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BIG IDEA: The English developed their first colony in America at Jamestown. It was a business venture that nearly failed until the colonists discovered that they could grow and export tobacco.

Although the land that is now the United States was occupied by Native Americans, and settled by Europeans, Africans, and Asians from many places, the United States as a nation has its roots in settlement from England. The English were late arrivals in America. The Spanish and French had already established colonies in the Americas and had been there for more than 100 years before the arrival of the first English colonizers.

Spain had been the most powerful nation in Europe for many years due in large part to the riches discovered in the Americas. However, when the Spanish tried to invade England, her giant navy was sunk in a storm and defeated in battle. It was an important turning point in European and American history.

The English started attacking Spanish ships carrying gold, silver, and other treasure from America back to Europe. Many of these attackers were privateers who later helped found the first English settlements in America.

The first English settlement in America was at Roanoke, but it failed. No one knows exactly what happened to the settlers since they all disappeared.

English businessmen pooled their resources to form joint-stock companies to share in the cost and risk of investing in America. The first such company paid for the establishment of Jamestown in Virginia.

Jamestown was a failure in the beginning.  The settlers did not know how to farm so they starved.  Only with help from the local Native Americans did some settlers survive.  However, they discovered that they could grow tobacco, which they could sell back in Europe.  Tobacco made Jamestown and the surrounding Chesapeake Bay region profitable.

The area around Jamestown was settled by the Powhatan Native American people. They had a tense relationship with the English settlers. Sometimes they helped the settlers, but when the English took Native lands they went to war.

An important tradition established in the Chesapeake Bay region was the House of Burgesses. Neither England nor Virginia were democracies since the poor had little influence in both societies. However, the wealthy plantation owners in Virginia meet regularly to make laws for their colony. This House of Burgesses helped establish a tradition of self-rule that the colonists were willing to fight for in the 1770s.


BIG IDEA: Slavery was a part of the English colonial experience in America from nearly the very beginning. Over time chattel slavery replaced indentured servants as the primary source of labor in the American South.

Much of the work done in the British colonies was first done by indentured servants. These poor people from Great Britain could not afford to pay for passage to America. Someone in America paid it for them in exchange for a set number of years of work. This system of indenture had some problems. Wealthy people who paid for the passage of others were rewarded with land, a practice that made the rich richer. Another problem was that the indentured servants could run away and blend in with other settlers since they were White.

Slavery was not an English invention. The Spanish and Portuguese had been using African slaves for many years. The first African slaves in the English colonies were probably brought from the Caribbean Islands rather than directly from Africa.

Eventually, slaves were brought directly from Africa to the Southern Colonies. Compared to life in Brazil or the Caribbean Islands, life for slaves was better in America. American slaves lived long enough to have children, which led to a natural increase in the slave population. This meant that the importation of slaves died out in America in the 1800s.

Merchants made a lot of money buying and selling slaves. They were an important part of the Triangle Trade. Slaves were purchased in Africa and brought to the Americas. Sugar, tobacco, cotton and other raw materials were loaded onto the ships in America and taken back to Europe. In Europe the ships were reloaded with finished products like furniture and guns, which were shipped off to Africa.

Of course, the voyage between Africa and America for slaves was terrible and deadly. About 15% of all slaves died before reaching land. Slavery and the slave trade were not only European practices. Many Africans participated by capturing other Africans to sell to the Europeans along the coast.

In time, slaves were seen as property the same as horses or wagons. Strict laws, or codes, were passed throughout the colonies defining the various rights slaves did not have and restricting aspects of their lives. Some slaves resisted, but these rebellions were always stopped, and resulted in the passage of more strict slave codes.

In the colonies, owning slaves became an important symbol of status for Whites. Only a few wealthy Whites actually owned slaves. In the Chesapeake Region (VA, NC, DE, MD) slaves worked on plantations growing tobacco. In the Deep South (SC, GA) slaves worked on plantations growing rice, sugar and eventually cotton.

The most socially segregated society was in South Carolina, which had been founded by Englishmen from the Caribbean island of Barbados. Slaves outnumbered Whites in both colonies.

There were slaves in the Northern Colonies, however, over time the total number diminished as the North turned toward industry.


BIG IDEA: New England was settled by religious dissenters who wanted to create a new life for their families far from the control of the English church leaders. They created a society based on religion and towns rather than wealth and cash crop exports.

In England, everyone had to belong to the official Church of England which was led by the king or queen. Some did not like this. They either wanted to purify the church or separate from the church. Both groups caused problems for the government, so they were encouraged to leave.

Plymouth was founded by separatists called Pilgrims. They arrived on the Mayflower. They were a small group but set an important precedent in America by agreeing to the Mayflower Compact and holding elections for community leaders.

The Plymouth Colony would have failed if it were not for the help of local Native Americans. The tradition of holding a Thanksgiving feast comes from this colony.

