the Eastern Woodlands, society was semi nomadic, and a combination of agriculture and hunting.

So what should happen one day but Captain Newport and the Jamestown colonists tip up, a combination of gentlemen, an Anglican priest, doctor, and 40 soldiers. It was April, and they set about building a palisade, declaring that the land belonged to James I, putting the designated councillors in place, all the nuts and bolts of establishing a colony. Tick, tick, tick. And of course meeting the locals – in this case initially one Opechancanough, brother of Wahunsenacawh and himself an important chief.

Cut a long story short, the colony did not thrive. They had arrived too late to clear enough land, crops failed, the region was suffering from drought. Plus, inconveniently they were all dying; I saw a stat which said that within the first 15 years of arriving in Virginia in the 17th century, 80% of colonists died – I have seen others from 50% to 75%. A lot, should cover it. If Malaria didn’t get you, dysentry or typhoid might well do so. Without help from the Powahtan, they would die, a second Roanoke.

Now the attitude of Wahunsenacawh is very interesting. There was early trouble – Captain Newport sailed home to tell the company things were going well at one point, two days later there was an Powhatan raid; the theory is that maybe the colonists were being tested. Sometimes they traded sometime they fought – when Captain John Smith sailed up river desperate to find food by trade; none would do so, so he took them by force. But Smith was ambushed, his companions killed, and he was taken hostage. It could well be that at this stage Wahunsenacawh made a cunning plan and took a decision. There is some evidence from the north that the Indians knew well what they could be in for here if they welcomed the trade, especially in metal goods but didn’t fancy the newcomers sticking around – so, occasions when English and French traders reported encounters where friendly trading meetings with the Wampanoag turned nasty after a few days so they hurried off in fear. The thought is that this was deliberate – the tribes appreciated the trade but didn’t want the newcomers sticking around[3]. So when trade was done they scared them off. But on this occasion Wahunsenacawh may have felt he could use these newcomers. He wanted to expand the Powhatan confederation, and the English could be useful to give him access to trade, and therefore influence and status with other tribes; they could be useful. And although this lot were clearly here to stay, and that could be worrying – surely they were too puny to be a danger to the mighty Powhatan?

It was a decision Wahunsenacawh would live and die to regret. It seems to me that this is a common story; empires are often built because no one has a crystal ball; so in England Vortigern used the Saxons, in India the financiers like Jagat Seth of Calcutta thought they could use the East India Company for their own ends – only to find the servant became the master. Wahunsenacawh could not know that wave after wave of English would come until they were too mighty to be recovered; and that disease would meanwhile decimate the mighty Powhatan. Of course, this is supposition; it might be that Wahunsenacawh looked to use the Colonists to enhance his power; it also be that what follows was purely from sympathy and human fellowship.

Anyway, there follows first a famous bit of theatre; after several weeks in the clink, a terrified John Smith was dragged from his captivity, and day after day, warriors performed a war dance around him. I mean he would be utterly knackered, have seen people die and be expecting to join them. He was tied to a stake at night, and not in a good way, you know, for star gazing or watching wildlife & all. When totally terrified and softened up, he was manhandled to the centre of a ceremony of which he was clearly the star attraction, forced to lie down with his head on a stone in front of Wahunsenacawh with warriors raising clubs in such a way as to suggest that a serious dose of brain-bashing was in order. It seemed that said stone was destined to be stained with blood, gore, ooze and a sport of generally grey mush. But then – a cry, an 11 year old princess called Pochahontas runs out from the crowd, throws herself beside the poor man, and cradles the ooze carrying organ in her arms and laid her own ooze carrying organ on his to protect it. Wonder of wonders, the Great Chief’s icy heart is melted, Smith’s life is saved, Smith is released. Love, friendship and small furry animals ensue. Finally the Powhatan deliver food to Jamestown and the colony is saved from death and starvation in a foreign land. Wow! That is a story of redemption. And by tradition and Disney, a moving and deeply romantic story of love in a strange land.

Possibly. Or possibly not. I mean it’s a thoroughly bizarre story; are we really to believe the romantic thing with an 11 year old? I mean it is possible that the heart of a child was moved and all flowed from that, OK. But what many now believe is that this was theatre. Wahunsenacawh was demonstrating to Smith just how puny he was and how utterly dependent on the good will and beneficence of Powhatan they were, if they were to survive.  And he’d better behave and be a good ally.  He must have thought the message crystal clear.

