Origins of the Colonies

Why was English America established? As already noted we should not start with the traditional mythical origins with Pilgrims but instead look at reasons the English government decided to colonize. First we can look at international competition. There were three major colonial powers at the beginning of the 17th century: Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch. The three had gained wealth from their world trade and colonization. Spain was recognized as the strongest power in the world. It had the largest army. Also the Dutch had been a fast rising power. By the Dutch I am referring to the Netherlands. Their main city is Amsterdam. In size this is a small country in Europe. We might not think of them as a great power today. But, in the 17th century, the Dutch were the number one commercial power. They had the largest merchant marine. They had more ships than anyone else.

These maps show the areas of these three European colonial empires.

Spanish (yellow) and Portuguese (purple) empires

Dutch empire


The Spanish and Portuguese were interested in territorial control of areas. The Dutch were more interested in setting up lots of trading posts. They did compete with Portugal for control of Brazil with the Portuguese eventually winning. The Dutch will be important in American colonial development. They long dominated the African slave trade to America. They were active in the West Indies/Caribbean Sea area and will trade with North American colonists.

The English government was aware of the wealth going to these three colonial powers. The English had been questioning whether or not the country should start its own colonies. The closest area to them where colonial posts had not been established was in North America. They found out that the Dutch were thinking about setting up a colony in North America. (The Dutch will establish New Netherland, shown in the map above, a colony on Manhattan Island and the Hudson River, which will later become New York.) Then England found out that yet another rising power in Europe, France, was planning to start colonizing in North America. (They will establish Quebec in what later becomes Canada.)

The English knew that setting up and supporting colonies would be costly. But they were growing worried that if they delayed much longer, the best coastal lands would be taken by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and French. If the English did not act soon then they could be left out. To be a great power economically and militarily a nation might need the extended resources of a colonial empire. If England did not develop such an empire the country might be relegating itself to 2nd rate status economically and militarily. The English government was not convinced that a colonial effort would succeed but finally acted because of international competition. They believed they had to keep up with Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and France. So the English government chartered the colony of Virginia. 

Economic motivation for England

Like the Dutch, and for the most part like France as well, England's main motivation for colonization was economic. The English hoped that they could derive commodities from colonies that would strengthen the country's economy. Some products consumed in England would make the English less dependent on foreign countries. Other products could be sold to foreign countries improving England's balance of trade.

The first permanent English settlement was in Virginia at Jamestown, a red dot on this later historical map.

When Jamestown began, the colonists were short for food.  The James River and Chesapeake Bay area was plentiful in oysters. The colonists survived on oysters. I personally think that was a great way to start a country. I hope you agree.

The first colonists complied with their instructions and looked for potential goods that could be sold in England and Europe. They did not have the experience the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch had, working in tropical areas, where they found tea, spices, sugar cane, tobacco, coffee, cocoa, and fruits. The Spanish really had it lucky. In Central and South America they had found gold and silver. The English colonists in Jamestown went out in search of such commodities. As they hiked through the woods of Virginia, however, they found no evidence of gold and silver being anywhere in the area. As they hiked through the woods of Virginia they did not find sugar cane, coffee, spices, or fruits. Guess what they found hiking through the--hint--woods of Virginia?

They found trees.

Trees are good. With wood you build such things as boats, homes, barns, furniture, wagons, and barrels. You burn wood for heat, cooking, or blacksmith shops. And timber will be exported. But they already have trees in England and Europe. Trees are good but you do not need a colonial empire to get trees. If that is all they can find then Virginia is not going to be an economic success and the English colonial experiment could fail. They needed something besides trees. And there was something else, maybe.

They noticed that Native Americans in the area were smoking something that smelled like tobacco. This could be what they were looking for. Tobacco was big in Europe. It was very fashionable. And in England it had become the vogue, the newest thing to be doing. It was very popular. Lots of English were smoking, chewing, and snorting tobacco. And like any new popular phenomenon it was being promoted as a very good thing to consume. It was being promoted as medicinal.

pditobacco.jpg (106908 bytes)

If you are not feeling good today, you probably need some tobacco.

