Study Guide

Jamestown Analysis

Advertisement - Guide continues below

  • Race

    Original Purposes

    Slavery wasn't supposed to be part of the plan for Virginia's colonization. 

    In fact, when the English settled Jamestown in 1607, they were resolved not to replicate the Spanish practice in their North American colonies. English expansionists deemed Spain's enslavement of first Native Americans and then Africans to be barbaric and un-Christian. Some theorists even argued that among England's imperial objectives should be the liberation of Spain's slaves. 

    Richard Hakluyt, the most important of these advocates of American colonization, suggested that the Native American and African slaves held within the Spanish colonies would welcome English liberators and assist in English efforts to drive Spain out of the Western Hemisphere.

    But by the end of the 17th century, slavery was firmly established in Virginia. Although not part of the original plan, slavery had become an entrenched institution that would fiercely resist limitation or elimination until the Civil War.

    Slavery's Origins

    When exactly Virginia's English colonists began to practice slavery is difficult to determine. 

    Records from 1619 suggest that 20 Africans, possibly Virginia's first, arrived in a Dutch ship filled with servants. But these were clearly servants, not slaves: their period of service was fixed and their status wasn't passed on to their children. But by the 1640s, the few available records suggest that Virginians were starting to distinguish between Black and white servants. There are isolated references to some Black servants serving unusually long terms, and others actually serving for life. 

    But there are just as many references to Black servants completing their indentures and acquiring property. After 1660, however, the records reveal a more rigid differentiation between white and Black servants. Over the next two decades, legislative acts in Virginia and the neighboring colony of Maryland expressly defined the permanent and inheritable status of slavery.

    More difficult than determining when slavery emerged is sorting out why Virginians resorted to slavery—or more precisely, how these settlers moved from a determination to free slaves to an equally insistent resolve to hold them in bondage. How exactly did Virginians, so anxious to avoid the Spanish example of slavery in 1607, find themselves so economically and philosophically committed to the institution within just half a century.

    It Starts with Tobacco

    As with much of Virginia's story, the answer begins with the development of the colony's tobacco economy around 1617. When Jamestown settlers discovered that they could grow the plant and that there was a lucrative market for it in England, the colony's economy exploded. Within a couple of years, settlers who had long struggled just to survive were realizing profits far beyond the wages of working people in England. A man working alone could grow about 1,500 pounds of tobacco a year—and at 3 shillings a pound this worked out to an annual income of more than £200, about seven times the annual income of a skilled English craftsman.

    With a seemingly endless supply of land for the roughly 1,000 colonists in Jamestown in 1617, there were relatively few restrictions on a man earning a good deal of money. But there were even greater opportunities for a man who could bring more than just his own labor to the cultivation of tobacco. If a man had a servant, his profits would double—with five or six, he could easily realize a princely sum of £1000 a year.

    As a result, the demand for servants in Virginia increased dramatically around 1620. Planters competed aggressively for the servants delivered by the Virginia Company and made available to individual planters willing to finance a servant's transport in return for a fixed term of service—usually four or five years. 

    With so much money hinging on a planter's ability to obtain servants, the value of servants increased. But as their value increased, their status diminished. In the decade following the discovery of tobacco, Virginia planters turned their servants into quasi-slaves—laborers who were still technically servants but were more abused and less protected than their counterparts in England.

    "Unfreedom" in Virginia

    In order to appreciate the gradual transformation of servitude in Virginia, we need to begin with the recognition that freedom was a more cluttered concept in 17th-century England than we usually consider it to be today. Over the centuries, England had developed several forms of servitude in which individuals bound out themselves or their children to another for a specified period of time. 

    Consequently, while the opposite of freedom in both England and Virginia was slavery, in between these two poles existed a variety of forms of "unfreedom." For example, among the "unfree" of Virginia, there were several types of servants. 

    • "Tenants" were delivered to the colony to work directly for the Virginia Company. They were bound to this service for four or five years and were entitled to half the proceeds of their labor.
    • Common "bond servants," on the other hand, were bound to an individual. They owed their master generally four or five years of labor and received only room and board for their labor.
    • Worse off than these were the "duty boys." These teenagers were auctioned to planters for about £10 apiece and served seven-year terms at no compensation beyond room and board, after which they served as tenants for the Virginia Company for another seven years.

    "Unfreedom" therefore took different forms. The lengths of service and contractual terms varied. But rooted as they were in English practice, these forms of servitude traditionally possessed a few customary protections. 

    For example, within the English tradition, while a person might surrender his or her freedom to a master for several years, the servant controlled the contracting process. Annual "hiring fairs" provided an opportunity for servants to negotiate or renew their labor contracts for the next term of service. These fairs were guided by centuries-old customs and regulated by county courts and ethical standards articulated by churches and local mores.

    The Slippery Slope Toward Slavery

    But in tobacco-boom Virginia, masters had almost complete control over the contracting process. They bought servants from the company, or from one another. Servants were traded for goods, bought and sold mid-contract, and even gambled away in card games. Servants had no control over the transfer of their services from one person to another. Nor were there any institutional or communal restraints on planter behavior. Churches were non-existent and traditional ethical standards had been shattered by the powerful allure of tobacco wealth.

