OVERVIEW / U.S. History I

Exploration & Early Colonization
Part 3: English Exploration



At the end of the fifteenth century, the confluence of a number of long‐developing factors and several major events launched the European exploration and colonization of the Western Hemisphere. In 1096, European Christians had embarked on a succession of military expeditions to free Palestine from Muslim rule. Although ultimately unsuccessful, these Crusades fostered economic ties between Europe and the Middle and Far East.

Trade in spices (which were needed to preserve food) and silks attracted the new merchant class that was emerging in the growing medieval cities. The Italian Marco Polo's account of his travels to and extended stay in China at the end of the thirteenth century further stimulated interest in Asia, and the city‐states of Genoa and Venice became the centers of international trade. As Europe slowly recovered from the devastating effects of the Black Death (1347–51), the epidemic of bubonic plague that killed a third of its population, political developments disrupted economic ties with Asia.

In 1453, the Muslim Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, strategically located on the eastern Mediterranean. As Ottoman power spread throughout the Middle East, Europeans found their traditional overland trade routes effectively blocked. The prohibitively high tribute charged by the Turks led to dramatic price increases for luxury products from the Far East. Searching for a solution to this dilemma, European merchants reasoned that if land routes were problematical, perhaps trade could continue by sea.


With the exception of John Cabot's voyage to Newfoundland in 1497, the English showed little interest in the New World until the reign of Elizabeth I. Wary of confronting powerful Spain directly, Elizabeth secretly supported English seamen who raided Spanish settlements in the Western Hemisphere and captured their treasure ships. Men such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake, popularly known as “sea dogs,” received titles from the queen, who shared in their booty. More than fifty years after Magellan circumnavigated the globe, Drake duplicated the feat following attacks against Spanish ports on the west coast of South America (1577–80).


While English explorers, most notably Martin Frobisher, continued to look for the Northwest Passage, there was interest in colonizing North America. In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh scouted possible sites for a colony farther to the south. Naming the land Virginia after Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, he chose Roanoke Island off the coast of present‐day North Carolina. The first attempt to settle there (1585–86) was quickly abandoned. A group of 110 men, women, and children sailed for Roanoke in the following year. The colony's leader, John White, returned to England for additional supplies but did not return until 1590 because of the war between England and Spain. He found no trace of the colonists, and the only message left was the cryptic word “Croatoan” carved on a wooden post. It is most likely that the small settlement was overrun by local tribes, but to this day, no one has explained the meaning of “Croatoan” or found definitive evidence of the fate of the Roanoke colony.

The failure of Roanoke was expensive, and, with the war against Spain still raging, Elizabeth made it clear that there was no money for colonization ventures. When peace came in 1604, private funds rather than the royal treasury financed English settlement in North America.


In 1606, Elizabeth's successor, James I, issued charters to the Virginia Company of Plymouth and the Virginia Company of London to establish colonies along the Atlantic coast from modern‐day North Carolina to Maine. These were joint‐stock companies, the forerunner of the modern corporation. Individuals bought stock in the companies, which paid for ships and supplies, hoping to realize a profit from their investment.

The Virginia Company of Plymouth founded a colony at Sagadahoc in Maine in 1607, which quickly failed due to hostility from the local tribes, conflicts among the settlers, and inadequate supplies. The same fate almost befell the London Company's effort at Jamestown near Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. Most of the colonists were gentry unaccustomed to manual labor who wanted to spend their time looking for gold and hunting. Only the leadership of John Smith, who forced everyone to work and who negotiated with the Indians, guaranteed Jamestown's initial survival.

Conditions deteriorated after Smith left in 1609, but there were important developments over the next decade. John Rolfe introduced tobacco as a cash crop, and even though James I was an ardent antismoking advocate, it quickly became a valuable export for the colony. To attract labor and new capital, the London Company instituted the headright system in 1618. Anyone who paid his or her own passage to Jamestown received fifty acres of land plus another fifty acres for each additional individual they might bring. The latter were indentured servants, who agreed to work for their sponsor for a fixed term (usually four to seven years) in return for their passage. There were also newcomers to the colony that came in chains. The first ship to bring African slaves to North America landed at Jamestown in 1619.

Even with the headright system and the influx of indentured servants, Jamestown grew slowly. There were only about twelve hundred settlers by 1622. Death from disease and malnutrition took its toll, the company was in debt to its shareholders, and conflicts with the Indians became more common as the colony expanded. These problems led the king to revoke the charter of the London Company; Virginia became a royal colony under the direct control of the crown in 1624.


Jamestown: The First English Settlement in America


By the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, adventurers were far more attracted to plundering Spanish treasure than to costly colonization. But in 1605, during the reign of James I, two wealthy English merchant groups merged to form the Virginia Company, and provided the vast capital needed to establish an American colony.

In 1607, 500 English colonists landed at Chesapeake Bay and built Jamestown. A malarial swamp and undrinkable river water made the site a bad choice, and drought, famine, and disease all but exterminated the colony and drove some to cannibalism. By 1610, only sixty survived.

Colonist John Smith soon took leadership. According to legend, Smith’s life was saved in 1608 by eleven-year-old Pocahontas, daughter of the chief of the Powhatan. Smith quickly earned the trust of Chief Powhatan--whose assistance initially kept the colonists alive--but hostilities returned when local tribes felt threatened by the colonists’ expansion, and continued long after Smith left to found New England in 1609. A temporary peace was achieved when settler John Rolfe married Pocahontas in 1614. Rolfe transformed Jamestown’s fortunes with a new, exportable strain of tobacco, and the colony grew. Meanwhile, the Virginia Company was making gradual improvements in colonists’ rights in an attempt to draw more people to the settlement. In 1619, Jamestown’s House of Burgesses--a sort of parliament--became the first elected governing body in Virginia, and indeed in the New World. It was North America’s first step toward democratic government.