The colonists knew if the local tobacco was good, this would be the export product they needed to make Virginia a success. So they eagerly tried the tobacco the natives were smoking, and they gagged. It was wretched. If they thought that, imagine what they would say in Europe. So what appeared to be the solution to their problem fell through. Virginia was in trouble. This is when John Rolfe enters the story.
[John Rolfe is on the Terms list--See Course Materials/Terms]

 John Rolfe was an adventurer with the Virginia Company who came to Jamestown.

          John Rolfe

He wanted the colony to be a success. He tried an experiment. He took tobacco seed from the West Indies and worked with it trying to grow it in Virginia. Being several climate zones away, this experiment could easily have failed. But he was successful. This makes him America's first agricultural experimenter or scientific farmer. The colonists smoked the tobacco. It wasn't great but it would do. They sent it to England.

John Rolfe did something else famous as he tried to make the Virginia colony a success. He believed the colonists needed to maintain good relations with Native Americans. He tried to befriend the local Powatan Indians and married a chieftain's daughter, Pocahontas. Often from songs to movies to Disney cartoons Pocahontas is married to the wrong person, another colonist at Jamestown, John Smith. But her husband was John Rolfe.

       Marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas

This image below is a portrait of her when she and Rolfe visited England. She is wearing the latest English fashion.


Again, Rolfe succeeded in growing tobacco and the Virginians sent a sample to England. In England they agreed the tobacco wasn't great but it was alright. But now, there was another problem.

When people today are having a party and want to impress the guests, do they break out the Virginia cigars? Or do they bring out cigars from Cuba?

When the English tried the Virginia tobacco and compared it with what was already on the market, they concluded that the Spanish Cuban tobacco was definitely better. Virginia tobacco would not be able to successfully compete with Spanish Cuban tobacco in the open market. So Virginia could well again have been in trouble. Luckily for the future of America, the prevalent economics of the world at the time was mercantilism. [Mercantilism is on the Terms list--See Course Materials/Terms]

Economics: Mercantilism

In Mercantilism, a government should be highly involved in the country's economy. The basic mercantilist question: what can the government do to improve the country's economy? Mercantilism calls for a government to protect the country economically from foreign competitors. This can be described as economic warfare. In the world countries have competitors who can be seen as economic enemies. Each country is trying to grow richer while trying to impoverish their enemies.

According to mercantilism the wealth of the world is fixed. We can think of world wealth like a pie. Indeed, we can think of a pie chart. I tried to draw one but I realize this probably looks more like a beach ball.

Every country gets a slice of the pie. The only way you can get a bigger slice is for someone else to get a smaller slice. So red can only expand by taking away from brown and yellow.

The countries engaged in building colonial empires hoped the trade and commodities from their empires would help them get a bigger slice of the pie.

The English government looked at the Virginia tobacco problem in a mercantilist context. If Virginia tobacco was not good enough to compete in the open market with Spanish Cuban tobacco then the government would need to give Virginia tobacco protection. The protective tariff is a very good example of mercantilism.

Protective Tariffs 

Governments will impose a charge on imports and exports. If it is low, it is called a customs duty. This has been a major source for government revenue. A higher charge on imports is usually called a tariff. [Customs Duties & Tariffs
on the Terms list--See Course Materials/Terms]  

You can think of a tariff like a wall. It is in fact sometimes referred to as a tariff wall. When it is first raised it increases government revenue. As the wall is raised higher the flow of goods over the wall declines. Government revenue falls. A high tariff wall is called a protective tariff. The purpose of such a high or protective tariff is not to gain a revenue but to regulate trade.  It makes foreign goods expensive inside your country. This is done to protect domestic production. It makes foreign goods imported into the country more expensive than goods produced inside the country.

The English government placed a protective tariff on Spanish tobacco. It made Spanish Cuban tobacco more expensive than Virginia tobacco inside England and the English empire. The tariff protected Virginia tobacco in the English market. As a result, most Englishmen would buy the relatively cheaper Virginia tobacco for daily use. The relatively more expensive Spanish Cuban tobacco became a luxury good in England.

This is the way mercantilism worked. The English government reduced the English market for Spanish Cuban tobacco. This reduced the total wealth Spain could get from the sell of Cuban tobacco. By adding and protecting Virginia tobacco while reducing the English market for Cuban tobacco, in terms of the pie chart, the English slice of the pie became larger and Spain's slice of the pie became smaller.

