Economic Opportunity in the Colonial Life

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012


In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed west to establish a colony on Newfoundland. He never returned to England; historians believe that his ship went down with all hands on the return voyage. Gilbert’s half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, made the next attempt. Raleigh explored the Atlantic coast and claimed the territory of Virginia, named in honor of Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen.” This territory was much larger than the present-day state of Virginia; it included West Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas.

Raleigh felt that the Virginia territory was ideal for a colony. The climate was mild, rivers and game were plentiful, and the soil was fertile. His favorable reports aroused enough enthusiasm that he was able to return to Virginia in 1585 with a small group of people who were prepared to settle the new colony. They landed on the island of Roanoke, off present-day North Carolina. Most gave up the attempt to subdue the wilderness after struggling for about a year. Raleigh, however, was too stubborn to accept defeat. He recruited about 100 people for another attempt, and put John White in command of the group. White saw his charges settled on Roanoke, then returned to England for sup- plies. He was unable to return to Roanoke until 1590. When he did return, there was no trace of the colony he had left. To this day, historians do not know what became of the settlers of Roanoke.

The British were still convinced that they would succeed in settling America. King James I issued the Charter of 1606, licensing the Plymouth Company to settle the coast from Maine to Virginia, and the London Company to do the same from New York to South Carolina. These joint-stock companies were made up of investors who agreed to share in the expenses of the voyages in return for equal shares of the profits (if any). The London Company lost no time in sending its first shipload of willing men and women to America. They settled on a river leading to the Chesapeake Bay and named their colony James- town, in honor of the king. John Smith, a strong-willed and capable man who had been by turns an adventurer, a murderer, a soldier, and a pirate, was chosen the first president of Jamestown.

The Jamestown colonists were fortunate to find the local Algonquin tribes friendly and helpful. The Algonquin showed the British how to grow and cook corn, and dry and grind it for flour; corn was native to the Americas but unknown in Europe. The Algonquin chief Wahunsonacock (called Powhatan by the English) had a daughter aged 10 or 12 called Pocahontas, who would later marry Englishman John Rolfe and travel to England. Her friendliness to the settlers helped to maintain good relations between the Algonquin and the British. Both sides trusted her, and she argued for the release of British prisoners of the Algonquin (although many historians doubt the legend that she threw herself across John Smith’s body to save him from being killed).

The winter months of 1609–1610 proved to be bitterly cold, and the English were still unable to fend for themselves in this strange new country. They felt no scruples about raiding the Algonquin villages for food and supplies, thus creating ongoing hostility between the two groups.

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