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A Biography of America

English Settlement

As the American character begins to take shape in the early seventeenth century, English settlements develop in New England and Virginia. Their personalities are dramatically different. Professor Miller explores the origins of values, cultures, and economies that have collided in the North and South throughout the American story.

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Program 2: English Settlement/New England and Virginia

Donald L. Miller and Pauline Maier


Miller: And like Pauline said, you throw up a question, like Virginia versus Massachusetts. You know, you have Englishmen settling both places, but they’re different places…

The American character. How and when does it emerge?

Two distinct American types, New England and Virginia. But wait a minute. Inside Virginia, there’s all kinds of different types as well. Indentured servants, slaves, the intermixing thereof.

Maier: In the 17th century in Virginia, women were dying in their 30s, men in their 40s. Whereas in New England, the men were living into their 60s and 70s, and the wives living also into old age. What’s the difference between those societies?

Miller: I see all this and I get a headache, because I think how the hell are we going to do this? [laughter]

Maier: One way of doing it is not simply by giving answers, but asking questions.

Miller: Today on A Biography of America, “The Evolving American Character”.

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The Colony at Jamestown

[Photo: Donald Miller]

Miller: The American Republic was born in 1776, but the revolution that created it began a century and a half earlier, when Englishmen started building a new culture and country in the North American wilderness. We will trace the slow evolution of this new thing called an American, in two profoundly different colonies, Virginia and Massachusetts Bay.

By 1700, they were the most populous and prosperous of England’s North American settlements, and their populations were overwhelmingly English. Yet they’d already begun to develop distinctly American ways of life. They were, however, almost as different from one another as they were from England. How these Englishmen developed, in the same land and at the same time, two vastly different civilizations, both of them with some uniquely American strains, is the focus of this program.

[Picture of Powhatan]


In 1600, the forests of the Chesapeake Bay area were the home of Algonquin-speaking tribes who belonged to a powerful confederation ruled by a single chief, Powhatan. The Powhatans were warlike, recklessly courageous, and suspicious of strangers. For them, the most humiliating defeat was not death in battle, but the loss of their ancestral lands.

Into these lands, in 1607, came three small ships carrying 104 Englishmen, all of them men. They were employees of the London Company, a joint stock enterprise created to find gold and other riches in the American Eden. English America began as a business proposition.

The strangers sailed up a broad river and landed on a small peninsula they named Jamestown. It was a perfect place for defense, but it turned out to be a death trap. The mixture of salt water and fresh water in this mosquito-infested swamp became filthy from the settlers’ waste matter, and this triggered raging epidemics of typhoid, dysentery, and salt poisoning. The Englishmen died like flies.

They also died because they wouldn’t work. The company had sent over a collection of colonists that was a disaster about to happen–lazy gentlemen who’d never worked; London street urchins too worn down to work; craftsmen whose skills were pathetically unsuited to pioneering: goldsmiths and jewelers, barbers and glassblowers. So in bountiful Virginia, with the forests and rivers filled with game, they starved. Only 38 were alive, 9 months later.

Indian Relations

[Picture of John Smith]

John Smith

They might all have died had it not been for John Smith. The son of a yeoman farmer, Smith had left England at an early age, in the pattern of De Soto, to fight the Moors in Hungary. He was captured in battle and made a slave in Turkey, but escaped to Russia and found his way back to London just in time to sail with the first ships bound for Virginia.

Smith was too low born to command the respect of the rich lay-abouts who governed Virginia. But in desperation, the company made him virtual dictator. Smith divided the settlers, including a few women who had arrived, into labor gangs and ordered them to work or starve. Then he took over negotiations with the Indians.

He and Powhatan settled into an uneasy relationship based on mutual self-interest. Powhatan wanted English iron goods and guns; Smith wanted Indian corn, the only thing that kept the colonists alive. But there was always tension. On one occasion, when trade negotiations broke down, Smith grabbed the chief’s brother, Opechancanough, pushed a pistol into his chest, and threatened to kill him unless he got his corn quota.