It is interesting, given how important Capitalism will be later in American history, that the early colonies would probably have failed under Capitalist economics. If Virginia could not compete with Spanish Cuban tobacco on the open market then under classical capitalism Virginia had to either produce something else or fail. 

Again, luckily for the future of America, the prevalent economics of the world at the time was not Capitalism but Mercantilism.

Navigation Acts

The Navigation Acts were another good example of mercantilism. [Navigation Acts are on the Terms list--See Course Materials/Terms]

The Navigation Acts were acts of Parliament, the legislature of England and the central government of the English empire. They were acts to regulate trade. They were passed to meet the commercial threat from the Dutch.

In the Spanish empire, the Dutch had taken over the trade within the empire. In Spanish America, gold and silver were transported under military escort from the mines to the treasure ships on the coast. The Spanish navy escorted the treasure ships to Spain. But, tobacco, coffee, and fruits, were carried from Spanish America to Europe on Dutch ships. Because of the dominance of the Dutch, the Spanish merchant marine--commercial shipping--was small. Spain gained great wealth from their silver and gold mines, but the Dutch gained commercial wealth from trading the rest of the products of the Spanish empire. The English were afraid the Dutch could do the same thing within the English empire. They had more ships. The fact was they could get their ships in and take products from America to Europe cheaper than anyone else could. Shipping in England would have been thwarted in development. How could English colonial shipping ever get started if they had direct competition from the Dutch? If the world was capitalist, the Dutch would probably have prevailed in the trade within the English empire. But of course it was not capitalist. The Navigation Acts, good examples of mercantilism, were passed to protect the English from the Dutch by restricting Dutch shipping within the English empire.

The Navigation Acts required English colonial goods to be carried only by English ships. This would prevent the Dutch from showing up in the Chesapeake and taking Virginia tobacco to England. Who would the Navigation Acts hurt? The Dutch. Who would they help? Would they help just shippers in England? No, it would help English colonial shippers as well.

Sometimes a period in history is viewed from the perspective of a great event. One tradition in American history is to look at the colonial period through the Revolution, specifically the perspective of the radical Patriots of the Revolution. From that view, the Navigation Acts are usually seen as being directed at the colonists and planned to restrict the colonists. This is an interpretation developed looking at the Navigation Acts of the 1760s. But they were first being passed back in the middle of the previous century. Their goal was not to restrict the colonists but to protect English and English colonial shipping against Dutch shipping. And it would be a great success. The acts would protect the development of colonial shipping in New England and later New York and Pennsylvania. Ship building and shipping continued to grow in the empire until, by the end of the 17th century, the English surpassed the Dutch. At the end of the century the English had the largest navy and merchant marine. They had more ships than anyone else.

Gains from colonization

The English government hoped through colonizing there would be specific economic gains.

Raw goods (timber, tobacco, sugar)

As noted, tobacco was the first big product England got from the Virginia colony.

Also, as noted, there were lots of trees in Virginia, There would be lots of trees through England’s North American colonies. Timber would be valuable for the English navy and English and English colonial shipbuilding. It would be very important for trade with the West Indies.

After setting up Virginia, the next area the English colonized was in islands of the West Indies. The Dutch and French also will colonize there. Spain controlled the larger islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. The Spanish claimed all of the islands of the Caribbean but there were so many islands they did not have anyone—soldiers, government officials, missionaries, or colonists--actually on most of the islands. England, France, and the Dutch first moved into the small islands in the eastern part of the Caribbean. I have marked off this area in red on the map

Because the islands were so small, colonists had to use all of their land for cultivation of their major crop, sugar cane. (Some of the islands had mountains on which coffee was also grown.) Colonists on the small islands cut down their trees to maximize acreage for sugar cane. As a result, they needed to import timber. Also, island colonists did not have enough land to be able to have pasture land or to grow corn. As a result, they needed to import food. They would get both timber and food from North American colonies, the first one being Virginia.

From their West Indies islands the English got sugar products. The main three products from sugar cane were sugar, molasses, and rum.

