Digital History

17th Century

Regional Contrasts Previous Next
Digital History ID 3580



There were 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.

Compared to the Southeast, it was much more difficult for native peoples of New England to resist the encroaching English colonists. For one thing, the Northeast was much less densely populated. Epidemic diseases introduced by European fishermen and fur traders reduced the population of New England's coastal Indians about 90 percent by the early 1620s. Further, this area was fragmented politically into autonomous villages with a long history of bitter tribal rivalries. Such factors allowed the Puritans to expand rapidly across New England.

Some groups, notably the Massachusetts, whose number had fallen from about 20,000 to just 750 in 1631, allied with the Puritans and agreed to convert to Christianity in exchange for military protection. But the migration of Puritan colonists into western Massachusetts and Connecticut during the 1630s provoked bitter warfare, especially with the Pequots, the area's most powerful people. In 1636, English settlers accused a Pequot of attacking ships and murdering several sailors; in revenge, they burned a Pequot settlement on what is now Block Island, Rhode Island. Pequot raids left about 30 colonists dead. A combined force of Puritans and Narragansett and Mohegan Indians retaliated by surrounding and setting fire to the main Pequot village on the Mystic River.

In his History of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford described the destruction by fire of the Pequot's major village, in which at least 300 Indians were burned to death: "Those that escaped from the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run threw with their rapiers [swords]....It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same." The survivors were enslaved and shipped to the Caribbean. Altogether about 800 of 3,500 Pequot were killed during the Pequot War. In his epic novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville names his doomed whaling ship "The Pequod," a clear reference to earlier events in New England.

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