Not long after this, Smith was injured in a gunpowder accident and had to return to England. That winter the 500 colonists ran out of food and began dying again. Some turned to cannibalism. One man chopped up his wife and salted down the pieces. Another dug up fresh graves to feed on the corpses.

[Picture of Pocahontas]


When summer arrived, the 60 survivors boarded several ships and headed up the James River, abandoning Virginia. But on reaching the mouth of the river they ran into a relief ship from England and were ordered to turn back. For a time, things got better. More colonists were brought in, and what looked like a permanent truce with the Indians was reached when a settler named John Rolfe married Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, and took her back to England to meet the king.

But when Pocahontas and her father died within a year of one another, Opechancanough led a surprise attack on the colony, slaughtering almost a third of its population. In retaliation, parties were sent out on Indian-exterminating missions. At one bogus peace parley, the English negotiators served poisoned wine, killing over 200 Indians.

Opechancanough struck back again 22 years later, in one final, furious effort to wipe out the colony. He was captured and killed, however, and his defeated people were expelled to the Virginia frontier. By this time, the London Company had gone bankrupt and Virginia had been taken over, in 1625, by the Crown. Death rates remained appallingly high, but the colonists had found a lucrative crop.

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The Plantation System and Indentured Servitude

[Picture of a tobacco plant]

Tobacco saved Virginia and would shape its development for the next several centuries. In London, the joke was that Virginia was built on smoke. Not caring for the bitter-tasting leaf the local Indians grew, John Rolfe had experimented with a milder West Indian brand, and shipped it to England in 1617. When demand shot up, Virginians stopped searching for gold and began growing tobacco everywhere, even in the streets of Jamestown.

But Virginia remained a god-awful place. Drink and sleep were the only breaks from work in this colony where women were scarcer than corn, and brought higher prices. Men drank themselves into stupefaction. In summer, there were as many as 17 tavern ships at one time in the James River.

To make Virginia more attractive to settlers, a generous system of land grants was established and an elected legislature was created – The House of Burgesses. This was the first representative assembly in the New World. It convened in 1619, the year the first black slaves were brought into the colony. The seeds of slavery and freedom were sown at the same time.

But Virginia would develop its first plantation system without black slaves. Land was cheap and plentiful; labor was scarce. But to get rich you needed both land and labor. This abundance of land and shortage of people would shape Virginia’s, and America’s, history for the next several centuries.

Unable to recruit large numbers of free workers, planters filled their labor needs in other ways. Black bondsmen continued to be purchased, but they were expensive and in short supply. Slave traders preferred to bring Africans to the booming sugar islands in the Caribbean, where they commanded higher prices.

And what was the sense of buying an expensive slave when his chances of surviving in pestilential Virginia were abysmal?

[Picture of typical indentured servants]

So Virginians turned to a system of white bondage called indentured servitude. Drifters, drunks, and orphans were kidnapped or deceived by English recruiting agents who worked for merchants and ship captains. Criminals came cheerfully — it was America or the gallows. But most indentured servants willingly sold themselves into bondage for a term of five to seven years.

Their hope was that, once free, in land-rich America, they would rise in the world. About four of every five immigrants to the Chesapeake region in the 17th century arrived as indentured servants. In no time, Virginia and neighboring Maryland became societies of tobacco masters and bondsmen, with white servants working in gangs of eight to ten supervised by whip-wielding overseers. Because of disease and brutally harsh treatment, 40% of the servants would not survive their term of service.

Most women servants worked in the masters’ household, where many of them were sexually abused. If a woman servant had an illegitimate child, she had to serve an extra year or so for time lost for pregnancy and childbirth. There was little sense of community or stability in Virginia. Even the family was a precarious thing in a place where there were three times as many men as women, where most husbands and wives died within seven years of their marriage, and where half the children died before reaching adulthood.

[Picture of a plantation along a river]

Picture of a plantation along a river

Plantations were built some distance from one another along the region’s rivers. Planters set up their own docks and storehouses and dealt directly with overseas merchants. As a result, Virginia and Maryland had almost no towns or villages, and no merchant class of consequence. And there were few schools or churches.