A much larger group came to nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony. They were Puritans rather than separatists. They believed in a covenant with God. They thought that if they were good Christians, God would reward them and make their colony prosper. They also believed their colony would be an example of a pure society on earth that everyone else could copy. They referred to it as a city upon a hill. These are still important ideas in American myth. Many thousands of Puritans came over time and eventually the Plymouth Colony was absorbed into Massachusetts.

Puritans were strict. Everyone had to follow the colony’s rules, which included attending church. They believed strongly in education because they wanted people to be able to read the Bible. They founded Harvard and Yale Universities to train new ministers.

New England was not settled as a business like Jamestown. New England was made up of towns with families instead of plantations with single owners and slaves. New Englanders exported fish, lumber, built ships and traded.


BIG IDEA: New England was not a universally happy place. There were conflicts among colonists about religious doctrine and with their Native American neighbors.

Not everyone in New England agreed with the teachings of the Puritan Church. Anne Hutchinson did not believe in predestination. Roger Williams thought that the church and government should be separate. He also thought taking lands from Native Americans without payment was wrong. Both Hutchinson and Williams were expelled from Massachusetts and founded Rhode Island.

Thomas Hooker thought that voting should not be restricted to members of the church. He left to found Connecticut. A second settlement in Connecticut created the first written constitution for government in America.

Although the early New England settlements had benefited from help from local Native Americans, things went badly as time went by. English settlers took Native lands and eventually the Native Americans in the area banded together and made war on the English. King Philip’s War was long and bloody. The Native Americans burned farms, kidnapped English settlers and especially killed livestock. Mary Rowlandson’s memoir of her time in captivity became the first American bestseller. Eventually the Native Americans lost. The war had a strong effect on the way English settlers viewed Native Americans.

Interaction with the English had an effect on daily Native American life. Metal tools, especially guns, were important and made war between Native American groups more deadly. Also, English and French traders wanted to buy beaver fur to sell back in Europe which led to a change in Native economies. Instead of hunting for subsistence, many Native Americans focused more attention on capturing beaver for export.

A famous episode in American history were the witch trials that happened in the town of Salem in Massachusetts. A group of girls were accused of being witches. They could save themselves by naming other witches, which led to many accusations. The entire episode helps us understand the limitations of science at the time as well as the power of the church and weakness of women in colonial New England society.

By the 1700s, the power of the church was weakening in New England. Then a revival of interest in religion spread. Beginning back in England, the First Great Awakening spread through America as travelling ministers gave exciting sermons. One result was an increase in church membership and participation. Another effect was the beginning of new Christian denominations such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists.


BIG IDEA: Between New England and the Chesapeake colonies that grew up around Jamestown, there were a variety of other English colonies. These were often more focused on trade and more tolerant of differences. In the interior, non-English groups settled who also left their mark on the nation.

New York was first founded by settlers from the Netherlands. They came to trade for beaver. Like the English colonies in the Chesapeake and Deep South, they had a society with a rigid social hierarchy. However, the Dutch were traders and people from many countries came to New Amsterdam. The Dutch were not in America for long. When the English took control of the colony they renamed it New York, but the cosmopolitan, pluralistic, trading-based tradition lives on.

Pennsylvania was also founded as a colony for religious dissidents from England. The Quakers were a group who believed in pacifism and equality. They were persecuted in England but William Penn, a wealthy Quaker obtained land from the king as a refuge for his fellow Quakers. They founded the town of Philadelphia, treated Native Americans with respect, and guaranteed religious freedom for residents of their colony. Pennsylvania played an important role in later years as a meeting place between North and South with its tradition of openness. The Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia to write the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

During the colonial era, the most famous American was Benjamin Franklin. He was an author, publisher, and scientist who made his home in Pennsylvania.

Maryland was founded as a haven for Catholics who were persecuted in England. Although it was founded as a home for a particular religious group, like Pennsylvania, it offered religious freedom for all people. Maryland is next door to Virginia and developed a slave and tobacco-based economy like its larger neighbor.

Georgia was first founded as a home for poor people back in England who were in debtor’s prison. Over time, George came to resemble South Carolina in its social structure and economy.

While English settlers dominated the coastal regions of America and the government of the colonies, other groups also made the trip across the Atlantic. German settlers and Scotch-Irish avoided the coasts and moved inland, making their home in the Appalachian Mountains. These people were fiercely independent, distrustful of the wealthy and those in government, and have left an enduring mark on American culture in states such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and to a lesser degree on their neighbors.

In fact, historian Colin Woodward argues that much for American life is influenced by the people who first settled the 13 Colonies.  New Englanders operate with a collective mindset and trust in government.  Southerners by contrast are more distrusting of government and are more comfortable with a greater degree of difference between social classes.  The descendants of the Scotch-Irish, and the tolerant settlers of Pennsylvania form a boundary in the middle.