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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·The Colonial Peoples · CHAPTER I·»

The Process of Colonization

Considered from one side, colonization, whatever the motives of the emigrants, was an economic matter. It involved the use of capital to pay for their passage, to sustain them on the voyage, and to start them on the way of production. Under this stern economic necessity, Puritans, Scotch-Irish, Germans, and all were alike laid.

Immigrants Who Paid Their Own Way.—Many of the immigrants to America in colonial days were capitalists themselves, in a small or a large way, and paid their own passage. What proportion of the colonists were able to finance their voyage across the sea is a matter of pure conjecture. Undoubtedly a very considerable number could do so, for we can trace the family fortunes of many early settlers. Henry Cabot Lodge is authority for the statement that “the settlers of New England were drawn from the country gentlemen, small farmers, and yeomanry of the mother country.... Many of the emigrants were men of wealth, as the old lists show, and all of them, with few exceptions, were men of property and good standing. They did not belong to the classes from which emigration is usually supplied, for they all had a stake in the country they left behind.” Though it would be interesting to know how accurate this statement is or how applicable to the other colonies, no study has as yet been made to gratify that interest. For the present it is an unsolved problem just how many of the colonists were able to bear the cost of their own transfer to the New World.

Indentured Servants.—That at least tens of thousands of immigrants were unable to pay for their passage is established beyond the shadow of a doubt by the shipping records that have come down to us. The great barrier in the way of the poor who wanted to go to America was the cost of the sea voyage. To overcome this difficulty a plan was worked out whereby shipowners and other persons of means furnished the passage money to immigrants in return for their promise, or bond, to work for a term of years to repay the sum advanced. This system was called indentured servitude.

It is probable that the number of bond servants exceeded the original twenty thousand Puritans, the yeomen, the Virginia gentlemen, and the Huguenots combined. All the way down the coast from Massachusetts to Georgia were to be found in the fields, kitchens, and workshops, men, women, and children serving out terms of bondage generally ranging from five to seven years. In the proprietary colonies the proportion of bond servants was very high. The Baltimores, Penns, Carterets, and other promoters anxiously sought for workers of every nationality to till their fields, for land without labor was worth no more than land in the moon. Hence the gates of the proprietary colonies were flung wide open. Every inducement was offered to immigrants in the form of cheap land, and special efforts were made to increase the population by importing servants. In Pennsylvania, it was not uncommon to find a master with fifty bond servants on his estate. It has been estimated that two-thirds of all the immigrants into Pennsylvania between the opening of the eighteenth century and the outbreak of the Revolution were in bondage. In the other Middle colonies the number was doubtless not so large; but it formed a considerable part of the population.

The story of this traffic in white servants is one of the most striking things in the history of labor. Bondmen differed from the serfs of the feudal age in that they were not bound to the soil but to the master. They likewise differed from the negro slaves in that their servitude had a time limit. Still they were subject to many special disabilities. It was, for instance, a common practice to impose on them penalties far heavier than were imposed upon freemen for the same offense. A free citizen of Pennsylvania who indulged in horse racing and gambling was let off with a fine; a white servant guilty of the same unlawful conduct was whipped at the post and fined as well.

The ordinary life of the white servant was also severely restricted. A bondman could not marry without his master’s consent; nor engage in trade; nor refuse work assigned to him. For an attempt to escape or indeed for any infraction of the law, the term of service was extended. The condition of white bondmen in Virginia, according to Lodge, “was little better than that of slaves. Loose indentures and harsh laws put them at the mercy of their masters.” It would not be unfair to add that such was their lot in all other colonies. Their fate depended upon the temper of their masters.

Cruel as was the system in many ways, it gave thousands of people in the Old World a chance to reach the New—an opportunity to wrestle with fate for freedom and a home of their own. When their weary years of servitude were over, if they survived, they might obtain land of their own or settle as free mechanics in the towns. For many a bondman the gamble proved to be a losing venture because he found himself unable to rise out of the state of poverty and dependence into which his servitude carried him. For thousands, on the contrary, bondage proved to be a real avenue to freedom and prosperity. Some of the best citizens of America have the blood of indentured servants in their veins.

