Settlement in North America

The Spanish settled much of the Caribbean (and Florida) as well as Peru and Mexico. (The Portuguese settled Brazil.) Spanish settlements in Mexico gradually radiated outward into North America (the Southwest and the West). In 1598, the Spanish settled New Mexico and developed several additional settlements despite their strained relations with the Pueblo peoples who resisted them.

The first French attempts to colonize the St. Lawrence River valley after Cartier’s voyage in the 1530s failed, as would their first settlements in South Carolina, Florida, and Nova Scotia. In 1608, the French established their first successful settlement in North America: Quebec. Migration into Quebec in the 17th century increased its population and resulted in the founding of new French settlements. The fur trade, which began as an extension of the fishing enterprise, encouraged the French to settle and to seek trading partnerships with native groups. Adapting to tribal requirements for trade helped to solidify Indian alliances that provided access to richer beaver regions. French support of the Huron and Algonquin peoples resulted in enmity with Iroquois Confederation who allied with the Dutch. By the end of the 17th century, French territory covered three-fourths of North America. Yet when English and French forces came to face each other in 1754 in the War for Empire as each nation sought control of Amerindians and of trade and territory in the Northwest, France had only one-fifteenth as many settlers in North America as England had.

The Dutch established settlements throughout what is today New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Connecticut. Their settlement in New York (New Amsterdam) was cosmopolitan and religiously tolerant. The Dutch West India Company successfully incorporated fur trade with agricultural settlements and town building. In 1624, “black settlement” in New York “preceded the English and the name New York.” In 1644, eleven “’Dutch Negroes’… filed a petition for freedom, the first black legal protest in America. The petition was granted by the Council of New Netherlands…. All received parcels in what is now Greenwich Village” (Lerone Bennett, Before the Mayflower, p. 41.)

In 1606 the Virginia Company of London was established. Chartered by King James I, the goal of the company and its investors was to establish a permanent colony in North America that would generate a profit. (The English had attempted the plantation of Ireland since the reign of Elizabeth I in the mid 1500s.) Pamphlets urged that colonization would generate glory, profit, and adventure. The younger sons of English nobility, lacking property at home (because of primogeniture), would have new lands to lord over. Merchants would have exotic products to bring home and new markets in which to sell goods. Christian clergy could convert Indian "savages.” The landless poor, who burdened English towns and cities in increasing numbers would have the opportunity to rise from poverty.

The Virginia Company recruited people to settle in Jamestown and contracted them as planters. (It was not uncommon for the “planters” contracted to European companies to fall into debt and become a slave, so to speak, of the company.) In 1607, 105 colonists landed in Jamestown, and by 1609, there were 500 settlers. The colony experienced famine in the winter of 1609-1610, brought on by a regional drought, the planters’ failure to provide for themselves, and their failure to graciously accept the help offered by Native Americans. Settlers ate their cattle, hogs, poultry, and finally their horses. Then they starved. Cases of cannibalism were recorded. By the spring of 1610, only 60 colonists were alive-- nearly 9 of 10 had died.

Not willing to give up and absorb heavy financial losses, the Virginia Company sent more colonists from England. During the next few years, the settlers experimented with various types of tobacco and by 1617 they found success with a seed from Trinidad. Three years later, 55,000 pounds of tobacco was sent to English markets. Jamestown would survive.

Tobacco production required labor. Most of the labor was provided by English indentured servants. Although colonial America was controlled by the wealthy elite, most immigrants were poor men under 25. An English population boom had greatly increased the numbers of homeless and unemployed. Throughout the 17th century, between one half to two thirds of European immigrants to the American colonies were indentured servants.

Some English people sold themselves into servitude. Indenture typically required 4-7 yrs of labor in exchange for passage, food, shelter, clothes, and ultimately, "freedom dues." Freedom dues usually included a bushel of corn for planting, a new suit of clothes, and some land. For many, this offered more opportunity than home. Others became servants involuntarily: convicts might be sentenced to work in the colonies, homeless people, especially orphans, might be kidnapped and sold. Before Jamestown was settled, the British sent resistant Irishmen into forced labor in Barbados, long before they were involved in the African slave trade.

The planters also tried to make Native Americans work for them. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there was a sizable Indian slave trade in the colonial period. In fact the first African slaves brought to New England had been exchanged for Indians enslaved as “prisoners of war.” Still Old World diseases and Native Americans’ home court advantage so to speak, made large scale Indian slavery impracticable.

In 1619 a Dutch ship that had pirated a Spanish vessel and taken its captive Africans, anchored at Jamestown in the mouth of the James River. The ship needed supplies, so Dutch sailors traded the African slaves for food. Slavery was not legal in the colony at the time. The Africans were treated as indentured servants and upon completing the terms of their service enjoyed all the rights and privileges of Englishmen. Some purchased land and servants as well as voted and successfully sued in court.

For a detailed description of the lives of some of the free black planters who lived and prospered in the Virginia colony during the 17th century, see Breen and Innes, Myne Owne Ground.

In 1624 Virginia became a royal colony.