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Regional Contrasts
Digital History ID 75

Author:   and Thomas Culpepper


In 1680, Thomas Culpepper (1635-1689), the Royal Governor of Virginia, travelled to Boston. On his way, he suffered a near-shipwreck and then had to walk through the Massachusetts wilds. Later, unhappy in Virginia, he left his post to live with his mistress in London. Due to his absenteeism he was removed from the governorship.

Culpepper's letter suggests significant demographic and economic contrasts between the Chesapeake region and New England. Because of its cold winters and low population density, seventeenth-century New England was perhaps the most healthful region in the world. After an initial period of high mortality, life expectancy quickly rose to levels comparable to our own. Men and women, on average, lived about 65 to 70 years, 15 to 20 years longer than in England. One result was that seventeenth-century New England was the first society in history in which grandparents were common.

Descended largely from families that arrived during the 1630s, New England was a relatively stable society settled in compact towns and villages. It never developed any staple crop for export of any consequence, and about 90 to 95 percent of the population was engaged in subsistence farming.

The further south one looks, however, the higher the death rate and the more unbalanced the sex ratio. In New England, men outnumbered women about 3 to 2 in the first generation. But in New Netherlands there were two men for every woman and the ratio was six to one in the Chesapeake. Where New England's population became self-sustaining as early as the 1630s, New Jersey and Pennsylvania did not achieve this until the 1660s to the 1680s, and Virginia until after 1700. Compared to New England, Virginia was a much more mobile and unruly society.

In his letter, Culpepper alludes to Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, when friction between backcountry farmers, landless former indentured servants, and coastal planters in Virginia exploded in violence. Convinced that Virginia's colonial government had failed adequately to protect them against Indians, backcountry rebels, led by Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy landowner, burned the capital at Jamestown, plundered their enemy's plantations, and offered freedom to any indentured servants who joined them. In the midst of the revolt, Bacon died of dysentery. Without his leadership, the uprising collapsed, but fear of servant unrest encouraged planters to replace white indentured servants with black slaves, set apart by a distinctive skin color. In 1660, there were fewer than a thousand slaves in Virginia and Maryland. But during the 1680s, their number tripled, rising from about 4500 to 12,000.


I suppose it will not be unacceptable to you to hear from me and therefore I write this not[e] only to let you know that I am here. But that both my self and all with me are perfectly well, and that on the 10th Day of August that I left Virginia, every individual person that came over with me in the Oxford (soldiers as well as servants) were so too, except only Mr Jones, who had been very sick of the seasoning (though occassion'd first by drinking) but was on the mending hand also.... I was received here with all the militia viz. (twelve companies) in arms and have been highly treated beyond my expectation or desert. I am lodged to my wish, and find no difference between this place, and old England but only want of Company. I have not been sick one day since I saw you (w[hi]ch was more than I could say last summer.) Nor since taken any kind of physick, but for prevention of acute diseases have been twice let Blood and now and then fasted at nights. The last time of my bleeding was here the 10th Instant w[hi]ch I shall remember a good while for going out some time after though I was very well let blood, yet my arm being ill fixed, the orifice burst out bleeding afresh, w[hi]ch I did not so soon perceive but that I lost at Least 7 or 8 ounces of Blood, before I could have help to remedy it, but I verily believe it will prove to be the better for me. Besides this small accident, I have had nothing memorable during my whole voyage but the great danger I escaped on the 22th August (being Sunday) about 2 in the morning in coming hither that our ship run aground in unknown shoals with a great gust of wind, and lay beating two or three houres in a night as dark as a pit five miles from any land and every minute or rather knock, expecting our last doom, and that she would bulge and break in pieces but we being but on the tail of the land, and deep water to the leeward of us, the strength of the wind made us bear it over, and when we absolutely despaired of any help but our long boat, w[hi]ch could hardly have lived with six persons in that rough sea, when we were four and twenty, we found our selves afloat again miraculously I think verily. The owner of the ship was Mr Jarvis (that married our Cousin Nat Bacon the rebels Widow)...and conclude my direction under God Almighty was our preservat[i]on. I was resolved to stay no longer aboard but made my self be set on shore next morning (though on an unknown shore and not without some danger of drowning also) with J Polyn and The Cook, each of us with a gun, w[hi]ch proved to be 130 or 140 miles from hence. [T]hat day we walked in the woods amongst wild beasts, and more savage Indians at least 20 miles, when expecting to die in the woods or worse, we met an Englishman, who brought us to his cottage, and the next morning showed us the way to Sandwich (a small English Village in this country) where we were furnished with horses and a guide that with much adieu, through uncouth places, brought us hither at last, but our ship (in w[hi]ch was all my plate, goods, and furniture to a considerable value) did not arrive here till 10 dayes after us.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Thomas Culpepper to his sister

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