Back to Government Homepage


Background to English Expansion in North America

When Christopher Columbus completed the first of his four journeys to the New World, he came back to an Old World that was fundamentally altered. Europeans, especially the monarchs of powerful European countries, recognized that gaining territories in the New World would bring about an increase in the amount of land, people, and natural resources under each monarch’s control, thus extending their country’s political power worldwide.

The two dominant forces in Europe at the time were Spain and Portugal. Both countries had assembled formidable military forces and had demonstrated a will to extend their influence beyond their borders. When the feeding frenzy of New World territorial expansion began after Columbus’ 1492 journey, it seemed likely that Spain and Portugal would constantly battle each other for supremacy. Foreseeing this, Pope Alexander VI proposed that the two nations divide the world in two, each country controlling one half. In 1494, in the Treaty of Tordesillas, the two countries agreed to this plan. In effect, Portugal received exclusive dominion over the eastern hemisphere, including all of Africa and much of Asia; Spain then was left in control of the western hemisphere, which included much of the Pacific Ocean and all of North and South America (except, curiously, the western tip of South America, which became the basis for the Portuguese colony of Brazil). This agreement allowed Portugal to focus on the areas such as Africa where it was dominant and Spain to focus on developing its new claims in the New World.

Spain rapidly conquered and settled the valuable sugar producing islands of the Caribbean, the vast populations and mining and agricultural region of Mexico, and most of Central and South America. Spanish attempts to settle North America, however, were generally unsuccessful. About 1526, a town of 500 was established on the Georgia coast but withdrawn when 150 of the settlers died. Despite this failure, Spain continued to gain wealth by exploring lands and conquering native inhabitants, a fact that was not lost on emerging European powers such as England, France, and the Netherlands. These countries sought to challenge Spanish dominance in the New World and establish colonies of their own, but with the seas controlled by the mighty Spanish navy, the best these countries could do was explore and hope for an event to signify Spain’s downfall.

In the 1560s, Spain, reacting to the landing of French Protestants in Florida, established its own settlement at St. Augustine, Florida. The Spanish also moved to settle up the coast in present-day South Carolina. From there, soldiers were sent out to find gold, bring the Native Americans under governmental control, and establish more forts inland, while missionaries attempted to save the souls of the newly conquered. By 1576, however, there was an Indian uprising against the Spanish and the English were raiding Spanish settlements in the Caribbean and at St. Augustine. Spain abandoned all of her settlements in Spanish Florida except St. Augustine, which was needed to defend the Caribbean and the sea routes between her American empire and Spain itself. All subsequent Spanish settlement in the future United States was in the west, beginning with the founding of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1609, and a string of cities, forts and missions in California, beginning in the 1690s.

England Emerges

Countries cannot build empires without first achieving internal stability and strength. Spain was a strong, centralized nation-state run by an absolute monarch, and this enabled the country to establish a wealthy empire, a large navy, and a well-organized army. England, on the other hand, was weak during much of the sixteenth century, divided by religious quarrels between the Protestant Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, political rivalries with the Kingdom of Scotland to the north, and dynastic struggles over which branch of the royal family would rule. It would not be until Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne that stability would be achieved and these problems would be solved, at least temporarily, enabling England could pursue its own ambitions of empire.

Much of the stability arose as much from the Queen’s long life as from her refusal to marry, which prevented powerful noble families from adding claims to the royal succession. Politically astute, Elizabeth also balanced potential rivals in England by agreeing to share power with Parliament. Elizabeth’s famous—although dubious—status as “the Virgin Queen” eventually solved the political rivalry with Scotland, for when Elizabeth died in 1603, she was followed on the throne by her nearest heir, King James of Scotland, who united England and Scotland under his rule. In terms of religion, stability was achieved by the adoption of the Church of England as the established church in England, and the Calvinist Presbyterian Church in Scotland. Rivalries settled, England could begin to look abroad.

