Chapter 2 New World Experiments: England's Seventeenth-Century Colonies

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CHAPTER 2 New World Experiments: England's Seventeenth-Century Colonies


This chapter discusses briefly the English colonies established in the seventeenth century. Its theme is the diversity of religious practices, political institutions and economic arrangements that characterized the English empire in America.


The English came to America for different reasons and with different backgrounds. Some wanted an opportunity to worship God in their own way; others wanted land. Some came in the early part of the century when England was relatively stable; others came at the end of the century after England had experienced a civil war. In America, the colonists had to adjust to different environments. The result was the development of different subcultures: the Chesapeake, New England, the Middle Colonies and the Carolinas.


The English colonized the Chesapeake because they believed they could obtain instant profits. These dreams faded, but left behind the colony of Virginia, England's first successful effort in America.

A. Entrepreneurs in Virginia

The London Company settled a colony at Jamestown in 1607 that met immediate disaster. The location in a swamp had been a mistake, but even worse was the failure of the colonists to work together for the common good.

B. Spinning Out of Control

Captain John Smith, a tough professional soldier, saved the colonists by imposing order. The London Company helped, too, by reorganizing the government of the colony and by investing more money in the enterprise. Even so, Jamestown was actually abandoned for a few days in 1610 and was saved only by the coincidental arrival of a new shipload of colonists.

C. "Stinking Weed"

Tobacco had been growing as a common weed in the streets of Jamestown before John Rolfe recognized its value. He improved its quality and found a market for it in England. Finally, Virginians had discovered the way to wealth. The London Company, under Sir Edwin Sandys, encouraged

large-scale immigration to Virginia by offering "headrights," a grant of land given to those who paid for the cost of immigration and by giving the colonists a form of self-government in an elected body called the House of Burgesses.

D. Time of Reckoning

After 1619, a rush of immigrants arrived in Virginia; few, however, survived for long. It was impossible to establish a normal family life because men outnumbered women by about six to one. The colony, therefore, could not count on a natural increase in its population. Disease and Indian attacks continued to take their toll, especially the sudden outbursts of violence in 1622 that almost wiped out the colony. Virginia remained a place to make a quick fortune and then leave before becoming one of the mortality statistics.

E. Corruption and Reform

As the colonists died in large numbers, the London Company sank into mismanagement and corruption. In 1624, King James I dissolved the London Company and made Virginia a royal colony. Despite this change, life in Virginia went on as before. The House of Burgesses continued to meet because it had become so useful to the ambitious and successful tobacco planters who dominated Virginian life. The character of daily life also remained unchanged. A high death rate, a feeling of living on borrowed time, and the constant grabbing of Indian lands so that more and more to­bacco could be grown were the themes of early Virginia history.

F. Maryland: A Troubled Refuge for Catholics

The founding of Maryland resulted from the efforts of George Calvert to find a place of refuge for his fellow English Catholics. After his death, his son, Cecilius (Lord Baltimore), received a charter to settle Maryland in 1632. He expected that he would govern the colony along with a few of his wealthy Catholic friends, but he knew that most of the immigrants who would come from England would be Protestant. He therefore issued a law requiring Christians to tolerate one another.

Lord Baltimore failed to create the society he wanted. His wealthy friends were unwilling to relocate to America, and the common settlers in Maryland demanded a greater voice in the government. Above all, religious intolerance wrecked Baltimore's plans. Protestants refused to tolerate Catholics, and the Protestants were strong enough to rise up in arms and seize control of the colony in 1655. Maryland's early history differed from Virginia's, but aggressive individualism, an absence of public spirit, and an economy based on tobacco characterized both colonies.


Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were the most important of the New England colonies. Plymouth was settled by the Pilgrims, a group of Separatists who refused to worship in the Church of England and who had fled to Holland to escape persecution. As they saw their children grow more Dutch than English, the Pilgrims decided to leave Holland for the new English colony of Virginia. They landed instead at Cape Cod and remained there. Led by William Bradford and helped by friendly Indian neighbors, the Pilgrims survived and created a society of small farming villages bound together by mutual consent (the Mayflower Compact). The colony, however, attracted few immigrants, and Plymouth was eventually absorbed into Massachusetts Bay.

