Two of the earliest settlements formed in North America, the Chesapeake Bay and New England Puritan regions, formed the “back bone” of what would become the thirteen original colonies.  While the settlers of these regions may have colonized the same continent, there were vast social, economic and cultural differences that separated the two and made them unique.  This article explores some of the reasons for colonizing these areas and some of the differences between the socio-economic structures of the two regions.

Reasons for English Colonization in the New World

Jamestown, VirginiaCredit: Library of Congress

In the first decade of the seventeenth century, the Virginia Company of London capitalized a venture to the Chesapeake Bay region of the “New World” for the primary purpose of profits.  The Company sold shares of stock and used the pooled capital to finance a settlement to extract riches from the country, establish trade with its natives and create a water route to China.[1] The Company’s plan was to use proceeds from the venture to repay expenses, while its investors reaped profits and England would gain a strategic foothold to the New World.[2]    

The reality of the Virginia Company’s bold plan was starkly different.  The settlers quickly discovered that they were “Strangers in a Strange Land.”  The climate was swampy, hot and humid, the water was unhealthy, and the natives were far from friendly. The survival rate of settlers arriving in the Chesapeake Bay area from 1607 to 1609 tells a harsh tale.  During that two year time frame, the Virginia Company sent over 900 settlers.  By the end of 1609, only 60 survived.[1]

In contrast, the reasons for settling in the New England region were religious and based in the English movement known as Puritanism.  Believing that the Church of England was “corrupt” with perceived vestiges of Catholicism, Puritans vowed to reverse the “march of social disorder” by imposing new discipline through a social ethic stressing work as the primary way to serve God. Puritans also organizedthemselves into religious congregations in which each member supported each other's personal quests for salvation, and assumed responsibility for coercing or controlling “unconverted” people around them.[1]

Embarkation of the PilgrimsCredit: Wikipedia Commons: Donated by Brooklyn Museum

In the early 1600s, these "Puritans" found themselves the objects of persecution by King James I and King Cha

rles I, both of whom attempted to strengthen their monarchies and to stifle the dissent of Puritans.  Convinced that God intended them to carry their religious fervor beyond England, and seeking to escape the wrath of two monarchies and to escape a declining economy, the Puritans looked to the New World to spread their “Reformation.”[1]

The Chesapeake Colony Struggles in the Early Years

Socially, it was a “motley crew” that was first sent to the Chesapeake Bay area by the Virginia Company.  Approximately one-third of the first settlers traveling to the region were gold-seeking adventurers and unskilled servants with criminal backgrounds many of whom adapted poorly.[1] Since the colony was based on profits, the first waves of settlers were heavily dominated by males. Und


erstandably the settlements were not family-centered so they tended to lack the social stability normally associated with family life. 

Life in the male-dominated Chesapeake Bay was a significant struggle.  The climate was miserable and difficult, labor conditions were harsh, and since profits were the ultimate motive, there was little to no emphasis on education.   Indeed, one governor described Jamestown as a “slum in the wilderness” upon his arrival.[2] 

To help assuage a decade of these struggles, in 1620 the Virginia Company tried to infuse the colonies with a recipe for success by offering land to all new colonists, by introducing a concept of representative government to make the colony a more pleasant place in which to live, and by reducing the tax burden by paying public officials in the form of land grants. These efforts did result in an influx of settlers with approximately 3,570 new colonists flooding the region in a three year period.[2]

Despite these attempts, however, the mortality rate in the Chesapeake Bay remained extreme.  First, housing and food supplies remained grossly inadequate for the unprepared settlers flowing into the colony.  Second, the climate was an unhealthy place to live since the summers were harsh, the diets poor and the water unhealthy.

Advertisement for Virginia TobaccoCredit: Colonial Williamsburg FoundationMalnutrition plagued the colonists because they were unwilling to become self-sufficient. “Corn laws” were actually passed in an attempt to combat this unwillingness.  These laws required every Virginian to devote at least two acres of land to growing corn since settlers were so intent on focusing so much of their resources and energy to growing tobacco to the detriment of growing food.[2]

Like any society that can adapt, however, the Chesapeake Bay colonists eventually learned to adapt too.  By the late 1600s, as the economy began to change and the population continued to grow, the social structure stabilized.  The ratio between men and women finally began to equalize so that families, rather than single men, predominated the region.  The frontier society of gold-seeking adventurers and white indentured servants leading short, unrewarding lives in single-room hovels had also changed and grown into a thriving plantation society of native-born freeholder families.[1]

The Puritan Settlements Thrive 

In contrast to Jamestown’s “slum in the wilderness,” the Puritan settlements generally thrived.  While the climate of the first New England winter may have physically challenged the new colonists (200 of 700 settlers perished in the first winter), the Puritan work ethic and devotion to community helped foster the ultimate success of the colony.[1]

Several factors contributed to the early success of the Puritan community, the first of which was the type of colonist that settled in New England.   Unlike the adventurers of the Chesapeake Bay, the Puritans were led by educated, university trained ministers who settled their freemen and women, and artisans and farmers in tight-knit communities and villages that became vital centers of life.[1]  The predominance of families in these cohesive settlements, in conjunction with a better environment and healthier diet, led to a longer lifespan that exceeded that of the Chesapeake counterpart and even of Europe.