Before England realistically could hope to establish any colonies in the New World, she would need to build a navy to compete with the mighty Spanish navy. Building an armed force essentially from scratch required a considerable amount of money, which Queen Elizabeth attempted to gain by waging an undeclared “secret war” against Spain. She authorized private individuals (who came to be known as “Sea Dogs”) to carry out raids against the Spanish in the New World and to attack merchant ships loaded down with Spanish gold and silver. The Sea Dogs were essentially pirates, and the most famous of them all was Sir Francis Drake. After numerous adventures attacking Spanish ships in the Atlantic Ocean, Drake circumnavigated the globe in 1580, attacking and plundering Spanish outposts and ships all along the way. His journey gained him widespread acclaim, riches for the Queen to use in building her navy, and the attention of the increasingly suspicious Spanish crown. In the following years, Spain would grow increasingly frustrated by the actions of the Sea Dogs and by the support that they seemed to be getting from the English government. Trouble was brewing.

The Early Attempt at Roanoke

After a few abortive attempts at settlement in the late 1570s, England was poised to try again in 1585. Sir Walter Raleigh, an entrepreneur and “special advisor” to the Queen, convinced her to let him sponsor a settlement in North America. He hoped to establish a profitable colony in America to serve as a base for raids on the Spanish and to produce commodities needed by England, such as wine, silk, sugar, bananas, and naval stores. A first expedition established the settlement of Roanoke on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1585, but the first settlers were not enchanted by their surroundings. Food was scarce, and the Native Americans grew increasingly suspicious and hostile to the English settlers. When Sir Francis Drake stopped by the settlement in early 1586, he found a group of hungry, discontented settlers, and he brought them home to England. Undaunted, Sir Walter Raleigh convinced the Queen to sponsor a second settlement in 1587, this time destined for the Chesapeake Bay, where food was plentiful and the Native Americans were rumored to be more friendly. However, when the settlers reached the New World, they found themselves considerably south of their destination, back in unfriendly Roanoke. Making the best of a bad situation, the settlers attempted to grow crops and make peace with the Native Americans. However, supplies were scarce and a supply boat never arrived. Late in 1587, the settlers urged their governor, John White, to return to England and gather supplies.

The settlers expected White to be back within months, but he was unable to return until 1590. In the meantime, Spain, upset by England’s interference in the Americas, declared war and planned to invade England. The British government, on paper much weaker than Spain, ordered all English ships and crews to remain in England for defense, including John White’s. Spain’s Armada, or invasion force, attacked in 1588, but surprisingly was defeated by a combination of severe storms and a determined English fleet. With the defeat of its Armada, Spain’s long decline had begun.

Liberated from military service, Governor White returned to Roanoke in 1590, only to find an abandoned settlement and a mysterious message, “CROATOAN,” etched on a tree trunk. The fate of the settlers of the “Missing Colony of Roanoke” has never been settled definitively. Perhaps they were attacked by the nearby Croatan Native Americans, or went to seek help from them, or set out to find a new home north toward the Chesapeake Bay. Once thing was certain: the settlement attempt was much more expensive than anticipated, and Sir Walter Raleigh personally lost a huge sum of money on the failed expedition. To succeed financially, any future colony would have to be created as a venture of joint-stock company, which would have many investors to raise more capital and to spread the risk.

The Settlement of Jamestown

Nearly twenty years passed before England would make another serious attempt at colonizing North America. Learning from the earlier failures, investors established the Virginia Company of London, a joint-stock company named in honor of the late Queen Elizabeth. In 1607, the expedition of 104 stockholders and employees, all men and boys, arrived on a peninsula near Chesapeake Bay, and named the settlement Jamestown after the king. They chose the location carefully: it had to be on a river for transportation, trade and exploration inland, but not right on the coast, where the Spanish or French pirates could easily find it. At first glance, Jamestown appeared to be ideal. The location was surrounded by the river and marshes, which made it easily defensible, but the marshes were ridden with malaria and other diseases. The original landing party included soldiers to build and defend the fort, craftsmen to make bricks and glass, and explorers to seek precious metals, naval stores, and perhaps the fabled Northwest Passage. There were, however, few farmers because the settlers expected to get most of their food in trade with the Native Americans, little realizing that these Native Americans, unlike those in Mexico and Peru, barely raised enough food for their own needs. They also expected that the Native Americans would follow European concepts of diplomatic relations and property rights. When neither of the preconceptions came to pass, violence between the two groups was almost inevitable. With all these errors, the Jamestown settlement nearly passed out of existence. Of the first 104 settlers, only thirty-eight survived the first winter. High death rates would plague the colony for many years, until settlement eventually reached inland toward Williamsburg.