Market for English finished goods

It is great when a negative can be turned into a positive. The English had a problem that other colonial empires did not have. They had a large and growing number of people who were unemployed. Agricultural workers were being displaced in rural England. They were headed into small towns looking for work, not finding work, then moving to large towns, not finding work, and then moving to the big city, London. 

As a rule, do unemployed people consume a lot? Do they make the economy stronger?

They do not. So England had a growing problem. But, the English government got a great idea. What if unemployed individuals go to the colonies and become successful colonists? Then they will want to buy things. They will consume and strengthen the economy.

The Netherlands, France, Portugal, and Spain did not have the unemployment problem England had. As a result, relatively few Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish people went to the colonies. Hundreds of thousands of English will make the trip across the Atlantic. Succeeding over here—first as tobacco farmers in Virginia—they will buy products from England. They will give England a new market for their goods. The Netherlands, France, Portugal, and Spain did not get this from their colonial empires. The Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish empires gave their mother countries new commodities and trade but not a new market for the production of the mother country. The English empire did.

(Also, because so many more English will be in America compared to the Dutch, French, and Spanish, this will give the English a population advantage over the other empires as they compete economically and militarily.)

Increase shipping

Because of all the trade between England and the colonies, taking colonial goods to England and bringing finished goods back to the colonies, there will be a demand for building more ships. Also combined with the protection against the Dutch from the Navigation Acts, there will be a great increase in ship building and shipping.  At the time this made England stronger not only economically but also stronger militarily.

Today, if the US navy is engaged in warfare it can handle much of the shipping of military supplies and transport of marines and troops on its own. In the 17th century navies consisted of only fighting or battle ships. The navy relied completely on the merchant marine, the commercial ships, to carry supplies and troops. So to be a strong naval military power one needed not only a large navy but also a large merchant marine.  

Reasons for colonists to come over

We have looked at reasons why England wanted to colonize. Why did colonists want to come over?

The reasons we know just growing up in and living in American society will not help us here. Traditionally Americans have emphasized religious freedom as the main motive for colonists. But only a minority of people came over with religion as their main motivation. For the vast majority of those who came over, the motivation was economic.


Majority: Economic opportunity

After the first colony of Virginia, the next wave of English colonization was in the West Indies. Many of the first individuals involved in promoting these colonial efforts were adventurers who were in search of wealth. Most who came to the colonies were those who had gone to London looking for work.

Minority: Religion (Puritans, Separatists, Quakers)

We generally do not remember and certainly do not celebrate as part of our Thanksgiving myth the unemployed coming to America. Instead, we emphasize the minority who as families sold out in England and paid their way over to settle in America motivated by religious reasons. Puritans, Separatists, and Quakers were the three main groups who came over motivated by religion. We will mostly be looking at the Puritans and Separatists when we are in New England and the Quakers when we get to Pennsylvania.

Government encouragement


Given that most came over for economic reasons, the government played an important role in offering incentives. The main one was land. The basic land policy begun in Virginia and carried to the other colonies was the offer of 50 acres of land for each person who paid his way over. He then got an additional 50 acres of land for each adult he brought over (at his expense). They would sometimes bring over family members. Most people brought in, however, were to provide labor, mostly to work the tobacco fields.

This was a great land policy. It was not an attempt by the government to make money off of land sales. For people complying with the policy, the land was free. So what was in it for the government? It encouraged people to colonize, to settle on and farm the land. If they became successful, which the government hoped they would, then from the trade of goods—both their tobacco being traded in England and the English finished goods bought by the colonists—through customs duties on the trade, the government would gain a revenue.

Later, after the Revolution and the U. S. government is set up, the U. S. government will not give away land but require new settlers to buy it. Frontiersmen will usually not be able to afford the land. This policy, which will be a failure, will continue into the 19th century. We will note later how American politicians will look back to the old English colonial land policy and advocate returning to it. By the middle of the 19th century the US will go back to the old English policy. Instead of expecting frontiersmen to buy the land, the government will give them the land then, after they succeed, the government will gain a revenue from taxing the trade. Customs duties on trade was the main revenue for the English empire and would continue on as the top revenue source for the US government into the 20th century.

Common Law

If you are going to offer people land, it would be good to also offer them legal protection for their land. This was done through the law in England known as the Common Law. [Common Law is on the Terms list--See Course Materials/Terms]

As we go I will be giving you some examples of the protection offered colonists from English law. We start with property rights. Prospective land owners for examples will know that they will be protected in the law from trespassing on and stealing their property.