The Transported—Involuntary Servitude.—In their anxiety to secure settlers, the companies and proprietors having colonies in America either resorted to or connived at the practice of kidnapping men, women, and children from the streets of English cities. In 1680 it was officially estimated that “ten thousand persons were spirited away” to America. Many of the victims of the practice were young children, for the traffic in them was highly profitable. Orphans and dependents were sometimes disposed of in America by relatives unwilling to support them. In a single year, 1627, about fifteen hundred children were shipped to Virginia.

In this gruesome business there lurked many tragedies, and very few romances. Parents were separated from their children and husbands from their wives. Hundreds of skilled artisans—carpenters, smiths, and weavers—utterly disappeared as if swallowed up by death. A few thus dragged off to the New World to be sold into servitude for a term of five or seven years later became prosperous and returned home with fortunes. In one case a young man who was forcibly carried over the sea lived to make his way back to England and establish his claim to a peerage.

Akin to the kidnapped, at least in economic position, were convicts deported to the colonies for life in lieu of fines and imprisonment. The Americans protested vigorously but ineffectually against this practice. Indeed, they exaggerated its evils, for many of the “criminals” were only mild offenders against unduly harsh and cruel laws. A peasant caught shooting a rabbit on a lord’s estate or a luckless servant girl who purloined a pocket handkerchief was branded as a criminal along with sturdy thieves and incorrigible rascals. Other transported offenders were “political criminals”; that is, persons who criticized or opposed the government. This class included now Irish who revolted against British rule in Ireland; now Cavaliers who championed the king against the Puritan revolutionists; Puritans, in turn, dispatched after the monarchy was restored; and Scotch and English subjects in general who joined in political uprisings against the king.

The African Slaves.—Rivaling in numbers, in the course of time, the indentured servants and whites carried to America against their will were the African negroes brought to America and sold into slavery. When this form of bondage was first introduced into Virginia in 1619, it was looked upon as a temporary necessity to be discarded with the increase of the white population. Moreover it does not appear that those planters who first bought negroes at the auction block intended to establish a system of permanent bondage. Only by a slow process did chattel slavery take firm root and become recognized as the leading source of the labor supply. In 1650, thirty years after the introduction of slavery, there were only three hundred Africans in Virginia.

The great increase in later years was due in no small measure to the inordinate zeal for profits that seized slave traders both in Old and in New England. Finding it relatively easy to secure negroes in Africa, they crowded the Southern ports with their vessels. The English Royal African Company sent to America annually between 1713 and 1743 from five to ten thousand slaves. The ship owners of New England were not far behind their English brethren in pushing this extraordinary traffic.

As the proportion of the negroes to the free white population steadily rose, and as whole sections were overrun with slaves and slave traders, the Southern colonies grew alarmed. In 1710, Virginia sought to curtail the importation by placing a duty of £5 on each slave. This effort was futile, for the royal governor promptly vetoed it. From time to time similar bills were passed, only to meet with royal disapproval. South Carolina, in 1760, absolutely prohibited importation; but the measure was killed by the British crown. As late as 1772, Virginia, not daunted by a century of rebuffs, sent to George III a petition in this vein: “The importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of Africa hath long been considered as a trade of great inhumanity and under its present encouragement, we have too much reason to fear, will endanger the very existence of Your Majesty’s American dominions.... Deeply impressed with these sentiments, we most humbly beseech Your Majesty to remove all those restraints on Your Majesty’s governors of this colony which inhibit their assenting to such laws as might check so very pernicious a commerce.”