As a commercial venture, the Virginia Company gave little thought to government or to the necessities of a permanent settlement. The twin cornerstones of British society, self-government and private property, were both lacking. The stockholders appointed governors to rule the settlers as well as all council members in Virginia, who, faced with Native American problems and demand for profits by the stockholders, ruled as dictators. All land was owned by the company, and there was little incentive for employees and indentured servants to work. The death rate remained high, resulting in a constant need for new settlers from England.

The need for work and population incentives eventually resulted in compromises by the company that set the pattern of English settlement and government in North America. The company first began to allow private ownership of land. The landowners would work part-time for the company, and produce and sell food to the company. In 1618, to encourage immigration, the company established a “headright system” by which any person who paid his own way would receive 100 acres for themselves and additional acres for their family members or for any indentured servants (and later slaves) brought over. In 1619, the company also sent women over to encourage families and permanent settlement.

Still, the colony could not survive if it did not make a profit or establish more harmonious relations with its Native American neighbors. By his actions and innovations, a man named John Rolfe addressed both of these problems. First, he helped establish at least temporary peace with the Native American tribe nearby by marrying the chief’s daughter, Pocahantas. This helped ease tensions between the native inhabitants of the peninsula and the English settlers. Second, Rolfe helped establish tobacco as a profitable crop in Virginia. Tobacco smoking had become very popular in England (despite of King James’ attempts to suppress what he called a “vile and stinking custom”), but was a drain on the British economy because the preferred varieties of tobacco came from the Spanish colonies. Rolfe obtained Spanish West Indian seed in 1612 and found that he was able to grow the crop successfully in Virginia. Suddenly, Jamestown went from being an outpost of disease and discontent to the capital city of a New World industry. The success of tobacco generated not only tremendous profits for investors but also a need for more land and more labor.

From Company to Royal Colony

By 1619, Virginia was beginning to gain notice as England’s first successful settlement in North America. That year proved significant for two other moves that would influence American history: government and slavery. As part of the further reforms of 1618 and to further immigration, the Company ended the arbitrary rule of the Company and extended more “rights of Englishmen” to the settlers. It allowed the formation of the first elected representative assembly in any of the European colonies in America. This assembly, including representatives from various Virginia settlements, met as the House of Burgesses on July 30, 1619, though it would be many years before it would be a true democracy. Women, indentured servants, slaves, Native Americans, free Africans, religious dissenters, and those who owned no property were, with very rare exceptions, denied suffrage. Still, it was a first step, and far beyond what the Spanish, French, Dutch, or other European colonies were allowed.

Despite the promising signs, Virginia was still hanging on to a thin strip of the coast and suffering from many problems. Death rates were still extremely high. For example, in 1618, the population stood at 1,000. By 1624, 4,000 more had immigrated to Virginia, but in 1625, the official population was only 1,210. Sickness took most, some doubtless returned to England, but 347 died as a result of war. In 1622, upset by constant encroachments on their land, the nearby Algonquins of the Powhatan Confederacy coordinated simultaneous attacks on the scattered English settlements, almost wiping some out entirely. The Native Americans were defeated eventually, but not before the rebellion raised the concern of the King. The conflict, coupled with word of the company’s maltreatment of indentured servants, raised the ire of the English government. In 1624, King James I revoked the Virginia Company’s charter and converted the territory into a royal colony. The governors appointed by the King quickly found it impossible to rule the Virginians without the colonists’ consent, and by 1629, the House of Burgesses was again making laws.

Slavery in Virginia

In an ironic quirk of history, commerce and chance introduced the very antithesis of democracy just a month after the establishment of the first House of Burgesses. At the end of August 1619, a Dutch ship arrived and sold nineteen Africans to some settlers. English law at the time prohibited slavery, and the first Africans may have been indentured servants. Nonetheless, the colonists were quick to adopt slavery, which was already well established in the many nations in Africa, Europe, and Asia, from whence it had spread to Spain, Portugal, and their colonies in America.