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A New Wave of Colonists

Now, there was plenty of upward mobility in the first tobacco boom. But as the well-heeled planters grabbed up the best land along the coastal plain, and as tobacco prices began to drop in the 1670s because of over-production, opportunities for former servants became absolutely dismal. As more of them became free each year, their numbers began to pose problems. Here was a large and growing class of men; young, unruly, deeply discontented, and armed.

By the 1670s, Virginia was a powder keg about to explode. John Smith never had a chance to return to Virginia, but in his history of the colony he pointed out its main problem: not enough able men, too few women. Unable to persuade the London Company to change its policies, he pinned his hopes for a more stable American colony on a group of religious dissenters who were looking for a place of refuge.

The Puritans were radical Protestants who wanted to purify the Church of England, or Anglican Church, of its remaining Catholic practices, including the Latin Mass and the governing hierarchy of bishops and archbishops. They favored a plain service and a church government of autonomous congregations. The Puritans who came to America were of two types. Some remained within the Church of England, and others, called Separatists, formed their own churches, so as not to be corrupted by the established church.

[Picture of Pilgrims departing]

Pilgrims departing

But both groups were harassed by the government to the point where they felt they had to leave England. The Separatists, or Pilgrims as they came to be called, left for the New World first, in 1620, on the Mayflower, after having settled briefly in Holland. These simple, plain-living people were less prosperous and less committed to big designs than were the Puritans who built Massachusetts Bay, a far larger colony to the north of Plymouth Plantation.

John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Colony

The founder of Massachusetts Bay was John Winthrop, a Cambridge-educated lawyer and landholder. He and a group of Puritan friends took over a company that had been formed to promote American settlement, the Massachusetts Bay Company, and turned it into the nucleus of a civil government. Winthrop was elected Governor and sailed for New England in 1630. He took the company charter with him — that’s important — insuring that the colony would be self-governing.

In the next thirteen years, 20,000 more Englishmen migrated to the Bay Colony. No colonizing group would come to America in greater numbers or better prepared. Before leaving, Winthrop had talked with John Smith, who had mapped New England and given it its name.

Winthrop agreed with Smith that Virginia was an example to be avoided. Not enough discipline, along with a lust for immediate profits, had corrupted it. Winthrop was determined to go a different way.

[Picture of John Winthrop]

John Winthrop

He launched the Puritan adventure with a stirring secular sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” which he delivered at sea, on board the ship, Arbella. In it, he set down a vision of human fellowship totally lacking in the Virginia experiment. “We must be knit together as one man,” he declared, and in “brotherly affection.”

A Puritan Society

Beginning at Boston, Puritans settled in tightly-knit town-building groups. And the towns became the focal units of government. To understand New England, you must start with the towns. And to know the towns, you must know something about Puritanism, for faith was the glue that held the towns together. When the glue started to loosen, the Puritan commonwealth began to fly apart.

The Puritans were the disciples of the sixteenth-century French theologian, John Calvin. In Geneva, Switzerland, Calvin established an unforgiving theocracy in which women were drowned and men beheaded for the sins of heresy and adultery. Calvin’s core belief was the absolute depravity of man after the fall of Adam and the impossibility of salvation except for those few, the Elect, predestined to enter Heaven.

Good works could not bring on God’s saving grace. But once a person received grace, he felt an inner peace, and became a crusader against sin. Puritans admitted only the elect, or Saints, to church membership, and applicants had to prove they were saved by passing an oral test administered by church members. The test was doubly important in Massachusetts, where only church members could vote and hold political office.

[Picture of typical Puritan town]

Puritan towns were the most completely and equitably planned of any American settlements. Land that had belonged to Indians was handed out free of charge to town-building groups, rather than individuals. To keep title to it, the group had to build a town around a congregational church and agree, in a signed covenant, to live in harmony and Christian brotherhood.