Military protection

Colonists were provided military protection. This came in two ways. First, the navy. After colonists had grown tobacco and put their crop on ships to England the English navy protected the commerce. For example, during wartime merchant ships will gather at a port such as Boston, then an English navy squadron will give the merchant fleet military escort across the Atlantic so that it will not be attacked by enemy ships.

Second, the militia. There was concern that Native American Indians might become hostile. As a result, the English government would supply colonists with guns to form militia. All able-bodied colonial males were required to serve in the militia. The main purpose of the militia was to provide protection from Indians. This is a major topic we will be discussing later.

We have noted why England wanted to colonize and the incentives offered to prospective colonists. Who wanted to come over? Who were the colonists?



Majority: single, young, unemployed

Again, as we already noted, we grow up in America learning the Thanksgiving myth. When we think of the early colonists, we

the reasons we know just growing up in and living in American society will not help us here. The  is of no help. We

think of the Pilgrims, of the people who came over for religious freedom. Again, only a minority were motivated mostly by religion. The major motivation was economic. Most of the colonies were begun with adventurer types, like John Rolfe, coming over hoping for wealth. The vast majority of colonists came from the people in London looking for work. They were unemployed.

Think about on the average who would be willing to leave England, travel across an ocean to a wilderness, and begin a new colony where the natives might well be hostile? We are not dealing with retirees, or middle-aged middle class men caught in a rut wanting something different. The hundreds of thousands who came over were unemployed. They were young with their lives ahead of them. They had a good prospect in going over. They were unemployed in London. They could become successful tobacco farmers in Virginia. They did not come over in families. They were single.

Minority: families selling out in Europe

Again, only a minority of people sold out in England to come over. These came over as families and were religiously motivated. Again, the three main groups were Puritans, Separatists, and Quakers who we will be discussing later.

How did they come over?

Majority: indentured servants

If one is unemployed, how do you pay a ship captain to get over to America?

The unemployed came over selling themselves as indentured servants. [Indentured Servant is on the Terms list--See Course Materials/Terms]

The master pays the passage over for the indentured servant. He is also to teach a skill. The first skill to learn was how to grow tobacco. The contract lasted 4-5 years. Then the servant was free. And then the free servant was eligible to get his own land from the government. He could then become a tobacco farmer with his own farm. At first adventurer types like John Rolfe brought indentured servants over getting 50 acres for each servant. Then, after the servants were free, and got their own land, as they succeeded growing tobacco, they brought over indentured servants.

In England all of the land had long been taken. All one could hope to be was a tenant farmer renting land. For the unemployed in London, for 4-5 years servitude, they would be free to do in Virginia what they could never do in England, become farmers with their own land.

Can you imagine doing something for about 4-5 years hoping that at the end you will be better off than you were at the start?

Can you think of an example of such today?

Of course, you are engaged in just such an activity. College is a very good example.

This is how most came to America, as indentured servants. This is not how we have chosen to remember our past. As my own children went though K-12, I would look at their social studies and history textbooks. Sometimes the term indentured servant would not even be mentioned. Other times there would be a little section, just a sentence or two, stated almost as an aside, that, besides all the Pilgrims and Puritans, which are discussed at length, oh, yeah, there were also some others who came over as servants.

Common Law/Indentured Servant

Another example of how the Common Law provided a protection: it upheld indentured servant contracts. The actual name “indentured” came from the contract. The paper the contract was written on was indentured, not the servant. It was a legal copy, so that the master and the servant each had a copy of the contract which would be upheld in a court of law. Because each had a copy of the contract, it prevented a master from wrongly claiming that a servant owed another year of labor or prevented a servant from wrongly claiming that the service owed had been completed.  

Minority: paid their way

Again, it was the minority who paid their way over. There was the group of early adventurers and merchants who came over on their own. Most who paid their way over were the religious groups we have mentioned, the Puritans, Separatists, and Quakers who came over as families who went to New England and to Pennsylvania. Again, they were the minority, the exception rather than the rule.


This concludes the notes for the first online lecture, the Origins of the Colonies. Please email me if you have any questions.