New England and the Chesapeake


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During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Britain, Spanish, and French sought and obtained colonies in the “New World.” Britain experienced several failed attempts at settlement in the New World before planting its first colony in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. About two decades later, a Puritan exodus began that resulted in the founding of Britain’s second colony, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to the north of Jamestown. Both colonies and the regions that grew out of them shared a common British heritage, developed profitable economic systems, were characterized by hostile relations with Native Americans, accepted slave labor, and experimented with some democratic forms of government. Despite these similarities, the Chesapeake and New England regions quickly took on distinct characteristics based on their differing social, economic, and geographic factors. By 1700, the communities stood in total contrast to one another. These differences developed as a result of different motives and incentives of the English settlers; religious reformation; political organizations; and finally, geography.

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When the New England settlers first arrived, they had strong ties to religion. As Puritans, they sought to establish a purified version of Protestantism in the New World and live in the image of the first Christians. They believed that it was their responsibility and God’s expectation that the Christian communities would spread throughout the New World. John Winthrop, who became the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, described this responsibility in his Model of Christian Charity, a sermon written for the first group of Puritans to come to the New World: failure to achieve their “city on a hill” would “open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of…God”(Foner 66). Primary motivations in the Chesapeake, on the other hand, were not religious; instead, they were economic. Those that departed England for Jamestown expected to extract tribute from the region’s Indian population while it searched out valuable commodities like gold. As Captain John Smith himself described in 1624, settlers went to the region to “dig gold, wash gold, refine gold, load gold”. This resulted in competition, rather than bonding, over the settlement.

In terms of political organization, New Englanders enforced a strong sense of community with access to the property, as indicated by the Articles of Agreement in 1636, and fair wages and prices, as indicated by Connecticut regulations in 1676. Such agreements made less of class struggle, as the government was quite responsive to the needs of its people and acted consciously to reject the feudal practices of traditional English society. The government regulated the profits of merchants, for example, in the interests of the community, consistent with Puritan morals embraced by Winthrop. The same cannot be said for the Chesapeake, which experienced significant class tension with its combination of poor free men, indentured servants, slaves, and plantation owners. Such tension in Virginia led Nathaniel Bacon and his “army” to challenge the government. Chesapeake authorities did little to prevent the accumulation of wealth and monopolies of the wealthy, and suffered internal conflict, and the burning of Jamestown, as a result.

Geography also played a major role in creating distinct communities. The climate of the Chesapeake region was in favor of large landholders; it was profitable because mass production of tobacco as possible, which on the other hand, generated high demand for indentured servants, and later, African slaves. The climate of New England, however, made the production of staple crops less possible; thus, New England did not become dependent on slavery, and the economy became more diversified as a result. The colder climate in New England also inhibited the spread of disease, which increased life expectancy in the region. As the Chesapeake climate allowed the rapid spread of disease due to the hot climate, which meant life expectancies were shorter, making it even more difficult for families to grow.

The list of differences between these two regions is abundant. The motives and incentives of the English settlers, religious reformation, political organizations, and the geography of the land itself, all contributed to this total division amongst people who shared a common ancestry. By late 1700, the New England colonies were more cohesive and successful on a collective level, and were not dependent upon the crucial institution of slavery, though they did admit to it and some did own slaves. 

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