Digital History

17th Century

English Colonization Begins Previous Next
Digital History ID 3574



During the early and mid-sixteenth century, the English tended to conceive of North America as a base for piracy and harassment of the Spanish. But by the end of the century, the English began to think more seriously about North America as a place to colonize: as a market for English goods and a source of raw materials and commodities such as furs. English promoters claimed that New World colonization offered England many advantages. Not only would it serve as a bulwark against Catholic Spain, it would supply England with raw materials and provide a market for finished products. America would also provide a place to send the English poor and ensure that they would contribute to the nation's wealth.

During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the English poor increased rapidly in number. As a result of the enclosure of traditional common lands (which were increasingly used to raise sheep), many common people were forced to become wage laborers or else to support themselves hand-to-mouth or simply as beggars.

After unsuccessful attempts to establish settlements in Newfoundland and at Roanoke, the famous "Lost Colony," off the coast of present-day North Carolina, England established its first permanent North American settlement, Jamestown, in 1607. Located in swampy marshlands along Virginia's James River, Jamestown's residents suffered horrendous mortality rates during its first years. Immigrants had just a fifty-fifty chance of surviving five years.

The Jamestown expedition was financed by the Virginia Company of London, which believed that precious metals were to be found in the area. From the outset, however, Jamestown suffered from disease and conflict with Indians. Approximately 30,000 Algonquian Indians lived in the region, divided into about 40 tribes. About 30 tribes belonged to a confederacy led by Powhatan.

Food was an initial source of conflict. More interested in finding gold and silver than in farming, Jamestown's residents (many of whom were either aristocrats or their servants) were unable or unwilling to work. When the English began to seize Indian food stocks, Powhatan cut off supplies, forcing the colonists to subsist on frogs, snakes, and even decaying corpses.

Captain John Smith (1580?-1631) was twenty-six years old when the first expedition landed. A farmer's son, Smith had already led an adventurous life before arriving in Virginia. He had fought with the Dutch army against the Spanish and in eastern Europe against the Ottoman Turks, when he was taken captive and enslaved. He later escaped to Russia before returning to England.

Smith, serving as president of the Jamestown colony from 1608 to 1609, required the colonists to work and traded with the Indians for food. In 1609, after being wounded in a gunpowder accident, Smith returned to England. After his departure, conflict between the English and the Powhatan confederacy intensified, especially after the colonists began to clear land in order to plant tobacco.

In a volume recounting the history of the English colony in Virginia, Smith describes a famous incident in which Powhatan's 12-year-old daughter, Pocahontas (1595?-1617), saved him from execution. Although some have questioned whether this incident took place (since Smith failed to mention it in his Historie's first edition), it may well have been a "staged event," an elaborate adoption ceremony by which Powhatan symbolically made Smith his vassal or servant. Through similar ceremonies, the Powhatan people incorporated outsiders into their society. Pocahontas reappears in the colonial records in 1613, when she was lured aboard an English ship and held captive. Negotiations for her release failed, and in 1614, she married John Rolfe, the colonist who introduced tobacco to Virginia. Whether this marriage represented an attempt to forge an alliance between the English and the Powhatan remains uncertain.

Copyright 2016 Digital History