Slaves, however, were not the major source of labor until about 1670 (they made up five percent of the population in 1671, twenty-five percent in 1715, and fifty percent in 1775). Various theories have been offered as to why indentured white Englishmen continued, for fifty years, to be the primary source of forced labor. Some suggest that it was the high mortality rate in Virginia before 1670. Most servants were practically in the status of a slave anyway for seven years, but the cost to a planter of an indentured servant was about half that of a slave. However, in the early days, most indentured servants and slaves—and their owners too—died within seven years of arriving in Virginia. There was no financial incentive to own the lifetime of labor of a slave until the Virginia lifespan lengthened. Other theories have also been offered. As the population of Virginia grew, freed indentured servants began to exist in larger numbers, and settlement became more widespread, it became possible for an indentured servant to run away, blending into the general population. There were very few free Africans, however, so a runaway African slave could easily be identified and returned to his owner. A third theory revolves around Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.

With existing agricultural lands on the east coast taken up by wealthy Virginia planters, freed indentured servants found it necessary to find land in the frontier lands of western Virginia, where representation in the House of Burgesses was minimal and conflict with Native Americans was considerable. The eastern counties had been settled first, so they enjoyed more representation in the House of Burgesses than newer western counties, where counties and populations were often much larger. After a series of incidents with Native Americans, the settlers petitioned the House of Burgesses to send out the militia for protection. When the House of Burgesses, dominated by east coast planters refused, Nathaniel Bacon led a group of white western settlers in a rebellion against the governor and the eastern planters. In the process, Jamestown was burned to the ground and the governor was run out of town. Bacon soon succumbed to disease and the rebellion was put down. Some historians speculate that powerful eastern planters were so shaken by Bacon’s Rebellion that they moved toward increased use of African slaves in order to prevent the further growth of a discontented poor and free white population. However, the scanty contemporary records available do not fully support this theory. What is certain is that, by the end of the seventeenth century, Virginia was importing more slaves and phasing out the indentured servant system.

Virginia and English Power

Although the Virginia Company introduced tobacco production to the New World, the company itself never realized any profits. However, individual planters did. In the early years, when tobacco prices were high, profits were great, especially for those who could afford large labor forces of indentured servants or slaves. As tobacco acreage increased, the price of tobacco dropped and other crops also became important. Over the next century, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania came to constitute the “grain belt” of the emerging British Empire. This grain, mostly wheat, was exported mainly to the West Indies where planters found it more profitable to grow sugar and buy their food from America. Enterprising Virginians added to their colony’s wealth and status by starting businesses as land speculators and as exporters of naval stores, glass, and “pig iron.” As the largest colony, in terms of both area and population, Virginia was the indispensable colony, and it served as a model for future colonial movements.

The urge to establish an English colony in the New World had been dreamed since the days of Columbus. However, it was impossible to attempt before Queen Elizabeth I came to power, and it was infeasible to do while the Spanish still dominated. But after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the doors were open to English settlement. For all of the trials and tribulations that the English endured to plant a colony in the New World, from the Lost Colony of Roanoke to the horrifying death rates in the first years of Jamestown, Virginia survived. It was significant not only because it announced an English presence in North America. That presence would evolve over the next two centuries as new generations of colonists contributed to, expanded, and later challenged English authority in the New World.

Chapter I Vocabulary Terms
Treaty of Tordesillas

Queen Elizabeth I

Francis Drake

Spanish Armada



John White

Joint-Stock Company

John Rolfe


House of Burgesses

Indentured Servant

Headright System


Bacon’s Rebellion

Chapter I Review Questions

1. Why was England originally unable to compete with Spain in colonizing the New World?

2. Why did the settlements at Roanoke fail? What is the most plausible explanation for what happened to the lost colony?

3. Why did the founders of Virginia use a joint-stock company? Why was Virginia later changed to a royal colony? Why did the king have to institute court proceedings to revoke the charter?

4. What difficulties did the settlers of Jamestown face in their first few years in Virginia? How was the settlement able to survive?

5. What is an indentured servant? Why would a poor Englishman become one?

6. What were the “rights of Englishmen” that colonists demanded?

7. Why was slavery adopted widely in Virginia after about 1670?

8. What caused the east-west tensions between settlers in Virginia?

9. Explain the circumstances surrounding Bacon’s Rebellion and why Bacon attacked Jamestown.

Back to Government Homepage