    The only institution able to protect servants was the colonial government. And on occasion it did. But colonial officials were among the wealthiest men in the colony, generally owned the most servants, and frequently used their authority to tighten their grip on their workers. Minor offenses, for example, were punished with extraordinary penalties, including extensions on a servants' terms of service. When Thomas Hatch, a duty boy, criticized government officials in a private conversation, he was whipped through the town, had his ear cut off, and had his seven-year term of service (to the governor) doubled.

    By 1630, Virginia's tobacco prices had fallen and the boom years had ended. But the plant still produced good—if no longer spectacular—profits for the man who could acquire servants. By that time, servitude in Jamestown had turned into something different than servitude in England. And over the next several decades, Virginians would slide further down this slippery slope, transforming people into commodities and servants into something more degraded than servants. 

    They weren't yet slaves. Most servants did eventually become free, and while a servant might have his or her term extended for parenting a child while indented to another, that child didn't inherit the parent's unfree status. There was still a large step that had to be taken before servitude became permanent and inheritable. But that step seems to have been shortened by the particular circumstances and attitudes surrounding England's first real encounter with Africa in the middle of the 16th century.

    The Meaning of Blackness

    It was the color of the Africans that impressed Englishmen the most. They had a long familiarity with the dark-skinned Moors of North Africa, but these people were far lighter in color than the West Africans the English first encountered around 1550.

    This striking color led to speculations about its origins. Was Blackness caused by the sun? Or was it the legacy of God's curse on Ham? But these explorations into the significance of the African's color were informed by more than rudimentary science. English culture had already loaded the color of black with meaning. It was associated with filth and sin, baseness and dishonesty. In contrast, Elizabethan ideals of feminine beauty emphasized whiteness—especially in combination with pink or red. For the English, therefore, the color of the African was already ideologically charged. And the resulting, prejudiced conclusions about Africans were furthered though sensationalized observations of their social and sexual behavior.

    The accounts generated by traders and explorers were filled with lurid descriptions of the Africans' unfamiliar behavior. English readers devoured the sensational details of polygamy, infanticide, and cosmetic mutilation. With equal interest, they read of the Africans' religious beliefs, which were characterized as primitively pagan and barbaric. 

    But no feature of African life proved more fascinating to the English than the Africans' sexuality. Writers teased and scandalized English readers with their accounts of the rampant promiscuity and unrestrained sexual indulgence that they claimed was typical among Africans. The alleged sexual aggressiveness of African women seemed particularly tantalizing, as well as the supposed anatomical distinctiveness of the African men. One writer was amazed by their "large propagators," and another suggested that African men were "furnished with such members as are after a sort burdensome to them."

    This fascination with Africans' sexual practices veered into the even more peculiar with English speculations about the relationship between Africans and apes. The large monkeys were new to the English as well—and they quickly drew a series of bizarre conclusions. While only a few suggested that the Africans and the apes stemmed from some sort of cross-fertilization, writers commonly suggested that sexual encounters between the humans and apes were common.

    By the 17th century, a constellation of overlapping ideas had defined the African in the English imagination. Supposedly barbaric in their behavior, ungodly in their religion, connected in some way with apes, and scarred by an offensive color, Africans were defined as the opposite of the English. One historian, Winthrop Jordan, has argued further that they were intellectually useful to the English as a sort of anti-type—a negative social mirror that allowed Englishmen to reassure themselves about their own religious and social character.

    For Virginians, we might speculate that this constellation of attitudes regarding the African served them in an even more horrible way. As they allowed their labor practices to slide further toward the inhuman, as they treated their servants with more and more cruelty, their sense of the African as something of a beast allowed them to take the final step toward slavery. Without the arrival of the Africans, Jamestown's planters probably would have respected some ultimate limitation on their abusive labor practices. 

    But in the unrestrained, profit-crazy atmosphere of Virginia, a set of convenient beliefs about Blacks and Blackness allowed Englishmen to do what was formerly unthinkable.

  • Gender

    Marie Daucks was a 25-year-old widow when she signed up to go to Jamestown. Barbara Burchens was just 17 and unmarried when she decided to travel across the ocean. They were among the 57 "maids" sent to Jamestown by the Virginia Company in 1621 in an effort to raise morale and improve the quality of life in the struggling colony.

    It wasn't the first time the company had tried to do something about the gender imbalance in the colony. But earlier efforts had met neither success nor approval—too few women were sent, the men complained, and even by Virginia's standards, they left a lot to be desired. 

    So, this time around, the company was more selective in its recruitment. The young women had to present letters of recommendation—letters which spoke to their character and domestic skills. As a result, the women who made the trip were far from the most desperate of England's poor. Among the 57 women sent in 1621 were eight with ties to the English gentry, and another twelve were the daughters of artisans. 

    Ranging in ages from 15 to 28, with an average age of 20, these women couldn't be classified as destitute. But they were united by a certain disadvantage, and virtually all were economically vulnerable. The group included only two widows, but there were numerous orphans and several young women that had recently lost their fathers. While not the most desperate of London's poor, the girls and women who decided to go to Jamestown faced an uncertain future in England.

    Land of Opportunity?

    So, America offered an opportunity of sorts—perhaps not very different from the opportunity offered the vast majority of men who made the trip to America as indentured servants. Both bound themselves to a stranger, and both accepted an arrangement that severely compromised their freedom. 

