The joint-stock Virginia Company of London received a charter in England in 1606 to establish a settlement in the “New World.” According to The American Pageant (Kennedy, Cohen and Bailey, 12th edition), the charter “guaranteed to the overseas settlers the same rights of Englishmen that they would have enjoyed if they had stayed at home,” and the same is said to pertain to the establishment of the Maryland colonies in 1624 (p. 28). But the Chesapeake colonies never saw these rights to their full extent, as the mother country continually placed taxes and regulations on their daily lives. Many of the problems surrounding the history of the Chesapeake colonies, however, lie outside of the political realm.
Unfortunately, popular movies have skewed the popular conception of what actually happened during the early years of colonization in the Chesapeake. While films have analyzed the happier side of establishing colonies with plentiful food and only slight conflicts with the natives, producers and screenwriters often leave out the numerous deaths in Jamestown’s early years due to disease, malnutrition, and the general inability to create a sustainable colony. The bond that Pocahontas and John Smith shared in movies that resulted in peace between the native Powhatan and English did not create the perfect relationship. The English and Powhatan in fact fought numerous times over land, and raids for food and other goods were not infrequent. These wars and raids, combined with what The American Pageant believes to be “disease, disorganization, and disposability” led to the displacement of the Powhatan to the west (p. 30).
Textbooks seem to focus on tobacco when looking at the economic productivity of the Chesapeake colonies, but other goods in the area were significant, too. The introduction of the slave system provided a new economy that stimulated tobacco growth. Slaves also worked within the household and performed other jobs for their owners. Slavery is overlooked as a tool for the colonial economic system in some textbooks, but it was essential for the labor needed to produce tobacco. Fishing tends also to be overlooked, despite its abundance in the Chesapeake Bay for both the Virginia and Maryland colonies. The bay provided not only numerous fish but also shellfish such as crabs, oysters, and clams. Boats of all sizes navigated the bay and its tributaries for these creatures and sold them to neighboring colonies.
The Maryland colonies tend to be given less attention in the textbooks, but they were just as important to the establishment of America as the Virginia colonies. The difference between the two colonies, according to The American Pageant, was the religious statutes implemented for Catholics in Maryland, as well as the prosperity experience there that was not seen by the Virginia colonies (p. 34). Following Maryland’s example, religious tolerance would be important in the establishment of other colonies along the eastern seaboard. English who sought refuge from religious persecution in their home country were more inclined to join American colonists after hearing of Catholic tolerance in Maryland.
Thus the Chesapeake colonies are misunderstood, or at least “under-understood,” with regard to both their economic and religious structures. Movies on this subject tend to provide an inaccurate account of the daily life of colonists while textbooks tend to discuss only certain pet topics.
MATTHEW WHITLOCK (Old Dominion University)