If so – that was the second major miscalculation, and it was instead the start of a series of fatal misunderstandings. In their deeply entrenched belief in their cultural superiority, as things went on and the colony got stronger, the English even carried out a ceremony where they crowned Wahunsenacawh as a king, owing allegiance to James I. It seems he didn’t understand that either, but when it came to trouble, the English were appalled at what they now saw as Wahunsenacawh’s apparent treachery.

The Virginia company almost died early. It faced a number of problems; its colonists died in large numbers; the model of a diversified economy and towns was not working, despite draconian efforts by the likes of Smith and new Governors to whip people into shape and get them to work; indeed the  model of the colony – where all land was held by the company did not incentivise any of them to work hard and make the colony self sufficient. Worse they lost that choice anyway; because as colonists kept coming Wahunsenacawh realised that there was a problem here. It became clear that the English were here not to establish a trading outpost, but to create a colony; that this was therefore a challenge to his peoples’ very existence, and that the Powhatan stood to lose their lands, and that this needed to be stopped now. The Powhatan started to attack farms, kill colonists and burn crops, and between 1609 and 1614 a brutal war was fought with atrocities on both sides. When the 1609 supply ship sunk the new Governor Gates arrived in 1610 to find just 60 colonists still alive. Jamestown teetered on the edge.

A few things saved Virginia from extinction. One of them interestingly was Edwin Sandys; you might remember Edwin from the days of James I and the start of the constitutional struggle in the Form of Apology and Satisfaction of 1604. Well when he wasn’t managing parliaments, Sandys was a member of the Virginia Company. He realised that the model needed to be changed. Firstly, the Earl of Warwick’s aggressive radical Protestantism, demanding that Jamestown be used as a base to attack the Spanish, must be rejected. Secondly, that the colonists must be rewarded with the fruits of their labours – that there’s must be the profit. And together with that, more investment and more colonists were needed. So, now colonists would be allocated land when they invested, and keep the profit.

The other thing that saved the colony came also from the indigenous peoples – tobacco. In tobacco at last Virginia had a crop that would turn a profit, had a high yield, and whose popularity in England exploded, despite the resistance of the government, especially James I who famously wrote a diatribe condemning the habit,  and fears for ‘health, manners and wealth’ of its people. The likes of Sandys hated the plantations – they wanted a diversified English type economy and society. Instead the new colonists acquired hundreds of acres at a time; plantations of 1,000 acres were common. Settlement spread out, nothing like the Irish plantation model of neat tenancies and farms and towns – urban centres stubbornly refused to grow – this was a plantation economy. And the colony grew, despite the fact that 40% now of new arrivals continued to die in their first two years. From less than 1,000 colonists in 1620, it grew to 8,000 in 1640, 25,000 in 1660.

Of course all this growth and the large plantations came at the cost of the Powhatan.  Wahunsenacawh had died in 1618, and Opechancanough replaced him. In 1622 they made a last effort to save themselves from being swept away by the English tide; the murder of werowance by a colonist without redress proved the trigger for an uprising, and 350 colonists were killed and the colony almost destroyed. But again, the skin on the colony’s teeth was thick enough, and it survived. After 1622, the attitude of the English towards the Powhatan changed definitively; for them, this war was called the Massacre. Francis Wyatt the new governor wrote

Our first work is expulsion of the savages to gain the free range of the country for increase of cattle, swine etc which will more than restore us, for it is infinitely better to have no heathen among us[4]

In the chaos, the Virginia company was dissolved, and in 1624 was no more and replaced instead by royal government in 1624. It turned out, eventually to be a good thing. Individuals rather than investors were able to acquire land; the King simply took a shilling for any tobacco sales and left the rest up to the planters and merchants. In 1620 the colony exported 60,000 pounds in weight of tobacco; by 1660, it was 15 million pounds. There was a lot of anxiety about the kind of government that would be imposed when royalty took over – would it be some sort of absolutism? It took a while for this to be resolved.