A. "The Great Migration"

The second colony planted in New England was Massachusetts Bay, the home of the Puritans. The Puritans often have been caricatured as neurotics and prudes; in fact, they were men and women committed to changing the major institution of their society. Unlike the Separatists, the Puritans wished to remain within the Church of England, but they wanted the Church to give up all remaining vestiges of her Roman Catholic past. Puritans were also intensely nationalistic and desired a foreign policy that would align England with the Protestant states of Europe. They hoped to accomplish their goals by working within the system, but when King Charles I decided to rule the country without consulting with Parliament, the Puritans despaired. Some of them, led by John Winthrop, decided to establish a better society in America. The Massachusetts Bay Company was formed, and Charles, thinking the company no different from other joint-stock companies, granted it a charter in 1629. Ordinarily, the company should have kept its headquarters in England, where the king could supervise it, but the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Company secretly agreed to bring the charter with them to America.

B. "A City on a Hill"

The Winthrop fleet established settlements around Boston in 1630. The first settlers were joined within a year by two thousand more, and the Bay Colony enjoyed a steady stream of immigration during its first decade. Because the settlers usually came as family units, because the area was generally healthy, and because most of the Puritan colonists were willing to sacrifice self-interest for the good of the community, Massachusetts Bay avoided the misery that had characterized colonization in the Chesapeake.

Puritans proved to be pragmatic and inventive in creating social institutions. They had no intention of separating from the Church of England, but immediately dispensed with those features of the Church they found objectionable. The result was Congregationalism, a system that stressed simplicity and in which each congregation was independent.

Puritans created a civil government that was neither democratic nor theo­cratic. A larger proportion of adult males could vote in Massachusetts Bay than in England because the only requirement for voting was a spiritual one. If a man was "born again" he became a "freeman," or voter, whether he owned property or not. The rulers of the Bay Colony were not democratic in our sense, however; they did not believe that elected officials should concern themselves with the wishes of those who had elected them. On the local level, Puritans created almost completely autonomous towns, and it was on this level that most men participated in public life. Village life was intensely communal even though townships were commercial properties, shares of which could be bought and sold.

C. Limits of Religious Dissent

In order to protect individual rights and to clarify the responsibilities of citizenship, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay issued the ^ Laws and Liberties of 1648. This code of law marked the Puritans' considerable progress in establishing a stable society.

Not everyone was happy in Massachusetts Bay. The two most important dissidents were Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Williams, an extreme Separatist, condemned all civil states, even one governed by Puritans. He was expelled and settled in Rhode Island. Anne Hutchinson believed she was directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that once a person was "born again" he or she need not obey man-made laws (Antinomianism). Because of her religious ideas and because an assertive woman threatened patriarchal authority, she too was expelled and went to Rhode Island.

D. Mobility and Division

Massachusetts Bay spawned four other colonies: New Hampshire, New Haven, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Of them, New Hampshire remained too small to be significant in the seventeenth century, and New Haven became part of Connecticut. Rhode Island received the Bay Colony's outcasts (religious dissenters and Quakers for the most part), who continued to make as much trouble in Roger Williams' colony as they had in John Winthrop's. Connecticut, a well-populated colony that owed its first settlement to Thomas Hooker, duplicated the institutions and way of life of its mother colony.


No section of the English empire was more diverse in its history, its ethnic and religious pluralism, or its political institutions than the Middle Colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

A. Anglo-Dutch Rivalry on the Hudson

The Dutch settled New York after the voyages of Henry Hudson. The colony became the property of the Dutch West Indies Company, which gave New York little attention and sent incompetent officials. New York was Dutch in little more than ownership. Few immigrants came from Holland, so the Dutch population remained small. Even so, it was polyglot. Finns, Swedes, Germans and Africans made up sizable minorities in the colony, and these people felt no loyalty to the Dutch West Indies Company. When England sent a fleet to take New York in 1664, the colony fell without a shot being fired.

New York became the personal property of James, Duke of York (later King James II). His colony included New Jersey, Delaware and Maine, as well as various islands. James attempted to rule this vast domain without allowing its inhabitants a political voice beyond the local level, but he derived little profit from the colony.

B. Confusion in New Jersey

New Jersey has an especially complex history. It first belonged to the Duke of York, but he sold it to two friends, Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret. When these Proprietors found how difficult it was to collect rents, Berkeley sold his interest to a group of Quakers, a deal that made it necessary to split the colony in two. The Quakers introduced a democratic system of government into West New Jersey, but both halves of the colony were marked by contention, and neither half prospered.


Pennsylvania, the most important of the Middle Colonies, owed its settlement to the rise of a religious group, the Quakers, or Society of Friends, that was formed by George Fox in England in the 1650s.

A. Quaker Beliefs and Practices

Quakers believed that each man and woman could communicate directly with God. They rejected the idea of original sin and predestination, and cultivated an "Inner Light" that they believed all people possessed. English authorities considered Quakers to be dangerous anarchists and persecuted them.