Since Puritans believed in equity, not equality, men of means and stature were given larger allocations of land for their families. Even so, a rough equality prevailed, and every family received land to build homes and farms. Ministers were not permitted to hold political office, but church and state acted together to enforce moral orthodoxy. And all families had to pay taxes to support the church, whether they were members or not.

Other institutions enforced order and orthodoxy. The educational system instilled inflexible discipline and created a literate public, able to read and interpret the Bible. And in God-fearing families, mothers taught their children to spot sin in themselves and others, and watched over their husbands’ spiritual state, acting as their moral censors. Today, we hate moral surveillance; Puritans welcomed it.

Dissension and Decline of Puritanism

[Picture of a public trial]

Some historians like to point out that Puritans enjoyed beer and good fellowship. But Puritans were not a tolerant people. Couples who had babies less than 9 months after their marriage were publicly punished; several men who had consenting sex were hanged; and people were tried in court for card-playing, drunkenness, and idleness.

When dangerous dissent was spotted, it was crushed with alacrity. The first community-wide crisis involved Winthrop’s friend, Roger Williams. From his Salem pulpit, Williams thundered against ministers who refused to separate from the Church of England, and he insisted that the king couldn’t give away lands belonging to the Indians.

This infuriated Winthrop, who knew land was essential to the colony’s success. When Williams refused to back down, Winthrop banished him, and he fled to Rhode Island. There he founded a colony devoted to freedom of worship and the separation of church and state.

[Statue of Anne Hutchinson]

A greater challenge to the Puritan orthodoxy came from Anne Hutchinson, a popular mid-wife who began to hold controversial prayer meetings for women, and some men, in her home. Hutchinson, an unbending Puritan, denounced the ministers for leading people to believe that they could earn God’s grace by good works. She also argued that when a person was saved, the Holy Spirit dwelled in him and guided his life.

To Winthrop, this was revolution. By making religion a deeply personal experience, Hutchinson gave power to lay people, women as well as men, at the expense of ministers. For this, she was hauled into court, charged with sedition, and banished after a dramatic trial in which she acted as her own defense attorney.

Winthrop was her chief judge and prosecutor, and she tied him in knots with her brilliance and sharp wit. To break her down–she was eight months pregnant–she wasn’t allowed to sit, eat, drink, or leave the courtroom for natural relief. Even so, she might have been acquitted had she not claimed, like Joan of Arc, that God had spoken directly to her.

To a Puritan, that was heresy, for God revealed himself only through the Bible. Years later, Hutchinson was killed in Long Island in an Indian massacre. When word reached Winthrop, he remarked: “God’s hand is in this.”

But it wasn’t dissent that killed Winthrop’s holy experiment. It was prosperity. A prosperity that was due, in part, to Puritanism’s own ethic of hard work and self-denial, and the belief that worldly success was a sign of salvation.

As one minister said: “Religion begot prosperity, and the daughter devoured the mother.” Winthrop believed that piety and profit could go hand-in-hand. There would be trade, but it would be regulated by the state to prevent the outbreak of avaricious practices, such as price gouging. When the great Puritan patriarch died in 1649, after fathering his 16th child, his successors were unable to maintain his morally regulated economy.

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Indian Wars

Oliver Cromwell described New England as “poor, cold, and useless.” Yet in this harsh place, with its thin, rocky soil and brutal winters, Puritans built a dynamic, commercial society based on lumbering, fishing, shipbuilding, and oceanic trade.

Most New Englanders continued to live on small family farms, but in Boston and other seaports, an aggressive merchant class arose and became a power in the Atlantic trading community.

In these port towns, the Puritan was slowly becoming a Yankee. Church attendance declined and people began parading their new wealth. As this occurred, Puritan ministers increased the vehemence of their attacks on the commercial spirit, predicting that God would soon show his displeasure with New England. In 1674, a Puritan minister named Increase Mather delivered a sermon called “The Day of Trouble is Near.”