Another factor contributing to the success of the New England colony was the belief in the importance of literacy which the Puritans saw as a vehicle to help achieve salvation and to better serve God. To this end, Puritan communities stressed the importance of education.  Puritans in New England emphasized the ability to read catechisms, psalms and the Bible and saw literacy as a guarantee for preserving their central values. In 1636, the Puritans founded Harvard College to train clergymen, and also established the first printing press in the colonies.[1]

Unlike the Chesapeake Bay region, the role of women in Puritan society also played a more central role in its success.  Puritans exalted the role of motherhood and saw women as partners in marriage.  Women settled the region in roughly equal numbers to that of men, further centralizing the role of the family in the community.  Yet, the cultural position of women in the society was not entirely “enlightened,” since Puritan culture viewed families as a commonwealth where the husband was the ruler and the family members his subjects. While married a woman had no right to buy or sell property, to sue or be sued, or even to make contracts.[2]               

Tobacco is "King" in the Chesapeake Bay

To the Chesapeake Bay settlers whose goals were primarily profit driven, tobacco was “king.”   Though the climate may have been unhealthy for the settlers, the soil and weather were splendid for growing tobacco and cultivation quickly spread.  “Sot weed” became Virginia’s salvation and the people of England became willing users.  Though King James condemned it as “loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, and dangerous to the lungs,” he could not stop the craze of tobacco consumption. In 1624, Virginia exported 200,000 pounds of tobacco, yet by 1638, the colony exported over 3 million pounds.[1]

Tobacco production, however, was extremely labor intensive and early settlers needed to find a reliable source of inexpensive labor.  Initially, this labor pool was found in indentured servants who sold years of their lives for free passage to the colonies. This reliance on indentured servitude, though, seriously hampered the social growth of the Chesapeake Bay region because it resulted in an influx of Europeans generally from the “lower rungs” of Europe’s social ladder.  Additionally, about three-fourths of indentured servants were male, further adding to the disproportionate numbers of males to females in the colony.[1]

Indentured servants were not just males, however. Females also came to the Chesapeake as indentured servants.  Their lot in life, though, was bleaker than their male counterparts. Not only did they face harsh working conditions and a high mortality rate, sexual abuse was common among masters and female servants whom they treated as chattel.[1]           

The Chesapeake Bay Begins the Transformation to a Plantation Society

The last quarter of the Seventeenth Century, however, saw a significant shift in the labor pool in the Chesapeake Bay from white indentured servants to black slave labor.[1] Several reasons led to this shift.  First was the rise of English commercial power participating in the African slave trade that brought cheaper slave labor to the settlers.  In the earlier part of the century, it was far less costly to get white servant labor from Europe, than black slave labor from Africa.[2] Second, the supply of European white servants significantly declined, resulting in higher costs for indentured servants.  And, finally, Bacon’s Rebellion led to newer white planters searching for a more pliable work force.

Much like the social structure which became more stabilized by the late 1600s, the Chesapeake Bay saw a change in its economic structure from that of a frontier society of white immigrants living short-lived lives to a plantation society of native-born freeholder families relying on African slave labor.  One cause for the shift was a depressed tobacco market which led to rising transportation costs.  Planters were forced to diversify their crops by shifting some tobacco fields to grain, hemp and flax.  The region also increased its herds of cattle and swine and developed a more self-sufficient local manufacturing industry.[1]

The Puritans Develop a More Balanced Economy

In stark contrast to the profit-based economy of the Chesapeake Bay colony, the economy of the Puritan settlements was based simply on the success and survival of the community.  Puritans established small villages employing agricultural systems that were geared to the communal nature of its society.  Unlike their neighbors to the south who seemingly focused all of their efforts on one crop, the Puritans adapted themselves to their environment and created an economy based not only on farming, but on fishing, timbering, trading, and eventually, shipbuilding.[1]

Unlike the Chesapeake Bay region, the Puritan economy was free labor based and did not rely on indentured servitude for its success (which is ultimately one of the underlying reasons that slavery never took a firm hold in the New England colonies).  Instead, Puritans believed in the community’s welfare rather than individual ambitions and accomplishments, thus there were limits on the accumulation of wealth.[1]


Much as it is in life, for developing cultures and societies there is no one set “recipe for success.”   Both the Chesapeake Bay and New England colonies faced hardships that severely challenged its early settlers to gain successful footholds on this continent.  While the Puritans may have been fortunate to have enjoyed some early successes, ultimately both regions adapted and survived, and became instrumental in forming the foundations of our both our early and present-day American societies.     


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