All such protests were without avail. The negro population grew by leaps and bounds, until on the eve of the Revolution it amounted to more than half a million. In five states—Maryland, Virginia, the two Carolinas, and Georgia—the slaves nearly equalled or actually exceeded the whites in number. In South Carolina they formed almost two-thirds of the population. Even in the Middle colonies of Delaware and Pennsylvania about one-fifth of the inhabitants were from Africa. To the North, the proportion of slaves steadily diminished although chattel servitude was on the same legal footing as in the South. In New York approximately one in six and in New England one in fifty were negroes, including a few freedmen.

The climate, the soil, the commerce, and the industry of the North were all unfavorable to the growth of a servile population. Still, slavery, though sectional, was a part of the national system of economy. Northern ships carried slaves to the Southern colonies and the produce of the plantations to Europe. “If the Northern states will consult their interest, they will not oppose the increase in slaves which will increase the commodities of which they will become the carriers,” said John Rutledge, of South Carolina, in the convention which framed the Constitution of the United States. “What enriches a part enriches the whole and the states are the best judges of their particular interest,” responded Oliver Ellsworth, the distinguished spokesman of Connecticut.


E. Charming, History of the United States, Vols. I and II.
J.A. Doyle, The English Colonies in America (5 vols.).
J. Fiske, Old Virginia and Her Neighbors (2 vols.).
A.B. Faust, The German Element in the United States (2 vols.).
H.J. Ford, The Scotch-Irish in America.
L. Tyler, England in America (American Nation Series).
R. Usher, The Pilgrims and Their History.


1. America has been called a nation of immigrants. Explain why.

2. Why were individuals unable to go alone to America in the beginning? What agencies made colonization possible? Discuss each of them.

3. Make a table of the colonies, showing the methods employed in their settlement.

4. Why were capital and leadership so very important in early colonization?

5. What is meant by the “melting pot”? What nationalities were represented among the early colonists?

6. Compare the way immigrants come to-day with the way they came in colonial times.

7. Contrast indentured servitude with slavery and serfdom.

8. Account for the anxiety of companies and proprietors to secure colonists.

9. What forces favored the heavy importation of slaves?

10. In what way did the North derive advantages from slavery?

Research Topics

The Chartered Company.—Compare the first and third charters of Virginia in Macdonald, Documentary Source Book of American History, 1606-1898, pp. 1-14. Analyze the first and second Massachusetts charters in Macdonald, pp. 22-84. Special reference: W.A.S. Hewins, English Trading Companies.

Congregations and Compacts for Self-government.—A study of the Mayflower Compact, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut and the Fundamental Articles of New Haven in Macdonald, pp. 19, 36, 39. Reference: Charles Borgeaud, Rise of Modern Democracy, and C.S. Lobingier, The People’s Law, Chaps. I-VII.

The Proprietary System.—Analysis of Penn’s charter of 1681, in Macdonald, p. 80. Reference: Lodge, Short History of the English Colonies in America, p. 211.

Studies of Individual Colonies.—Review of outstanding events in history of each colony, using Elson, History of the United States, pp. 55-159, as the basis.

Biographical Studies.—John Smith, John Winthrop, William Penn, Lord Baltimore, William Bradford, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Thomas Hooker, and Peter Stuyvesant, using any good encyclopedia.

Indentured Servitude.—In Virginia, Lodge, Short History, pp. 69-72; in Pennsylvania, pp. 242-244. Contemporary account in Callender, Economic History of the United States, pp. 44-51. Special reference: Karl Geiser, Redemptioners and Indentured Servants (Yale Review, X, No. 2 Supplement).

Slavery.—In Virginia, Lodge, Short History, pp. 67-69; in the Northern colonies, pp. 241, 275, 322, 408, 442.

The People of the Colonies.—Virginia, Lodge, Short History, pp. 67-73; New England, pp. 406-409, 441-450; Pennsylvania, pp. 227-229, 240-250; New York, pp. 312-313, 322-335.

«·The Colonial Peoples · CHAPTER I·»