[Map of New England Colonies]

Map of New England Colonies

The following year, New England was almost wiped out by an Indian assault. It was brought on by Puritan expansion into Indian territory. Between 1650 and 1700, New England’s population grew from 23,000 to 93,000, mostly because people lived long lives and had big families in the region’s cool, healthy climate. The Pequot Indians had resisted early Puritan expansion into the Connecticut River Valley, and they were exterminated in what Winthrop called a “divine slaughter.”

Then, there was an uneasy peace with the tribes of New England until 1675. In that year, a Wampanoag chief named Metacom, known to the English as King Philip, launched the bloodiest war, in proportion to population, in American history. King Philip’s forces burned more than half the Puritan towns in New England, and pushed back the line of settlement to within 15 miles of the coast.

[Picture of Colonists and Indians at war]

It was a war fought with an uncompromising savagery. King Philip’s warriors wore belts of human skin and necklaces of human fingers. Puritans killed Indian women and sold Indian children into slavery.

When the Puritan forces captured King Philip, they executed him on the spot. Then they cut his body into four parts, severed the head, and took it to Plymouth on a pole for a Thanksgiving Day celebration. It remained there for many years.

A Budding System of Black Bondage in Virginia

After his death, King Philip’s forces were eventually defeated by hunger and disease. Not long after this, merchants in the seaport towns began to petition the English Crown to loosen Puritan restrictions on free trade and voting, and stop persecuting other religions. The Crown began an investigation, and in 1691 it combined Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth and made the enlarged colony a royal colony.

Property ownership replaced church membership as the basis for voting and office-holding, and religious toleration was extended to all Protestants. The ministers, of course, complained, citing the loss of Winthrop’s original charter as God’s punishment for New England’s growing secularization. But the new charter ended exclusive Puritan rule in Massachusetts.

At almost the same time, the Crown tightened its control on Virginia. There, the cause was civil insurrection. As King Philips’ War was ending on the New England frontier, Jamestown, Virginia, was burned to the ground by a band of insurgents led by an unlikely revolutionary named Nathaniel Bacon.

[Picture of Nathaniel Bacon]

Nathaniel Bacon

The trouble started with a frontier war between land-hungry white settlers and Indians. When Governor William Berkeley refused to send help, frontiersmen rallied behind Bacon, a rich, young hot-blood who had recently arrived from England. When Bacon attacked friendly and hostile Indians alike, Berkeley declared him a rebel. Bacon then marched on Jamestown, captured it, and pillaged the estates of the pro-Berkeley elite.

It was civil war. Only it didn’t last long. By the time an English force arrived to crush the revolt, Bacon lay dead of dysentery and his buckskin army of indentured servants, runaway slaves, and former servants had melted away.

Bacon’s Rebellion led to tighter British control of the colony. It may also have hastened the movement toward a labor system based on black slavery. Some historians argue that Virginia planters, fearing another insurrection by former white servants, began to turn to Africa for laborers. Maybe so, but other more important factors were moving the colony toward a system of black bondage.

Planters were finding it more difficult to recruit white servants because of improving economic conditions back in England. At the same time, the price of Africans began to drop. And they became a safer investment as Virginia became a safer place, that is, a healthier place, to live. In 1650, there were only about 400 black slaves in Virginia. By 1700, Virginia had a well-developed slave system.

A New Civilization Emerging

By this time, the future character of both New England and the Chesapeake region had begun to take shape. One was a society of closely-knit towns made up of literate, improvement-oriented, free laborers. The other was a society of scattered plantations dependent on unfree labor, a growing proportion of it black.

These regional differences between North and South would persist, and widen, long after the colonies came together as one nation. And eventually they would lead to a cataclysmic Civil War. Yet however great their differences, each region had begun to develop a number of distinctly American institutions, among them Virginia’s plantation system and New England’s system of town-centered government.

Geography, climate, and unique adaptations to a wilderness environment, along with 3,000 miles of ocean separating them from England, had begun to make the colonists Americans, often without their realizing it. As they developed a more mature society in the next century, colonists of wealth and stature began to more strongly emulate the ideas and fashions and architecture of British high society. Yet no matter how hard they tried to recreate English society in the New World, they were becoming a different people.