    Of course, the risks undertaken by the young women were also distinctive in many ways. They had to submit to a different sort of indignity in rapidly negotiating marriages to virtually unknown men. And their economic prospects were narrowed by the simple fact of their gender. But in the end, the calculation for both sexes was much the same—the women accepted the risks of migration, and the uncertainties inherent in linking their futures to a stranger, for the prospect of a life more promising than the one they were leaving behind.

    Given the dangers of life in Virginia, it is hard to believe that anyone would make this choice. Mortality rates had improved only a little in the decade and a half since Jamestown was first settled. Since 1607, about 6,000 settlers had been sent to Virginia but only 1,200 were still alive. In the colony's worst winter, 440 of the town's 500 people had died of starvation and disease.

    Moreover, as soon as the women landed, they had to set about finding a partner. The company insisted that they would not actually be auctioned off, reassuring the women that they would have ultimate control over all marital arrangements. But the bottom line was that they could only marry a man able to provide the company with 150 pounds of tobacco as compensation for the trouble and expense of delivering the young woman. And unless they found a man to marry, they could never survive in the colony.

    For the 57 women who traveled to Virginia in 1621, the good news was that most had found partners by the following spring. The bad news was that the Pamunkeys, unsettled by the recent growth of the English colony, attacked the settlement, killing more than 400 people. Marie Daucks, the recently arrived widow, and teenager Barbara Burchens were among those killed.

    But if this year was like most others, the women faced an even more dangerous threat than Native American attack—the usual period of "seasoning" that greeted every immigrant. Jamestown sat in the middle of a hot and humid swamp. Disease was a constant threat, especially during the summer months when most of the ships arrived. The result was that a shocking percentage of the immigrants to Jamestown died within months of their arrival. And if a woman survived her first year and found a suitable marriage partner, she faced the additional challenge of pregnancy. 

    An enormous risk for women everywhere in the 17th century, pregnancy rendered women particularly vulnerable to the malaria that struck the colony on a regular basis.

    Life in Jamestown was no picnic. The set of challenges that had to be weighed against the benefits that might reward those who survived the ordeals were extraordinary. But if a woman did survive her first year, and if she did live through the Native American attacks and the dangers of pregnancy, she probably did realize a better future than the one lying before her in England. 

    When all was said and done, the women who traveled to Virginia probably made the right choice.

    Rarity Becomes Leverage

    For starters, the women benefited from their rarity. There were three and a half men for every woman in Virginia in 1625—and by century's end, there were still three men for every two women.

    By the 18th century, the peculiar demographics that contributed to the unusual opportunities for women in Virginia had begun to normalize. Mortality rates improved and men and women lived longer. The gender ratio moved toward parity as natural reproduction contributed more and more to overall population growth. In many ways, the marital patterns and more general condition of women within Virginia took on a more typical caste. 

    But probate patterns remained much the same. Women continued to receive a larger share of their late husbands' estates than was the norm elsewhere. As a result, it appears that the bold women who migrated to Jamestown in the 17th century—or the ones who lived, at least—improved not only their own lives but also the lives of future generations of Virginia women.

  • Economy

    England's Most Valuable Colony, Eventually

    By 1675, Virginia had become Great Britain's most lucrative American colony, exporting more than ten million pounds of tobacco to England annually. Import duties collected on this tobacco earned the crown £100,000 a year—a figure that would rise, by 1700, to roughly £400,000. Not even England's valuable sugar colonies in the West Indies yielded such high revenues. 

    While these revenues hardly compared to the staggering mineral wealth extracted by Spain from the New World a century earlier, in many ways tobacco was England's gold. Foreign pirates lurked off the American coast hoping to waylay English vessels carrying the valuable weed, and British ships of war were deployed just to ensure its safe passage to England.

    Tobacco profits also filled the coffers of the Virginia's colonial government and made officials of the colony the most generously compensated in America. Representatives to the House of Burgesses received travel stipends and per diems more than five times higher than those paid to New England legislators. By 1675, prosperous Virginia was one of the brightest jewels in the crown of England's growing overseas empire.

    But Virginia didn't start out so profitably. In fact, the colony's first years were miserable, marked by economic disaster, devastating outbreaks of disease, and even starvation. Only 38 of the 105 settlers deposited in Jamestown in 1607 survived the first winter. Two years later, only 60 of Jamestown's 500 residents made it through an even more disastrous cold season. Through its entire first decade, the colony failed miserably to just feed itself, much less turn a profit for company investors back in England.

    Misplaced Expectations

    To a certain extent, Virginia's early economic problems can be traced to the misplaced expectations that accompanied the colony's planting. Lacking detailed geographic knowledge of the North American continent, many believed that a great waterway linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans might be located among the many rivers converging in the Chesapeake. 

    Jamestown, in other words, might provide a link to the far eastern trade—a pit stop for ships carrying spices and goods from India and China. Unfortunately, 3,000 miles of rugged land stood between Jamestown and the Pacific; there was no Northwest Passage allowing easy journeys to the riches of Asia.

    But even in the absence of a direct connection to the Far East, most of the theorists and adventurers who advocated settlement in North America envisioned a rich continent filled with its own wealth and opportunity. Not all expected to find the same sort of gold and silver seized by the Spanish from the indigenous peoples of Central and South America, but they did expect to find plenty of resources that could extracted for export to England. Earlier reports had described rivers filled with sturgeon whose roe could be turned into caviar, and forests filled with mulberry trees that could house the worms that would turn native grasses into silk. It was believed that great deposits of iron would be found in America, as well as copper and even pearls.

