Encompassing parts of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, the Chesapeake region of colonial America was dominated by tobacco culture the social, political, economic, and racial relationships that developed around the production of tobacco. For over a century, from 1617 through the 1720s, tobacco culture produced disorder and conflict in the Chesapeake. It was only in the 1720s that the planters of Virginia and Maryland secured their authority, and then only after they had permanently enslaved a racially distinct labor force. The colonial Chesapeake came to be characterized by dependence and independence, slavery and freedom. The Virginia Company of London established the first permanent English colony in North America at Jamestown in 1607. By 1617, only 2,000 of the 10,000 colonists transported to Virginia were still alive, the Virginia Company teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, and it seemed likely that the entire colonial venture might collapse. Then, John Rolfe discovered that Chesapeake tobacco fetched a high price in London. The tobacco boom was on. By the early 1620s, tobacco production had so taken over the colony that tobacco was a legal form of money and men used it to settle debts, pay fines, and purchase servants and goods. Tobacco saved the Virginia colony and provided an immediate cash crop for Maryland, which was established in the 1630s. It also brought misery to many men and women in the Chesapeake. Tobacco planters’ insatiable appetite for land caused conflicts with earlier settlers, fur traders, and others, especially the Native Americans who lived in the area. Wars and diseases decimated such tribes as the Powhatan, who eventually migrated inland and incorporated themselves into other tribes and nations like the Catawba. Chesapeake natives simply could not withstand the brutality and deceit of the English, the spread of fatal diseases, and the ever-increasing number of settlers. It was not until the 1680s that Chesapeake planters turned to slave labor. Before then, England’s poor fulfilled tobacco culture’s demand for labor. Indentured servants, mostly young men, pledged four to seven years of labor in exchange for transportation to the Chesapeake and freedom dues (land, goods, and/or money given to a servant at the end of his or her term). Disease killed many during their first years, and the survivors were worked hard by planters intent on extracting as much labor as possible. Yet, for those who lived through their indenture, life in the early Chesapeake was promising, and many obtained land and began producing their own tobacco. A great transition in Chesapeake society began around 1660 with the decline of the tobacco economy and the emergence of a more permanent and powerful planter class. The Navigation Acts and overproduction drove down the price of tobacco, while heavy taxes and import duties cut into profits. Well-connected planters moved to consolidate their wealth and power, but they did so at the expense of smaller farmers, landless laborers, and servants. In 1676, frustration came to a boil when Nathaniel Bacon, a well-bred planter who was excluded from Virginia’s ruling circle, led a rebellion against the planter class. Promised freedom, lower taxes, more land, and plunder for all, small farmers, servants, and the few slaves in Virginia flocked to join Bacon’s ranks and nearly destroyed the colony. In the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion, the Chesapeake’s planters instituted a host of reforms and placed more land on the market, placating the white population. At the same time, they began to import ever-growing numbers of African slaves to produce tobacco more profitably. Prior to the 1670s, the great dividing line in the Chesapeake separated those who controlled land and labor from those who did not. Poor whites and blacks fell indiscriminately on the wrong side of that line. After 1680, poor whites and great planters increasingly united against the common enemy in their midst: African slaves who might rebel at any time. A dispute between Virginia fur trader William Claiborne and the royalist Calvert family over territory in the Chesapeake Bay led to the first naval battles in North America during the mid-1630s. (New York Public Library, New York) Between 1680 and 1720, Virginia’s enslaved population increased fivefold to more than 25,000 slaves, as planters transformed the Chesapeake from a society with slaves into a slave society, where the economy and the social order rested on the institution of slavery. By 1750, there were more than 150,000 slaves in the Chesapeake, accounting for 40 percent of the region’s population. A new, distinct Chesapeake social order had emerged. At the bottom were slaves, who had produced an African American culture equipped to address the uncertainties of slavery. At the pinnacle stood great planters the gentry who ruled over their families, their plantations, their parishes, and their counties. Beneath them were the white landowners, who had perhaps a few servants or slaves, and the landless whites. When British policies in the 1770s challenged the gentry’s control of Chesapeake society, the planters rebelled. The American Revolution brought many changes to this hierarchical society. Planters in Maryland and Delaware lost much of their influence, but Virginia planters maintained their authority. In the early nineteenth century, many Virginians migrated to the cotton belt, bringing the basic institutions of the Chesapeake to Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. John Craig Hammond See also: Bacon’s Rebellion; Jamestown; Maryland; Maryland (Chronology); Powhatan Confederacy; Slavery, African American; Tobacco; Virginia; Virginia (Chronology); Document: The Jamestown Settlement (1607 1609). Bibliography Breen, T. H. Puritans and Adventurers: Change and Persistence in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Kulikoff, Allan. Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Colonies in the Chesapeake, 1680 1800. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. Morgan, Edmund. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. Russo, Jean B., and J. Elliot Russo. Planting an Empire: The Early Chesapeake in British North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.
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