Meanwhile, the violence continued, with great brutality on both sides. On one occasion at a peace talk with 200 of the Potomac, the colonists poisoned them, which is seriously not the language of truth light and peace. After an uneasy truce from 1632, in 1644 war broke out again when Opechancanough launched a surprise attack and 500 colonists were killed. But in 1646, Opechancanough was captured and shot in the back in captivity. The Treaty of 1646 between the Powhatan and the Virginia Assembly implemented a policy of separation and the end of any idea of integration; a border was established between the two peoples, and passes required to cross the line. The Powhatan war, and the Powhatan confederacy was at an end. In retrospect, the last chance for the Powhatan to expel the English had probably been in 1622. 1646 would not be an end to the violence; and the very basis of Virginia’s economic viability legislated against peaceful co-existence – tobacco relied on vast acreage of cleared and cultivated land, entirely at odds with the indigenous peoples’ mixed farming and hunting economy. The indigenous population of the South East, maybe 200,000 in 1500, had fallen to an estimated 157,000 by 1600, and just 100,000 by 1700. By 1700 conversely, the English population was at least 85,000, although maybe 120,000 had emigrated to Virginia.



Now then what kind of society did the English establish I hear you ask? And may I thank you for asking such a question, because spookily, that’s exactly what I was going to move on to. First fab fact; let’s talk bird, bees, men, women. When was a lad I spent many, many happy hours, days weeks trawling Loughborough and Leicester central lending libraries for Sci Fi books, and back then we were Still basically optimistic about mankind, still seeking out new worlds in our minds with faster than light travel, to mysterious planets circling strange suns, carving out a new world from the alien soil. These days in Sci Fi, it’s hard to get past dystopia, which I personally find exquisitely dull. Anyway what point am I trying to make with all this? The thing is the stories were about women and men building new worlds, lost in space and all that. So if I told you that the split between male and female emigrants to New England was 1 ½ blokes to every woman, anyone want a guess as to the ratio in Virginia? Not you, you did this at school – anyone from blighty? Yes that’s right, clever – 4 blokes to every woman. Wild – how do you start a new colony with numbers like that? You might then point out that that’s nothing – the Ratio in New Spain was 10:1 and on Brazil 100:1. But there the indigenous population was dense even after disease, and there was a deal of racial mixing.

Add to the 4:1 thing a standard death rate that stayed high at about 40% of new arrivals in their first two years, and you have some idea of why 120,000 emigrants turned into to population of just 85,000 despite any organic growth.

The society they came into was very hierarchical – even more so than the one they had left, and as we all know, that was pretty hierarchical. Virginia would get more so as I understand Hackett Fischer’s thesis about the second migration to Virginia from the 1640s. The kind of people who came were also very different to New England; fully 70—80% of the English Immigrants arrived in the Chesapeake as indentured servants, and came from the lower classes of English society; maybe not the very poorest, but poor rural or urban workers, or female domestic servants. They were young – most were between 15 and 24; the median age was 16 would you believe, I mean golly, these people were babies. All this suggests that they left and took this enormous risk because they had little to lose, and this was the chance to make something of their lives. For most, all they gained was a small patch of land, and a freshly dug mound of earth to cover them. The economics of tobacco again drove this aspect of the emerging Virginia society – hard, physical, manual labour in the fields. Indigenous populations could not be used – unless they were enslaved, why would they choose such a life compared to the one they’d known, and if they were enslaved they would often escape.

We should talk briefly about indentured servants; quite often I’ve seen off hand remarks saying slavery and indentured servitude were basically the same. They were not as far as I can see, though being an indentured servant would for a while have felt indistinguishable. The deal for indentured servants was that for a limited period – usually 4-5 years but for unskilled workers sometimes 7, they would be at their employers beck and call to pay off the cost of their passage and earn their pay off reward. There was no pay; food and lodging was your lot, and while in service you could be sold or inherited. There were widespread abuses of the system; it could be used as a punishment, such as for captured soldiers from the Battle of Preston and the Monmouth Rebellion and there were cases of kidnapping. Sometimes they were apparently treated worse than slaves – because they were only in the master’s possession for a few years. So let us not sugar coat the thing. However; in the light of what we have just said about the majority of people emigrating to Virginia – very young, no prospects, low status – it could be a way to opportunity. While you were in service you had some basic rights, and therefore status in law; when you had completed your service, most would get some land or be given the price of their passage home. For many, a contract was a credit mechanism by which they could earn transport to a new life and future, to be paid off by their labour[5].

And there were slaves – the first in 1619 bought from a Dutch slaver. The size of the black enslaved population was initially small, no more than a few hundred before 1650 though it would grow of course.  Before 1660 and the start of the Slave Codes, based on the Barbados Slave code, the status of black African Americans was much more fluid; many in the early days were creoles who had a deal of knowledge about European society and language. It was often possible for them buy their freedom; one Anthony Johnson for example, who came to Virginia in 1621 secured his freedom by making a deal with his owner, and started an estate, which his son John grew to 450 acres. Anthony would own slaves himself and successfully sue a white owner. But he is unlikely to be typical; and from the 1660s, the strict and brutal codes of chattel slavery would sweep such examples to the very margins.

