Chesapeake Colonies: Virginia, Maryland

By 1700, the Virginia colonists had made their fortunes through the cultivation of tobacco, setting a pattern that was followed in Maryland and the Carolinas. In political and religious matters, Virginia differed considerably from the New England colonies. The Church of England was the established church in Virginia, which meant taxpayers paid for the support of the church whether or not they were Anglicans. But church membership ultimately mattered little, since a lack of clergymen and few churches kept many Virginians from attending church. Religion thus was of secondary importance in the Virginia colony.

Virginia's colonial government structure resembled that of England's county courts and contrasted with the theocratic government of Massachusetts Bay. A royal governor appointed justices of the peace, who set tax rates and saw to the building and maintenance of public works, such as bridges and roads. In the 1650s, the colonial assembly adopted a bicameral pattern: the House of Burgesses (the elected lower house) and an appointed Governor's Council. The assembly met regularly, not so much for representative government as for the opportunity to raise taxes.

The founding of Maryland. Maryland was the first proprietary colony, based on a grant to Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore, who named the land for Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. Lord Baltimore planned for Maryland to serve as a haven for English Catholics who suffered political and religious discrimination in England, but few Catholics actually settled in the colony. Protestants were attracted by the inexpensive land that Baltimore offered to help him pay his debts. Baltimore granted his friends the large estates, which resembled medieval manors and paved the way for the plantation system.

At first, relations between Maryland's Catholics and Protestants seemed amicable. For a time they even shared the same chapel. In 1649, under Baltimore's urging, the colonial assembly passed the Act of Religious Toleration, the first law in the colonies granting freedom of worship, albeit only for Christians. By 1654, however, with Maryland's Protestants in the majority, the act was repealed. A near civil war broke out and order was not restored until 1658, when Lord Baltimore was returned to power. Religious squabbles continued for years in the Maryland colony.

Chesapeake society and economy. Tobacco was the mainstay of the Virginia and Maryland economies. Plantations were established by riverbanks for the good soil and to ensure ease of transportation. Because wealthy planters built their own wharves on the Chesapeake to ship their crop to England, town development was slow. To cultivate tobacco, planters brought in large numbers of English workers, mostly young men who came as indentured servants. More than 110,000 had arrived in the Chesapeake region by 1700. Each indentured servant meant more land for his sponsor under the headright system, which had the effect of squeezing out small‐scale farming.

While New England was a land of towns and villages surrounded by small farms, Virginia and Maryland were characterized by large plantations and little urban development. The emphasis on indentured labor meant that relatively few women settled in the Chesapeake colonies. This fact, combined with the high mortality rate from disease—malaria, dysentery, and typhoid—slowed population growth considerably. The one common link between New England and the Chesapeake was the treatment of the Indians.

Fluctuations in Chesapeake tobacco prices caused a prolonged economic depression from 1660 into the early 1700s. Sadly, disillusioned colonists took out their frustrations on the local Indians. In April 1676, Nathaniel Bacon, a relative of Virginia Governor William Berkeley, led three hundred settlers against peaceful local tribes, killing them all. When Bacon's force grew to twelve hundred men, he decided to drive all Indians out of the colony. Fortunately, Governor Berkeley decided that Bacon's actions were excessive and recalled him, but Bacon's army then rebelled against the colonial government and burned Jamestown. Bacon went so far as to promise freedom to servants and slaves of Berkeley's supporters, but he died suddenly, and his movement fell apart. Bacon's Rebellion illustrated the tensions between white and Indian, planter and slave, and have and have‐not in the colony, tensions made worse by an economic depression that must have seemed without end.

Indentured servants and slaves. The Chesapeake region offered little economic opportunity to indentured servants who had completed their term of obligation. Even with the small amount of capital needed for tobacco cultivation, former indentured servants at best became subsistence farmers, a class ripe for such calls to rebellion as those proposed by Nathaniel Bacon. As the number of new indentured laborers declined because of limited chances for advancement and reports of harsh treatment, they were replaced by African slaves.

Early in the seventeenth century, the status of slave and indentured servant was quite similar. After 1660, the Chesapeake colonies enforced laws that defined slavery as a lifelong and inheritable condition based on race. This made slaves profitable because planters could rely not only on their labor but that of their children as well. The slave population, which numbered about four thousand in Virginia and Maryland in 1675, grew significantly to the end of the century.