A Comparison between Britain`s North American Colonies

During the 17th century, England began to stretch out its tentacles and grab hold of the Americas. The latecomers established their colonies in two different regions along the eastern coast of North America. These regions were known as the Chesapeake and New England areas. As extensions of the British Empire, they all had a similar background and shared a common formative experience. However, Britain’s North American colonies were also fragmented and had very separate and unique identities. Their differences arose from the very reason why the settlers came to the New World and affected the colonies’ populations, social developments, and economies.

To begin with, the Chesapeake and New England colonies were founded for different purposes: the Virginia Colony of the Chesapeake was established as a business- venture, while Massachusetts of the New England colonies was founded for religious purposes. In the December of 1906, the London Company organized an expedition to establish a colony in Virginia and by 1907 the first English colony in the New World was founded and named Jamestown (Middleton, 52). Jamestown was settled by young, single men, “including some 35 gentlemen, an Anglican minister, a doctor, 40 soldiers, and a variety of artisans and laborers”(Middleton, 52). The men who settled Jamestown were predominately from poor, uneducated backgrounds with nothing to lose. They had high hopes of making a profit but instead, they were confronted with a chaotic, inhabitable landscape, uncertainty, violence, and a high mortality rate. During the first three years of Jamestown, 60 out of 600 men survived. In contrast, the Massachusetts Bay Colony from the northern colonies was founded for religious purposes. The immigrants consisted of “persons whose goals were religious rather than material” (Middleton, 81) and were largely Puritan separatists who sought religious freedom from the Church of England. Many people, including John Winthrop (the first governor of the colony), “believed that Armageddon was not far away” and in order to escape God’s wrath, they must leave England (Middleton, 82). Most of the settlers were skilled, literate, and arrived in family groups. They came to the New World in 1630 with a “sense of mission” and the desire to build a “godly community” around their congregation (Middleton, 84). The “Great Migration” brought over 21,000 people between 1630 and 1642 and led to the settlements stability (Davidson, 84).

As a result to the nature of these colonies’ motivations, the demographics differed enormously because they attracted different type of settlers. In the New England colonies, towns were made up of farm families and congregations. Devoutly religious families settled together in towns and created an ordered society and shaped a close-knit, family- orientated community. Since the Puritans came to the New World in family groups, the sex ratio was more balanced than it was in the Chesapeake. The life expectancy was higher and created more two- parent families and the “first” grandparents of the British colonies. New England had multi- generational, nuclear families that facilitated tradition and a common culture. The longer life- span helped establish stability and cohesion. Marriage was very important and the age for marriage lower, which led to a higher birth rate. Most couples had “large families with between five and seven children commonly surviving to adulthood” (Middleton, 98). After 1640, there was less migration to these colonies and they grew naturally through procreation.

However, family life was far less common in the Chesapeake colonies and the demographic experience was grueling. Life expectancy was not as long and only a minority of the settlers survived. For example, 80% of the settlers in Jamestown died within the first fifteen years of the settlement. The majority of the population was male and was defined by cheap labor. Sponsors and leaders recruited indentured servants to provide a cheap labor force in order to make a profit. Their aims were money- making and business- building, not community- building. There were very few families due to the unbalanced sex ratio and therefore a very low birth rate. During the 1630’s, there were only six males to every female and by 1700, there were five to every two. Death rates surpassed birth rates and almost half of the children that were born did not survive into adulthood. This high mortality rate led to the creation of sub- families and the development of an abnormal society that lacked stability. Life was fragile, short and rude. The colony was exploited and grew by immigration made up of indentured servants that were later replaced by African slaves.

Not only did their different motivations affect the British colonies’ demographics, but they also contributed to the creation of very diverse societies. The religious based colonies of New England promoted education and established schools. Girls and boys were required to learn in order to read the bible, thus the New England colonies had an almost 100% literacy rate. Their economy was based on fishing, shipbuilding and farming. Most communities were near the sea, thus many settlers could fish and “this activity led to a nascent shipbuilding industry” (Middleton, 99). However, farming was the most important occupation and “was of a subsistence nature” (Middleton, 99). Agrarian families worked on their own, small farms in order to feed themselves. Their “New England way” represented the agrarian way of life coupled with cultural and religious beliefs. On the other hand, the fortune- seeking colonies of the Chesapeake strived for economic gain and were characterized by the cash crop of tobacco. John Rolfe introduced the crop in 1612 and dispatched 20,000 pounds to England by 1617 (Middleton, 57). The business- orientated colonies neglected the establishment of schools and had a very high illiteracy rate. To manage the colony, laws were drafted that stipulated work hours and instituted harsh penalties. The code of laws established by the governor of Virginia around 1611, constituted the death penalty for anyone who disrespected the company (Middleton, 57). Martial law was also necessary due to the “poor caliber of most colonists” in this region (Middleton, 57). The economy revolved around the profitable tobacco industry, which paved the way for the slave industry when the price of indentured servants went up.

Although the New England and Chesapeake colonies were extreme opposites, they actually did have some similarities and shared a common experience. Both were at the outset of a new territory and were forced to figure out everyday things, such as how to get food, build shelter and how to exploit natural resources. The new society also demanded the establishment of new institutions, political structures, values, and roles. Colonists learned not to take things for granted and that nothing was determined. This New World offered the notion of “opportunity” for people to gain social and economic benefits. The distribution of wealth was much narrower, the social hierarchy was not as extensive, and the economy was more fluid. However, all these new societies were still colonial societies, which in turn gave them a sub- ordinate status to England and were fundamentally exploited. This colonial status limited their independence and restrained their commercial activities. Their economies were connected to the trans-Atlantic trade system, which facilitated their economic expansion. Yet, their economies were restricted by imperial policies. . The British colonies were also connected together by Protestantism and were militantly anti-Catholic. They were frequently caught up in warfare, either with other European rivals, the natives, or themselves. Militant Protestantism led them on a crusade to keep the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese from taking over their territory. Most of the colonies were faced with violent confrontations and fought wars against the Natives. They also encountered internal conflicts; the colonies in the Chesapeake dealt with corrupt governments, while the New England colonies suffered from religious divisions.

Overall, Britain’s 17th- century colonies all shared a common formative experience. However, there was no single Anglo- American experience in the New World. The colonies of the Chesapeake and New England areas were fragmented and unique. Their diverse regionalism sprouted from their motivations in founding and settling colonies in America. Their contrasting motives characterized their demographics, social developments, and economies.

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