    These visionaries therefore planned to build in North America a complex economy filled with skilled workers who would turn the continent's natural resources into valuable products. These craftsmen would be assisted by England's unfortunate poor, relocated to the New World for a fresh start. And working right alongside them would be the friendly Native Americans of North America, willingly and harmoniously integrated within England's model community. The goods they all produced together would be returned to England, and then possibly re-exported for even greater profit. The planners of England's imperial ventures imagined America's mineral wealth shaped into jewelry, its exotic plants turned into herbs and perfumes, and its caviar and silk sold in markets throughout Europe.

    But they were wrong. For more than a decade, rather than flourishing, Jamestown teetered on the brink of failure.

    It's not all that surprising that the colony would begin with misguided expectations—or that there would be a period of adjustment to the new conditions or economic realities of North America. What is surprising is that this difficult period of adjustment lasted so long—that company directors in England clung to the old vision of Jamestown for as many years as they did. And it's even more surprising that the settlers, those actually suffering through the harsh conditions of life in the New World, did so little to remedy their own situation. 

    It wasn't what they expected, but the land was fertile and the climate was hospitable—the surrounding Native Americans lived relatively easily on the game they hunted and the corn they grew. Why should the English settlers struggle so miserably just to survive?

    Why Did Jamestown Struggle to Survive?

    The most common explanation for the settlers' failure was that they were simply lazy. Yeah, we said it.

    The Virginia Company report of 1610 said as much in describing the almost universal "idleness and bestial sloth" of Jamestown's population. George Sandys, the company treasurer, offered a similar, albeit more poetic summary in 1623, saying, "A more damned crew hell never vomited."blank" rel="nofollow">gold rush-type boom that followed the realization that valuable Spanish tobacco could be successfully grown in Jamestown for export to England. Between 1617 and 1630, tobacco prices soared to three shillings per pound, as more and more Englishmen began to smoke it recreationally, and not just for its supposed medicinal value. 

    As a result, virtually every ounce of human labor in Virginia was diverted to the production of tobacco. Land around Jamestown was abundant, but clearing the dense forests to create new fields took time, so every last inch of usable space in the town—"the market-place, and streets, and all other spare places," in the words of John Smith—was quickly planted with the leafy green gold. One estimate suggested an individual in Jamestown during the 1620s could earn £200 sterling in a year—almost seven times the average income of skilled craftsman in England—by planting tobacco. With five or six servants, a colonist could earn £1000 annually, making him a wealthy man.

    The dizzying profits in tobacco would collapse by 1630, as a huge increase in production from Virginia led to sharply falling prices in England. But there was still enough money in the crop to encourage its cultivation. Over the rest of the 17th century, Virginia's human population, its tobacco production, and the European market for tobacco would grow roughly in sync with one another. The price of tobacco would fluctuate some, but it held relatively steady between a penny and 2.5 pennies per pound until 1680.

    At these prices, Jamestown's inhabitants wouldn't grow rich as they had in the 1620s. But at least through the middle of the century, they'd earn more than they could expect to earn in England. Even the vast majority of male settlers who arrived as indentured servants—men who exchanged several years of unpaid labor in return for passage to Virginia—were able to transition from servitude to land-ownership within Virginia's tobacco economy. The names of former servants routinely show up on tax rolls and jury rosters—proof that they were able to acquire land and become full citizens once their terms of service had ended. A number of ex-servants even achieved a different sort of status, serving as militia officers and county officials. Tobacco made upward mobility possible.

    In the end, the discovery of tobacco enabled Jamestown to finally realize a certain degree of success in America. It wasn't exactly the sort of success its planners had anticipated, but the tobacco trade ensured Virginia's survival and offered a type of opportunity and social mobility for even the poorest settlers that could never have been achieved back home in England.

    The Problem with Tobacco

    But there were still problems. Obviously.

    For starters, Virginia's economy remained throughout the entire 17th century far too one-dimensional. A collapse in the local tobacco crop or the international tobacco market could have ruined the colony. Contemporaries recognized this danger, and some even took steps to correct it. Sir William Berkeley, the governor of the colony from 1642 to 1652 and again from 1660 to 1677, proposed a variety of measures ranging from limiting the acreage allowed to go into tobacco production to paying government bounties to colonists who developed alternative industries. 

    And in 1664, the Virginia Assembly followed Berkeley's lead in legislating bounties for the production of silk, woolen cloth, and boats. The assembly also passed laws requiring towns to build tanneries and more permanent public buildings. In 1667, Berkeley's efforts culminated in an agreement between the governments of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina to impose a one-year moratorium on all tobacco production.

    But the agreement was short-lived. Back in London, government officials protested the loss of import tax revenue that would result from the moratorium on tobacco, and in the Chesapeake, smaller planters complained that they could ill afford so complete and abrupt a restriction on their income.

    So, the reform effort faded away quietly—but it revealed a growing division between Virginia elites and the London government. And more significant in the short term, it revealed a growing division within the colony between large and small planters—those who were willing and able to slow production temporarily in order to boost tobacco prices over the long haul, versus those so desperate to scratch out an annual living that they were unable to suspend production for even a moment.

