Virginia: A Southern Colony
Jamestown, Virginia, was the first successful English settlement in America. After a shaky start, Virginia began to grow and prosper.By 1700, the descendants of those early settlers had become wealthy landowners and the most important people in Virginia.
The economy of Virginia was based on tobacco. Tobacco planters needed vast areas of land to be successful. They also needed a large number of laborers to grow their crops.
At first, planters tried putting the surrounding American Indian tribes to work. But the tribes in this area were not used to farming.Worse, many of them died of diseases they caught from the colonists. The others faded into the forests and disappeared.
Next, tobacco planters tried bringing the poverty-stricken from England to work their land. In exchange for free passage to Virginia, the workers agreed to become indentured servants for a period of five to seven years. Many men, women, and children came to Virginia as indentured servants. After completing their service, they were given their freedom along with a small plot of land, some clothing, tools, and seeds.
The first Africans brought to Virginia were also treated as indentured servants. At first, they had the same rights and freedoms as white servants. Once their service ended, they could buy land and servants of their own.
Gradually, however, planters turned to slaves to solve their labor problem. Slaves brought from Africa cost twice as much as servants, but because they were considered to be property, slaves were not released from service like indentured servants.
For the planters, enslaving Africans had other advantages as well. Most enslaved Africans were already familiar with different methods of farming. In addition, because of their dark skin, it was hard for them to escape from their owners and blend into the rest of the population.
Virginia elected an assembly, called the House of Burgesses, in 1619. In 1661, the House of Burgesses passed a law that made African workers slaves for life. By 1700, Virginia had more than 16,000 enslaved Africans—more than one-fourth of the colony's population. For Virginia, slavery had become a way of life.