B. Penn's "Holy Experiment"

William Penn, the son of an admiral and a wealthy aristocrat, converted to the Society of Friends and became one of their leaders. He used his contacts to obtain a charter for Pennsylvania, which he intended to settle as a "Holy Experiment," a society run on Quaker principles. In 1682, Penn announced

a plan of government for Pennsylvania that contained some traditional fea­tures and some advanced features. Nearly all political power would be held by men of great wealth, but an elaborate system was designed to protect the rights of those without political or economic power. The scheme, however, proved too complicated to work.

C. Settling Pennsylvania

Penn successfully recruited immigrants from England, Wales, Ireland and Germany, and Pennsylvania grew rapidly in population. Many of these immigrants were not Quakers, however, and felt no sense of obligation to make the "Holy Experiment" work. Even the Quakers in Pennsylvania fought among themselves, and the people of Delaware, after Penn bought the colony from the Duke of York, preferred to rule themselves. In 1701 he gave in to the complaints of his colonists and granted them a large measure of self-rule. He also gave Delaware her independence. Even though Penn owned a colony that was becoming rich by selling wheat to the West Indies, it did him no good. Penn at one time suffered the humiliation of being locked up in a debtor's prison.


Carolina differed so much from the Chesapeake Colonies that it would be wrong to speak of the existence of "the South" in the seventeenth century.

A. Proprietors of the Carolinas

King Charles II granted Carolina in 1663 to eight friends and political allies who expected to sit back and collect rents as the colony filled up. Unfortunately for them, nobody went to Carolina.

B. The Barbadian Connection

One of the colony's proprietors, Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper (the Earl of Shaftesbury), realized that a more active search for immigrants had to be made. He and John Locke, the famous philosopher, concocted a plan of government that would have given most power to an hereditary elite while at the same time protecting the rights of the small landowners. He also encouraged planters in Barbados, who were being crowded off the island, to take up land in Carolina. Cooper was somewhat successful. A string of settlements grew up around Charleston, but Cooper's plan of government failed. The Barbadians, who dominated early Carolina, wanted as much self-government as they had enjoyed in Barbados. The Barbadians, in turn, were opposed by French Huguenot settlers, who felt loyal to the proprietors. Carolina became a colony in turmoil. In 1729 the Crown took over Carolina and divided it into two colonies.


Georgia was founded in 1732 as a buffer to safeguard the Carolinas from the Spanish in Florida. Although conceived by James Oglethorpe as a refuge for persons imprisoned for debt in England, Georgia attracted few immigrants. By

1751, it had become a small slave colony, much like South Carolina. VIII. ^ CONCLUSION: LIVING WITH DIVERSITY

All of the colonies struggled for survival in their first phase, but as they developed, distinct regional differences intensified and persisted throughout the colonial period and even during the struggle for independence. Nevertheless, the colonists

eventually saw themselves as a distinct people, a phenomenon that historians have to explain.


After mastering this chapter, you students should be able to:

1. List the problems in England that were motives for emigration.

2. Discuss the corporate problems involved in the settlement of Virginia.

3. Show the importance of tobacco plantations in the social, economic, and political life of the colony of Virginia.

4. Narrate the story of the founding and settlement of Maryland, focusing on its role for Catholics.

5. Describe the impact of the Quakers on the settlement of the Middle Colonies.

6. Describe the type of society William Penn tried to create in his "Holy Experiment."

7. Compare the motives for colonizing Georgia with those for colonizing the other colonies.

8. Discuss the problems of dissent in the Massachusetts Bay Colonies.


  • Create a United Colonial Assembly in which each colony is represented. Have each colony present different issues and try to come up with a consensus solution. Or try to have the assembly create an Official Colonial Religion. Students will need outside research on their Colonies issues and religions.

  • Carry out a Salem Witch Trial.

  • Have a real Thanksgiving Feast, based on research of the foods that probably would have been available to the settlers at that particular time of year.

  • Divide the class into fourteen teams. Have each team be the Travel Advisory Board for each colony and one as a United Colonies Board. Have them come up with an advertising and marketing scheme to include multimedia and print materials promoting vacationing in the colonies.

  • For test review, have students create a crossword puzzle or word find using Chapter Two key terms.


1. Comment on the role Calvinism played in the early history of America.

2. To what extent did environment determine the culture of the colonies?

3. Although seeking religious freedom, the Puritan leaders were religious bigots. Why?

4. What were some of the roles of women in the English colonies? What challenges did they face? 5. What motives explain the development of representative assemblies in the various colonies?

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