    Virginia's Growing Social Divisions

    For the first half of the century, Virginia's society was characterized by a rough fluidity. The availability of land and the immaturity of Virginia's governing institutions allowed virtually all settlers to make their way in the tobacco industry. Even Virginia's horrific mortality rates contributed to economic opportunity by restraining population growth, ensuring that plenty of arable land remained available even to poor servants once their indentures were completed. A few powerful families tried to twist the colony's laws and institutions to their advantage but, given the immaturity of these institutions, common planters were generally able to force the government to do their bidding.

    But by 1660, Virginia's society and economy had begun to take on a new rigidity—land became more scarce as the population grew, the transition from servitude to independent farming became more difficult, and political power became less democratically accessible.

    One indicator of the change was the shortage of land that forced more and more former servants and new immigrants deep into the interior of Virginia. Anticipating the impending land shortage and seeing an opportunity for easy profit, wealthier speculators staked claims to the most desirable land along the waterways of the Chesapeake. Governor William Berkeley tried to force this land onto the market by legislating property taxes. But the speculator-filled assembly resisted his efforts.

    Another indicator of the economy's growing rigidity was the rising rate of tenant farming. Detailed records are scarce, but we know that opportunities for land-ownership for poor colonists declined sharply. At mid-century, the vast majority of Virginia's servants were able to eventually own land; by the end of the century, however, more than one-third of all farmers were working land they did not own.

    The combination of scarce land and increased tenancy combined to produce another change that was more subtle—the ascendance of the larger planters within the overall commercial infrastructure of the region. While tenants may have worked a parcel of land, a large percentage of their crop—often as much as 25%—had to be turned over to the landowner. This increased the large landholder's market share and his control over prices. For the small landowner forced into the interior, there was a different problem. Distant from the waterways down which the tobacco ships would sail in order to collect the crops produced by individual planters, these interior farmers were forced to make different arrangements in order to get their crop to market. 

    Again, the larger planters benefited, because what most commonly happened was that the small interior farmers were forced to consign their crop to large planters living on the river who—for a price—delivered the crop to market.

    Parliament's passage of a Navigation Act in 1660 further complicated the economic prospects of the small planter. In an effort to more tightly control colonial trade and generate more revenue for the Crown, Parliament required that certain goods, including tobacco, be sold only to England or one of its colonies. Virginia planters argued that they had a right to trade freely with anyone who sailed into the Chesapeake. The Dutch, for example, were anxious to buy American tobacco. But the Navigation Act severely limited their ability to do so. And without the lucrative Dutch market, Virginians' profits dropped.

    It was still possible to circumvent Parliament's laws. Enforcing the Navigation Act from across the ocean was difficult. But even illicit trade with the Dutch became impossible when England and the Netherlands went to war during the 1660s and 1670s. All Virginians lost a crucial trading partner. But poor farmers operating on narrow profit margins, in particular, suffered when Dutch merchant ships were replaced by Dutch ships of war. Nor were they comforted by British government demands that these same cash-strapped colonists spend extravagant sums on coastal defense.

    By 1670, the rigidities within the Virginia economy had grown quite pronounced. Large, wealthy planters had secured a dominant position, while small landholders and tenant farmers increasingly struggled to get ahead. And this growing economic stratification carried over into the political arena. 

    The disfranchising of Virginia's poorer planters began with the restriction of the vote to those owning property. For the colony's first 60 years, all free men—meaning all those not bound as servants—could vote. But after 1670, only those owning property were allowed to cast ballots for county officials and representatives to the House of Burgesses. Historians have also found subtler evidence of decreasing class mobility—by 1670, the names of former servants appear only rarely on jury lists. Nor are they listed on militia musters as officers.

    Pushed to the Brink

    Falling prices, land shortages, government trade restrictions, the economic burdens of war, and finally political impotence...

    These factors combined, by 1675, to push Virginia's small planters to the brink. It was only a matter of time until these accumulating grievances would produce a crisis.

  • Politics

    Accumulating Problems

    In retrospect, it seems that the 1676 insurrection known as Bacon's Rebellion was inevitable. Just too many things had gone wrong in the decades preceding. Poorer planters in the interior, in particular, had accumulated too many grievances to let pass without incident.

    By 1670, the boom days of the 1620s were a distant memory—a pound of tobacco now sold for only a penny or two, a fraction of the three shillings it was worth in 1625. Farmers got by but they didn't get rich—and the rewards waiting at the end of four to seven years of indentured service shrank in proportion. A recently released servant or a new immigrant could still find land but only deep in Virginia's interior, far removed from the rivers down which farmers needed to ship their crops to market.

    Exacerbating these economic problems was England's Navigation Act, passed in 1660. This forced Virginia planters to sell their tobacco only to English buyers; they could no longer pit these buyers against the competing Dutch merchants anxious to break into the lucrative tobacco trade. Moreover, when war broke out between England and the Netherlands in 1665 and then again in 1672, these Dutch buyers were placed even further beyond reach. English tobacco merchants now gained almost absolute control over Virginia prices—and for a small farmer operating on a narrow profit margin, the results were disastrous.

    At the same time as their economic prospects dimmed, Virginia's small farmers faced shrinking political options as well. By 1670, the colonial government had come to be dominated by wealthier men, and even lower county offices went to the larger planters. In 1670, the Virginia legislature closed the political door altogether to its poorest citizens by restricting the vote to property owners only. The colony's growing ranks of tenant farmers lost all access to direct political participation. Now even more secure in their power, colonial officials found endless ways to use their political advantage to feed their own pocketbooks; lucrative licenses, per diems, travel expenses, and even Native American annuities enriched Virginia's colonial officials while common farmers struggled to get by.

