The Peopling of America

Printable Version

Digital History ID 3790

Interpreting Primary Sources

Reading 1:

So lamentable was our scarcity that we were constrained to eat dogs, cats, rats, snakes, toadstools, horsehides, and what not. One man out of the misery he endured, killing his wife, powdered her up to eat her, for which he was burned. Many besides fed on the corpses of dead men, and one who had gotten insatiable out of custom to that food could not be restrained until such time as he was executed for it.

Journals of the Virginia House of Burgesses, 1624, on life in Virginia during the Starving Times

Reading 2:

Since I came out of the ship, I never ate anything but peas, and loblollie (that is water gruel) as for deer or venison I never saw any since I came into this land, there is indeed some fowl, but we are not allowed to go, and get it, but must work hard both early, and later for a mess of water gruel, and a mouthful of bread, and beef, a mouthful of bread for a penny loaf must serve for 4 men....

Richard Frethorne, 1623

Reading 3:

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship which was then riding at anchor and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew, and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions too, differing so much from ours, their long hair and the language they spoke (which was very different from any I had ever heard) united to confirm me in this belief. Indeed such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country. When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace or copper boiling and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted my fate; and quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted....

I was not long suffered to indulge in my grief; I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that the loathesomeness of the stench and crowding together I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; soon to my grief, two of the white men offered eatables, and on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands and laid me across the windlass, and tied my feet while the other flogged me severely.

In a little time after, amongst the poor chained men I found some of my own nation which in a small degree gave ease to my mind. I inquired of these what was to be done with us; they gave us to understand we were to be carried to these white people's country to work for them....The white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among my people such instances of brutal cruelty, and this not only shown toward us blacks but also to some of the whites themselves. One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast that he died in consequence of it; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute....

Olaudah Equiano, a slave, 1793

Reading 4:

When the ships have for the last time weighed their anchors in England, the real misery begins with the long voyage. For from there the ships, unless they have good wind, must often sail eight, nine, ten or twelve weeks before they reach Philadelphia....But during the voyage there is on board these ships terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, vomiting, many kinds of seasickness, fever, headache, heat, boils, constipation, scurvy, cancer, mouth rot, and the like, all of which come from old and sharply-salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water, so that many die miserably....

Among the healthy, impatience sometimes grows so great and cruel that one curses the other, or himself and the day of his birth and sometimes come near killing each other....Few women who give birth to children on the ship escape with their lives and many a mother is cast into the water with her child as soon as she is dead. Children from one to seven years rarely survive the voyage; and many a time parents are compelled to see their children miserably suffer and die from hunger, thirst, and sickness and then see them cast into the water. I saw such misery in no less than thirty-two children in our ship, all of whom were thrown into the sea....

When the ships have landed at Philadelphia after their long voyage, no one is permitted to leave them except those who pay for their passage. The others, who cannot pay, must remain on board the ships till they are purchased and are released from the ships by their purchasers. The sick always fare the worst, for the healthy are always preferred and purchased first; and so the sick and wretched must often remain on board in front of the city for two or three weeks, and frequently die....

The sale of human beings in the market on board the ship is carried on thus: Every day people come from the city of Philadelphia and other places and go on board the newly-arrived ship that has brought and offers passengers for sale....When they come to an agreement, adult persons usually bind themselves in writing to serve from 3-6 years according to their age and strength. But very young people, from ten to fifteen years, must serve till they are twenty-one years old.

Many parents must sell and trade away their children like so many head of cattle, for if their children take the debt upon themselves, the parents can leave the ship free and unrestrained but as the parents often do not know where and to what people their children are going it often happens that such parents and children, after leaving the ship, do not see each other again for many years, perhaps no more in all their lives.