At the other end of the scale a major component of immigrants were the sons of gentry and gentlemen. Economic success was based on land; the more land you had the more likely you were to succeed, and the Virginia society was expected to follow the traditional where political power would follow wealth and status. It was these that would profit most from the form of government that did finally emerge. One of the principles of this, as noted in the last episode was that to succeed colonies need to have significant levels of autonomy. By mid century, structure was emerging. The colony was to be managed by a Governor reporting to the English privy Council. But much had already been established by Edwin Sandys reforms. Virginia was to be governed day to day by a colonial Assembly, loosely modelled on the English parliament. The Assembly was based on a vote for every free man, two burgesses were to be elected by every hundred or parish. This is a decision quite remarkable for its time, and of some significance for the future of the American colonies. It was to meet once a year with the power to enact any legislation required for good government – as long as they conformed to English law and were subject to veto in London; it is interesting in this context, that the slave codes were created among other legislation; however, although slavery did not exist in England, as we’ll find out with the Zong case in the 18th century there was no positive law for or against it either. So the Slave codes presumably didn’t contravene any specific English law. And crucially, legislation would not be handed down from London, unlike the approach taken in the Spanish colonies.

The colonists waited nervously for news of what Charles would decree about these arrangements, and initially he didn’t ban them which was encouraging; and he never positively granted a new charter. But finally in 1639 he conceded that the colonial assembly

Together with the governor and council shall have the power to make acts and laws for the government of that plantation as near as may be to the laws of England

Below the Assembly, eight shires were established in 1634, and the county court and Justice of the Peace became the keystone of the local polity. The most important division below that was the good ’ole parish – how lovely, I feel like I am back at home; and religion was based on the Anglican church, and just like blighty we have the primacy of the Anglican church, and a partnership between church and state to enforce social and moral discipline. There was none of the drive to build a ‘city on a hill’, but none the less religion was as important as it was in the home country, and we know how important that was; and like in blighty, there existed side by side, some Catholics and non conformity.

So look, although I have hardly scratched the surface of the subject, I do feel I have done what I can and at least painted some sort of picture. Probably more of an impressionist’s effort than a Durer, hopefully not too much towards Picasso. In summary, the colony that emerged in Virginia was in some ways most unlike the original model, and in others – well, just like home. Settlement and economy was not as planned; large plantations, widely dispersed over the landscape, an economy deeply dependent on the evil weed; very little industry and urban development. The society was dependent on continuing immigration and the death rate and social mix distinctly weird; and in some ways all these things created a society one historian has described as marked by chaotic individualism and political instability.

But local institutions and church had been based very much on an English model, and the traditional political dominance by an elite replicated; gentry rule in the Chesapeake was in many ways an extension of gentry rule in England, and just as they did in England, their rule relied on the cooperation and consent of those they governed.

[1] Hackett Fischer, D; Albion’s Seed, 1989

[2] Middleton R & Lombard A; Colonial America, p69

[3] Mann, C; 1491, p32

[4] Horn, J; Tobacco Colonies in Canny, N; ‘The Origins of Empire’, p175

[5] Beccles, H ‘The Hub of Empire: Britain and the Caribbean in the 17th Century’  in Canny, N, ‘The Origins of Empire’ p224



6 thoughts on “366 The Chesapeake

    1. Thanks David, and I have listened- very interesting! One of the frustrating things about the podcast is not really having enough to get into topics as you;d like. This must be a fascinating subject; on the face of it, law in the Caribbean developed in very similar ways. I wonder how much contact there was?

  1. Turning from their relationship with the Native Americans to their relationship with the old country, what impact did the politics of 1640-1660 have on the Chesapeake colonists. Was it too far away? Did they simply accept whoever was the regime of the moment?

    1. I don’t know much about it; I have a couple of nuggets I picked up along the way .In Maryland, Lord Baltimore carefully picked a middle way, kept his head down and avoided choosing; I assume New Englsnd were all for parlimant and the puritans but generally I think the colonists avoided trouble and had enough to worry about. There was one Caribbean island, can’t remember which. where there was a bust up between royalists and parliamwentarians, but it’s the exception I think.

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