    Speaking of Native Americans, finally, in recent years, Native American hostilities in the interior had increased. Small farmers on the edge of the colonial settlement faced a constant threat. And the House of Burgesses, insulated by its physical distance from the dangers, all but ignored the demands for assistance from the politically weak small farmers.

    A Frontier Skirmish Escalates

    The crisis of 1676 began with the sort of minor frontier conflict that had occurred many times before. When a party of Doig Indians believed they'd been cheated in a commercial transaction with English settler Thomas Mathew, they stole some of his hogs. In response, Mathew and some friends attacked the Native Americans, killing one person. The Doigs soon retaliated by killing one of Mathew's servants.

    The local militia, too anxious for action, also undertook a retaliatory raid against the local Native Americans, killing more than a dozen people. Perhaps it was an error, perhaps the militia was simply unconcerned with the details—but the Native Americans the militia attacked were innocent Susquehannocks, not Doigs. And now it was the Susquehannocks' turn to retaliate.

    At this point, with tensions escalating, Governor Berkeley decided to send a force of 1,000 militia into the interior. But this intervention proved largely ineffective against the Susquehannocks, who waged a series of effective guerrilla raids on settlers. Recognizing the futility of the current campaign, but anxious to do something, Berkeley ordered forts built along the major interior rivers—an expensive project and one interior settlers believed useless. At best, these forts would protect the lands and interests of the wealthier planters who owned land along the river. At worst, these stationary forts would do little against an enemy that preferred opportunistic hit-and-run tactics—and small farmers would be asked to foot the bill.

    As the dissatisfaction with Berkeley's and the Burgesses' handling of the current Native American problems grew, it blended with older complaints among interior farmers—complaints about the indifference of eastern legislators and the extravagant stipends paid House members. And soon this building discontent found a leader in a man named Nathaniel Bacon.

    Nathaniel Bacon

    Bacon wasn't poor, nor was he politically powerless. 

    He'd only recently arrived in the colony, where his connections to Berkeley and others among the political elite had quickly secured him a seat on the governor's council. But he had purchased land at some distance from Jamestown, and he had trouble with Native Americans. Perhaps as important, he was intent on carving out a larger niche for himself in Virginia politics

    So, he rallied small farmers behind the demand that more aggressive action be taken against the Native Americans, and he personally lobbied the governor for the funds and authority to raise an army that he could lead into the interior to put down Native American threats.

    Berkeley resisted Bacon's request. He viewed the young newcomer as an opportunist, and he was aware that interior farmers were unhappy about more than just the Native Americans. If they were allowed to form an army, who knew where it might lead? But Berkeley also resisted Bacon's proposal because he had his own plan for stabilizing the frontier. Berkeley had carefully cultivated a group of loyal Native American tribes after the last large rebellion in the 1640s. 

    These tribes now paid an annual tribute and, more important, provided a friendly buffer between the colony and more hostile tribes even further west. He worried that the backcountry war party Bacon had in mind would not bother to sort out friendly from hostile tribes and his work would be undone—after all, much of the current problem began when the interior militia stupidly attacked Susquehannas when they were angry at Doigs.

    Bacon's Rebellion

    So, Berkeley refused to grant Bacon the commission he sought. But Bacon simply organized his own militia, without the governor's approval. Then he marched into the interior and, just as Berkeley had feared, slaughtered a village of Occaneechees, one of Berkeley's loyal tribute tribes. 

    Berkeley subsequently condemned Bacon and his treasonous band, filled, as a he said, with the "lowest of people." But in the House elections held just a few weeks later, Bacon was elected to a seat from Henrico, along with several of his supporters.

    Virginia was now on the edge of insurrection. When Bacon sailed into Jamestown to take his seat in the Burgesses, he came accompanied by a posse of 50 armed militiamen. But Berkeley, believing he was more politically skilled then Bacon, took measures to diffuse the insurrectionary crisis. He arrested Bacon and forced from him a contrite confession. But rather than send him to jail, Berkeley named Bacon to his council. Berkeley next set about redressing old political complaints from the interior farmers. The franchise was restored to propertyless tenant farmers, local representatives were appointed to assist the colonial tax assessors, and many of the fees collected by county officials were reduced or eliminated. 

    Berkeley also revised his Native American policy. While he continued to insist that pacified tribes should be protected, he agreed to the formation of a larger militia to patrol the interior and he suspended construction of the controversial forts.

    But even if the small farmers were appeased, Nathaniel Bacon wasn't. Humiliated by Berkeley, and convinced that the governor's Native American policy was still too soft, Bacon rallied another band of 500 men, marched them into Jamestown, and demanded a commission to wage war against the Native Americans. 

    And this time, Berkeley acquiesced. But once Bacon and his gang had left town, Berkeley repudiated the commission, saying it had been commandeered by force, and tried to raise an army to bring in Bacon. Unfortunately for the governor, Bacon was now too popular and Berkeley found few recruits willing to oppose him. Even worse, when news reached Bacon of the governor's latest move, he wheeled his own forces around and prepared to lead them against the governor in Jamestown. Berkeley, realizing his position was vulnerable, fled the town.