Gottlieb Mittelberger, a German Redemptioner, 1750

Reading 5:

Many of these slaves we transport from Guinea to America are prepossessed with the opinion that they are carried like sheep to the slaughter, and that Europeans are fond of their flesh; which notion so far prevails with some as to make them fall into a deep melancholy and despair, and to refuse all sustenance, tho' never so much compelled or even beaten to oblige them to take some nourishment....I have been necessitated sometimes to cause the teeth of these wretches to be broken, because they would not open their mouths, or be prevailed upon by any entreaties to feed themselves; and thus have forced some sustenance into their throats.

John Barbot, 1682

Questions To Think About

1. Why do you think the Virginians were incapable of feeding themselves--when the Indians were able to grow corn, the woods were filled with game, and the rivers were covered with geese and filled with fish?

2. Why did these individuals migrate to the New World?

3. Describe their experiences in migrating to America.

4. What do these quotations tell us about colonial attitudes toward labor?

Interpreting Statistics

Demographic Conditions in the English Colonies

Starving times: Crude death rate first winter 
Jamestown  Plymouth 
638 (per thousand) 490 (per thousand)

In 1607, the Susan Constant discharged l05 passengers;
six months later, two-thirds were dead.

Between l607 and l624, 6,000-10,000 colonists arrived;
but only l,275 remained alive.

Child Mortality in New England 
180-200 of every l,000 died first year  35-40 percent failed to reach adulthood 

Death rate for infants in Salem, Mass. (per thousand) 
  17th century  18th century 
Girls 313   178 
Boys   202  105 

Causes of Death in New England 
Epidemic diseases:









scarlet fever 

killed 30 per l,000 during mid-l8th century 


killed 20 percent 

Comparative Death Rates 
Jamestown, after l630  40-50 per thousand 
French and English villages  40 per thousand 
New England  24-26 per thousand 

Maternal mortality 
1.5-2 percent death rate per pregnancy 

Average Life Expectancy at Age 20
During the Seventeenth Century
Married Women in Middlesex County, Virginia  39 
Married Men in Middlesex County, Virginia  48 
Women in Andover, Massachusetts  62 
Men in Andover, Massachusetts  64 
Women in Plymouth, Massachusetts  62 
Men in Plymouth, Massachusetts  69 

Growth of the Colonial Population 
  South Difference
1640  26,634 26,037 596
1670  111,935 107,400 4,535
1700  250,888 223,071 27,817
1740  905,563 755,539 150,024
1770  2,148,076 1,688,254 459,822

Questions To Think About

1. How did life expectancy in the Northern and Chesapeake colonies compare? What implications might this have upon the nature of family life in the two regions?

2. What factors may have contributed to the discrepancy in life expectancy in the two regions?

3. Why might women have had a shorter life expectancy than men?

Declining Mortality, 1780-1820 
  1780  1820 
Northern states
Total population 
28 per thousand  20 per thousand 
Infants  180-200 per thousand  140-160 per thousand 

Population Statistics 
Population growth rate  3.5 percent 
Doubling time  20-25 years 
Average number of children per family  7-8 surviving children 

Marriage Rate 
New England in the early 18th century 


98 percent 


93 percent 
End of the l8th century  


78 percent 

Average age of marriage for women 

New England 




Declining Fertility
Proportion of families with 6 or more surviving children 
pre-1700  75 percent 
1700s  67 
1800-30  40 
1830-60   20 
1860-1900  10 

Questions To Think About

1. How does the growth of the colonial population compare to the growth of the American population today?

2. What were the major contributors to the growth of the colonial population?

3. What factors may have contributed to the decline in fertility after 1800?

Interpreting Statistics

The Roots of American Slavery

Slave Imports into the Americas, 1500-1870 


Number of imports


Proportion of black population in the Americas in 1825
British North America 


6 percent 

25 percent 
Spanish America 


British Caribbean 


17 percent 

10 percent 
French Caribbean 


Dutch Caribbean 


Danish Caribbean 




Old World 





Slave Population in the Colonies, 1650-1770 
Year North  South  Total 
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