Digital History

17th Century

Life in Early Virginia Previous Next
Digital History ID 3575



Early Virginia was a death trap. Of the first 3,000 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.

Lacking valuable minerals or other products in high demand, it appeared that Jamestown was an economic failure. After ten years, however, the colonists discovered that Virginia was an ideal place to cultivate tobacco, which had been recently introduced into Europe. Since tobacco production rapidly exhausted the soil of nutrients, the English began to acquire new lands along the James River, encroaching on Indian hunting grounds.

In 1622, Powhatan's successor, Opechcanough, tried to wipe out the English in a surprise attack. Two Indian converts to Christianity warned the English; still, 347 settlers, or about a third of the English colonists, died in the attack. Warfare persisted for ten years, followed by an uneasy peace. In 1644, Opechcanough launched a last, desperate attack. After about two years of warfare, in which some 500 colonists were killed, Opechcanough was captured and shot and the survivors of Powhatan's confederacy, now reduced to just 2,000, agreed to submit to English rule.

Raising tobacco required a large labor force. At first, it was not clear that this labor force would consist of enslaved Africans. Virginians experimented with a variety of labor sources, including Indian slaves, penal slaves, and white indentured servants. Convinced that England was overpopulated with vagabonds and paupers, the colonists imported surplus Englishmen to raise tobacco and to produce dyestuffs, potash, furs, and other goods that England had imported from other countries. Typically, young men or women in their late teens or twenties would sign a contract of indenture. In exchange for transportation to the New World, a servant would work for several years (usually four to seven) without wages.

The status of indentured servants in early Virginia and Maryland was not wholly dissimilar from slavery. Servants could be bought, sold, or leased. They could also be physically beaten for disobedience or running away. Unlike slaves, however, they were freed after their term of service expired, their children did not inherit their status, and they received a small cash payment of "freedom dues."

The English writer Daniel Defoe (1661?-1731) set part of his novel Moll Flanders (1683) in early Virginia. Defoe described the people who settled in Virginia in distinctly unflattering terms: There were convicts, who had been found guilty of felonies punishable by death, and there were those "brought over by masters of ships to be sold as servants. Such as we call them, my dear, but they are more properly called slaves."

George Alsop, an indentured servant in Maryland, echoed these sentiments in 1666. Servants "by hundreds of thousands" spent their lives "here and in Virginia, and elsewhere in planting that vile tobacco, which all vanishes into smoke, and is for the most part miserably abused." And, he went on, this "insatiable avarice must be fed and sustained by the bloody sweat of these poor slaves."

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