Life in Early Virginia
Digital History ID 73
Early Virginia was a death trap. Of the first 3000 immigrants, all but 600 were dead within a few years of arrival. Virginia was a society in which life was short, diseases ran rampant, and parentless children and multiple marriages were the norm.
In sharp contrast to New England, which was settled mainly by families, most of the settlers of Virginia and neighboring Maryland were single men bound in servitude. Before the colonies turned decisively to slavery in the late seventeenth century, planters relied on white indentured servants from England, Ireland, and Scotland. They wanted men, not women. During the early and mid-seventeenth century, as many as four men arrived for every woman.
Why did large numbers of people come to such an unhealthful region? To raise tobacco, which had been introduced into England in the late sixteenth century. Like a number of other consumer products introduced during the early modern era--like tea, coffee, and chocolate--tobacco was related to the development of new work patterns and new forms of sociability. Tobacco appeared to relieve boredom and stress and to enhance peoples' ability to concentrate over prolonged periods of time. Tobacco production required a large labor force, which initially consisted primarily of white indentured servants, who received transportation to Virginia in exchange for a four to seven-year term of service.
In one of the earliest surviving letters from colonial Virginia, Sebastian Brandt (fl. 1600-1625?), an early settler, casually describes the extent of mortality in the colony. He also shows that the search for precious metals persisted even after the colonists had begun to raise tobacco.
Well beloved good friend Henry Hovener
My comendations remembered, I heartily wish your welfare for God be thanked I am now in good health, but my brother and my wife are dead about a year past. And touching the business that I came hither is nothing yet performed, by reason of my sickness and weakness I was not able to travel up and down the hills and dales of these countries but do now intend every day to walk up and downe the hills for good Mineralls here is both golde silver and copper to be had and therefore I will doe my endeavour by the grace of God to effect what I am able to perform.... It may please the aforesaid Company to send me...two little runletts of wine and vinegar some spice and sugar to comfort us here in our sickness.... And whatsoever this all costeth I will not only w[i]th my most humble service but also w[i]th some good Tobacco, Beaver, and Otterskins and other commodities here to be had recompence the Company for the same.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: Sebastian Brandt to Henry Hovener
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