Tuesday, February 1, 2011

American History (3): England's North American Ventures, 1585-1733

This is part of a series of "conversation starters," organized in 2007-'08, for my American history students at Grand Valley State University.

Big Questions

1. Name two reasons men and women uprooted themselves from their English homes, crossed the treacherous Atlantic, and planted colonies in the North American wilderness.

2. Can you name one of the Chesapeake Colonies, one of the Middle Colonies, and one of the New England Colonies? What were some general differences among these three different regions?

3. Name three reasons the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay were a success at establishing colonies in New England.

4. Why was the mortality rate among the Virginia colonists so high?

5. Which individual or colony did the most for freedom of conscience in British North America in the 17th century?

6. What was the weed that grew in the vacant lots of Jamestown and saved the colony's economy?


1. There are several reasons English people uprooted themselves from their homeland and immigrated to the North American colonies.

a. For some, religious liberty was paramount -- even if the resulting settlement did not seem very free by today's standards. Plymouth Colony, for example, was peopled by women and men who strove to live a scripturally pure form of Christianity. Called "Puritans," these immigrants thought the Church of England, though Protestant, had been corrupted during age of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and James I (1603-1625), because it retained too many holdovers of Catholic worship.

b. Demographics played a role. Between 1580 and 1650, the population of England swelled from 3.5 million to more than 5 million, straining the nation's agrarian economy. People were out of work.

c. Thus, material security or betterment was the spur. Many English were poor and landless. Given the population growth and economic changes racking England, these people became migrant workers seeking seasonal jobs. So these wandering poor had already been uprooted and were on the move. The trip to America was just a longer road journey. In addition, many landless aristocrats did not think their future was secure. Jamestown was settled mostly by men who wanted to get rich quick. Whatever their social background, most immigrants came to America with the hope of owning property of their own, something that had been denied them in the relatively small British Isles where the landed gentry already had taken all the good land and primogeniture kept newcomers out.

d. The prospect of a second chance is something many of the immigrants wanted. Many men who came to America were escaping an unhappy marriage, debt, imprisonment, or social oppression.

e. Some immigrants were concerned about all the political and religious upheaval Britain was experiencing. Life was changing dramatically. The Protestant Reformation, Tudor and Stuart power grabs, civil war, constitutional upheaval, Parliament's battles with monarchs, widespread economic changes, enclosure and the uprooting of whole villages -- all these forces unleashed unsettling changes throughout Britain.

f. Because a new world was there. Because of the human quest for adventure.

2. Viewed geographically, one can mark out several different regions of colonies in British North America.

a. Chesapeake colonies: Virginia and Maryland.

b. New England colonies: Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, New Haven, Connecticut, New Hampshire.

c. Middle colonies: New York, Pennsylvania, East Jersey, West Jersey, Three Counties of Delaware.

d. The Carolinas.

e. Georgia

3. The Pilgrims and Puritans were especially successful at colonizing New England.

a. The Pilgrims came from Scrooby Manor, about 150 miles north of London, and the Puritans came mostly from East Anglia, northeast of London. In some instances entire villages picked up and resettled in the New World, so there was unusual social cohesion, continuity, and security to provide a safety net for the long trip.

b. Often entire families picked up and resettled in New England. Because the nuclear family was kept intact, the sex ratio was much closer to 1:1 than the ratio of men to women in the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland, where rootless men tended to settle. Nuclear families provided much greater physical and emotional security. The family and social continuity greatly reduced the emotional shock or the long migration. Indeed, the life expectancy of seventeenth-century Puritans would rival that of Americans today!

c. Environmental factors played an important role -- a healthful climate and plenty of clean drinking water made for more successful ventures in New England.

d. Leadership was a key to English survival in the North American wilderness. The Pilgrims had a strong leader in William Bradford. He could adapt resourcefully to challenging circumstances beyond his control (in particular, the error in navigation that caused the Puritans to land in New England, not Virginia). He could keep the frightened settlers from mutiny and anarchy by forging their cooperation (Mayflower Compact, signed by 41 men). He had a strong will to succeed through the initial rough times (about half the 102 Pilgrims died of starvation and disease during the first months). He had the ability to form a strong alliance with the local Indians, Squanto and Massasoit. And he had the capacity to set a inspiring example through self-sacrifice. Similarly, the Puritans had strong leadership in John Winthrop.

e. The Pilgrims and Puritans also survived because of their sense of purpose. The Pilgrims were Separatists who had the strong desire to serve Christ and live according to His plan. The Puritans also took their faith seriously, and also had bold ideas about popular sovereignty, republican government, and far-reaching reforms.

4. In Virginia, there was little social or familial connection between the Old World and the New. Most of the immigrants were young, single males. Many were indentured servants who did not have the emotional and physical support that was more common in New England. Also, contagious diseases, salt in the water supply, and a horrific Indian attack (on Good Friday, March 22, 1622) halved the population of Virginia.

5. Several answers are possible. In 1649 Lord Baltimore composed the famous "Act Concerning Religion" that extended toleration to all Christians -- Catholic, Protestant, Quaker -- who accepted the divinity of Christ. The act was drafted after it was learned that, back in England, Cromwell and the Puritans had executed Charles I to transform England into a republic.

6. The "gold" that counted in Virginia was in a leaf -- tobacco.

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