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  • Cited by 18
  • Print publication year: 1996
  • Online publication date: March 2008

4 - The Settlement and Growth of the Colonies: Population, Labor, and Economic Development



In the years following its establishment of a settlement at Jamestown in 1607, the Virginia Company set out to build an agricultural colony that would earn profits for investors. Toward this end, beginning in 1609 it raised both capital and labor through the device of a commercial company organized as a joint-stock venture. Shares in the company could be acquired either through a subscription of capital or through the pledge of one’s labor in America for a period of seven years. The excitement created in England by earlier explorations in North America, fueled by optimistic reports sent back by early settlers in Jamestown, enabled the Virginia Company to raise one of the largest sums ever invested in an English maritime venture.

An early failure of the settlement at Jamestown, marked by extremely high rates of mortality and shortages of food and fresh water that resulted in debilitating illness among many of those who survived, was met by a response from the company that would not have surprised English employers of the day. The colony’s governor attributed the infamous starving time to the idleness of Virginia’s labor force, and during the following years the company moved to eliminate this problem with sterner measures. From 1611 to 1618 the colony was ruled with iron discipline, with a detailed plan for all economic operations. All land was to be owned by the company and farmed collectively. The workers, all men, were to be treated as bound servants of the company for their specified terms.

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