    Bacon Recruits the Gentry

    Bacon had long had the support of Virginia's poorer farmers. Now he also pursued the wealthy planters. 

    These men were deeply unsettled by Bacon's appeal to the discontent among Virginia's poor, but Governor Berkeley's position now seemed hopeless. And so at Middle Plantation (today's Williamsburg), a large group of wealthy planters pledged their support for Bacon. Now outnumbered even among the elite, Berkeley attempted an even riskier stratagem—he returned to Jamestown and offered freedom to all white servants willing to take up arms against Bacon and his growing army of small farmers and turncoat gentry. 

    Few responded to Berkeley's offer, but even so, Bacon now decided that this potential source of opposition to his movement had to be taken off the table, so he made the same offer. With an even stronger force, Bacon then marched on Jamestown, forced Berkeley to flee once again, and burned the town to the ground.

    Bacon had won. Over the next month, his followers attacked Native American villages and Berkeley loyalists alike. Racism and a sort of class warfare converged as Bacon's army enslaved Native Americans and plundered English planters' estates. But when Nathaniel Bacon suddenly died of dysentery on October 26th, the rebellion pooped out. By the time English ships arrived to assist Berkeley back into power, virtually everyone in Virginia was ready to pledge their loyalty to the government they had just recently overthrown.

    The Rebellion's Sudden Collapse

    The suddenness with which the rebellion collapsed has led historians to question the political depth of Bacon's popular movement. Some have concluded that the entire conflict represented nothing more than a power struggle between two stubborn men. But the royal commission sent from England to investigate the rebellion revealed that popular discontent persisted and centered around a consistent batch of complaints—about inaccessible and unaccountable government, high fees, and extravagant official salaries.

    But despite the consistency of these complaints, little meaningful reform was initiated in the wake of Bacon's insurrection. The gentry that rallied to Bacon at the rebellion's peak were not about to support any real political change once the crisis had passed. And therefore, Berkeley's wartime concessions to popular pressure were soon repealed; the property requirement for voting was restored and tax assessors were freed from the oversight of local assistants. 

    Perhaps as important, as officials in London searched for a way to bring peace to their valuable but contentious colony, they recommended measures that neither side in Virginia found acceptable. Claiming sympathy with popular complaints about rapacious government officials and overpaid, pocket-lining representatives, the King proposed drastically reducing the power of the House of Burgesses—it would no longer be allowed to initiate legislation and its authority as the appellate court of last resort would be suspended. The House would remain more than a mere advisory body, but its powers to propose and amend legislation would be transferred to the governor. 

    No one in Virginia supported this proposal. Whatever grievances small farmers had with the Assembly, they weren't about to hand more power over to a governor appointed from London. The ambition at all levels of Virginia society was for more political power, not a retreat toward dependence on the paternal generosity of the king.

    In the final analysis, then, Bacon's Rebellion revealed not just the accumulating tensions within Virginia but also a fundamental difference between the governing visions of the colony and the mother country. Over the next century, these conflicting visions would persist; attempts to reconcile colonial and British imperial ambitions would fail. In this sense, Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 exposed a fundamental rift between Britain and her colonies that would trigger another insurrection exactly 100 years later.

  • Diplomacy

    John Smith and Pocahontas

    We all know the story of Pocahontas, the young Native American princess who saved Jamestown's leader, John Smith, and married another English settler, John Rolfe. The legend of Pocahontas has been a part of American and English folklore since 1616, when Smith recounted her heroics in a letter to Queen Anne of England. Not only did she save his life, he said, but by intervening on behalf of the English with her powerful father Powhatan, Pocahontas saved the entire colony on numerous occasions from "death, famine, and utter confusion." 

    The English did agree to take the ceremony to him—but the awkward ritual at Powhatan's village spoke volumes about the conflicting perceptions of the English and the Native Americans. Powhatan refused to stoop to receive the crown. Only by pushing down heavily on his shoulders were the English able to get him to bend enough to appease their egos.

    An Uneasy Relationship

    Over the next several years, the relationship between the two groups was an uneasy one. The Native Americans held virtually all of the power—they had numbers and an orderly government, and they had mastered the environment sufficiently to carve out a fairly comfortable existence on the peninsula. 

    Jamestown, on the other hand struggled at every level. Unorganized, filled with dissent, unable to find the resources that would make the colony a profitable enterprise, the English settlement faced pressure in Virginia and from investors back in England. Most fundamentally, for almost a decade, the colonists were unable to figure out how to feed themselves—without periodic resupply from England and the corn provided by the Native Americans, they all would have starved. Even with this help, mortality rates at Jamestown were horrific. During the winter of 1609 to 1610, all but 60 of the 500 settlers died.

    Still, the English clung to a certain presumption of superiority. And they expressed it by the only means left to them when politically and economically they failed—they attacked the Native Americans. In 1611, Jamestown's governor, Thomas Dale, was embarrassed to discover a number of settlers had run off to live with the Native Americans. His embarrassment turned to outrage when Powhatan refused to turn the men back over to him. So, Dale dispatched an armed patrol to the closest Native American village to punish the uncooperative Native Americans. The patrol killed about 15 Native Americans on the spot and took the chief's family prisoner, only to decide to drown them in the river on the way back to Jamestown.

    Powhatan responded somewhat incredulously to English attitudes. He reminded them frequently that all he had to do was leave. Without his corn, the English would never survive. And on occasion, he met English aggression with violence of his own.