This portrait of Mrs. Elizabeth Frique and her baby Mary is, at its heart, a portrait of the Puritan prosperity in the late 17th century. Elizabeth Frique was the wife of a well-off lawyer and merchant in Boston. Here she is the model of the Puritan middle-class matron: pretty, but plain-faced, sitting stiffly, composed and somewhat remote.

She is dressed in her Sunday best, her elaborate Dutch lace collar and cuffs, pearl necklace, jet-bead bracelet. Her carved wooden chair is upholstered in rich pile fabric known as Turkeywork, which had to be imported into the colonies. In the first version of this portrait, Elizabeth Frique sat alone. Some time later, her daughter was born, and then painted in.

Together, the two epitomize sharp distinctions between New England and Virginia. Here was an orderly society, embracing women and children, a society centered on home and hearth — the power of property and wealth now competing with the power of God.

About Timelines

Historians depend on one bedrock principle when they set out to tell a story of what happened in the past. That bedrock is chronology — the arrangement of events in time. Is the study of history just a list of dates to be memorized? No, it is much more than that. But knowing when an event took place is a key component in understanding the relationship of many events and to the telling of a fuller, more interesting story. The story of the unfolding of a single life, a nation, or even a whole planet, takes place in time. Our devices for measuring time, clocks and calendars, maybe crude tools, but they are essential if we want to know when something happened and how one event relates to another.

History is a rich interaction of peoples, places, and events. All of us fit somewhere in the timeline of history. Even though we cannot get into a time machine and travel physically to another century, we can truly think in time. Just as traveling from place to place can enrich your understanding of your world, thinking in time can make you not only a citizen of your own time, but, through the human imagination, you can travel anywhere along the signposts of history. This gives you a way of looking at things that can broaden your horizons far beyond your own personal experience.

Questions to Ponder

American history often focuses on the settlement of the 13 British colonies that join together as the United States. But while the British colonists were settling North America, other European nations were also colonizing North America and the Caribbean, and events in Europe were impacting colonization.

1. From the information on the colonization timeline, how would you describe the English settlement of the New World? Did it occur rapidly or slowly? Did it unfold differently in different geographical locations?

2. What other forces and events affected English colonization?

3. What makes an event or a person important enough to be included on a timeline?

4. Construct a timeline of important historical events that have occurred in your own lifetime. Add to this timeline events about yourself, your family, and your educational institution. How do you fit into history, and how has history affected you?


Boorstin, Daniel. The Americans: The Colonial Experience. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.

Demos, John. The Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

Vaughan, Alden T. American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975.

Vaughan, Alden T. New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965.


  • John Winthrop
    • John Winthrop
      A biography of John Winthrop. Includes excerpts from his writings.
    • PAL: John Winthrop
      A portrait of Winthrop, with links to a brief chronology of his life, a selected bibliography, etc.


  • Winthrop’s Sermon ” A Model of Christian Charity”
    • John Winthrop (1588-1649)
      A page of links to John Winthrop sites. Includes a link to A Modell of Christian Charity.





  • Opechancanough
    • Chronology of Indian Activity
      A chronology of Jamestown, Virginia, and Indian history with references to Opechancanough and his life.
    • Virginia Records Time Line
      An illustrated Virginia history timeline with reference to Opechancanough.


  • Pocahontas
    • Baptism of Pocahontas
      The painting Baptism of Pocahontas, by John G. Chapman, located in the U.S. Capitol.
    • Four Faces of Pocahontas
      Biographical information on Pocahontas, and four portraits.
    • Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend
      A biography of Pocahontas, with a bibliography and related links.


  • Roger Williams
    • Today in History: February 5
      Biographical information on Roger Williams, with illustrations and related links, including links to maps and sermons.




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A Biography of America


Produced by WGBH Boston in cooperation with the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, and with the assistance of Instructional Resources Corporation. 2000.
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