    The Importance of Pocahontas

    In the midst of all this, Pocahontas served as something of a liaison. Only about 11 years old when the English arrived, she frequently carried food and messages from her father to the English fort—and struck up a friendship with the younger boys in the settlement. John Smith described her teaching the boys to turn cartwheels, and in more grand fashion, he characterized the child as a "nonpareil" in her "wit and spirit." 

    Over the first several years, when the two communities were separated by their conflicting perceptions of one another and while the leaders of the two communities jostled for position, Pocahontas appears to have provided something of a meeting ground—a youthful and hope-filled point of convergence for the two communities.

    It would be nice to say that the marriage of Pocahontas and Rolfe represented a flowering of the possibilities lying within her youthful innocence—but the true story was somewhat less romantic. Pocahontas met Rolfe while she was held captive in the camp in 1613. The "nonpareil" was taken prisoner by the English in order to secure the release of some settlers held by Powhatan—the settlers also demanded the return of some tools and weapons they claimed had been stolen. Held for over a year, Pocahontas was tutored in English and introduced to Christianity. 

    By 1614, the young bargaining chip had become far more valuable to the English as a symbol of the messianic possibilities of the colony, an example of the great good that England could achieve in America. And when Pocahontas was baptized in 1614, the English offered her up as their first real success in the New World—a triumph of civilized over primitive religion, and a demonstration of European superiority.

    In 1614, John Rolfe and Pocahontas—now renamed Rebecca—were married. In 1616, they traveled with their baby son, Thomas, to England, where the exotic but 'civilized' Native American princess fascinated the public. She was introduced to the king, and an engraving of Pocahontas was rushed into print. Dressed in English clothes, the image offered to a nation that had watched the colony struggle for years evidence of the grander possibilities of the Jamestown enterprise.

    In 1617, the Rolfe family left England. But soon after departing, Pocahontas, who may have contracted pneumonia or tuberculosis in England, died aboard ship. On both sides of the Atlantic, however, even in death, she seems to have inspired a certain rapprochement between the Native Americans and the English. 

    In London, a fund was established for building a mission to evangelize the Native Americans. Entrusted to Virginia Company Treasurer Edwyn Sandys, a narrowly conceived but well-intentioned effort was made to educate the Pamunkey children. When Native American parents resisted the suggestion that their children come alone as boarders in Jamestown in order to receive this education, entire families were invited to move into the town. And in 1621, an "Indian college" was built at Henrico—a symbol of the English colonists' ethnocentric but well intentioned ambitions.

    Good Intentions Go Up in Smoke

    Unfortunately, however, these efforts coincided with the discovery of tobacco and the explosion of Jamestown's economy. Settlers migrated to Jamestown in increasing numbers and, desperate for more land upon which to grow tobacco, they ignored pleas of Native Americans and colonial officials to respect the colony's boundaries. Opechancanough, Powhatan's brother and successor after the chief's death in 1618, watched anxiously as the colony grew. Then, in March 1622, he ordered a raid on Jamestown that killed 347 settlers—more than one-third of the colony's total population.

    Some town leaders may still have nursed visions of an integrated community, but land-hungry settlers tossed off all restraint in the years following Opechancanough's attack. English retaliatory raids killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, and forced the Pawmunkeys and the other tribes within the federation to retreat into the interior.

    In 1644, the Pamunkeys launched another attack on the growing Virginia colony. More than 500 colonists were killed before colonial forces organized by Governor William Berkeley suppressed the rebellion. The treaty Berkeley negotiated in 1646 forced the Native Americans to acknowledge boundaries deep in the interior, and they were forced to pay an annual tribute of twenty beaver pelts to the governor. In addition, Berkeley demanded that all Native American leaders be approved by him.

    Berkeley's Native American Policy

    Though Berkeley appeared dominant in his relations with Jamestown's Native American neighbors, his position was actually complex and somewhat precarious. While he was willing to crush Native American resistance when necessary, he was equally anxious to retain a friendly, pacified Native American presence on the colony's western edge. He believed that the Pamunkeys and their allies, once reduced to tribute paying client-tribes, would insulate the Virginia settlement from more dangerous Native American communities to the north. These "tribute tribes" also provided other services—for example, the colony paid them bounties to control the wolf population that threatened English livestock.

    In order to preserve this pacified presence, Berkeley was even willing to reduce English pressure on Native American lands. For years, he tried to get the Virginia assembly to substitute a land tax for a head tax. Berkeley realized that a tax on land would encourage land speculators to sell off the idle land they were holding. This would bring more land to the market and allow recently freed servants and new immigrants to avoid encroaching on Native American lands farther in the interior. But Virginia's assembly repeatedly resisted this proposal, no doubt because there were multiple land speculators among the legislators.

    And so, Berkeley's Native American policy was operating on borrowed time. While the preservation of a cooperative Native American presence on the colony's western border made a great deal of sense, Virginia's growing population placed the acquisition of land above all other considerations. So, despite Berkeley's efforts, his reasonable set of policies eventually gave way to the demands of the tobacco economy. 

    On the other side of the shifting colonial frontier, Native Americans began to question the value of a tributary status that didn't provide many compensatory guarantees. As a result, by 1670, frontier skirmishes had become common, and in 1675, one of these grew into a major confrontation known as Bacon's Rebellion.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...