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Europeans attempting to found colonies on the North American mainland encountered an abundance of land and other natural resources and a chronic shortage of labor to exploit them. Establishing settlements, building forts to shelter colonists from hostile Native Americans and rival European powers, clearing land for farming, learning how to raise suitable crops for food in unfamiliar environments, erecting houses, and building up herds of Old World livestock required massive amounts of labor. Moreover, in order to procure essential supplies from their homelands, settlers had either to produce products in demand in Europe or to earn income to buy them through trade with other regions. With capital for development and workers willing to emigrate to the new settlements in short supply, colonists soon turned to novel solutions to alleviate their labor problems.
Initially some aristocratic investors expected to develop their holdings with European tenants, but the ready availability of land precluded tenancy as a viable option in most regions. Others hoped to persuade or force Native Americans to work for them, a strategy that also proved futile on the mainland. In the early seventeenth century, England was perceived to be overpopulated, so British colonists turned first to fellow countrymen to fill the labor gap. English men and women too poor to pay their passage to the New World were recruited to come to the colonies under indenture, working off the cost of transportation with a number of years of unpaid service.
Everyone agrees that bound laborers were brought to the Chesapeake primarily for the purpose of raising tobacco. Consequently it is rather surprising that the eighteenth century scholars have neglected to examine in any detail the relationship between the supply of bound labor and the fortunes of the region's staple. Recently compiled databases on the Chesapeake slave and servant trades, and now information on staple prices, and on tobacco, slave, and servant traders allow us to explore the links for the first time. This essay first reassesses the volume of imported bound laborers, the relationship between staple prices and labor supply, and the interplay between the trades in tobacco and bound laborers. It then examines in greater detail the strategies followed by merchants from Britain's major ports, and the differing terms by which indentured servants, convicts, and slaves were sold in the Chesapeake. Finally it discusses some of the implications for the distribution of bound labor within sub-regions of the Tobacco Coast and among purchasers of varying wealth.
Slaves clearly predominated among bound laborers in the eighteenth century Chesapeake, although there is less agreement about the relative contributions of imports and of natural increase to this result. By the early 1690s slaves outnumbered servants by more than three to one even in Maryland, a colony which was less well supplied with slaves than Virginia throughout the seventeenth century. And by the 1720s indentured servants were no longer a significant component of the bound labor force in most of the region.
Over the course of two hundred years Chesapeake planters sought to make the most of scarce labor while exploiting abundant land. Large planters were able to offset a secular decline in tobacco crops per laborer with productivity gains in grains, thus maintaining or enhancing revenues per hand in constant value. Intensification of the labor process and a switch from hoe to plow culture account for most of the increase; agricultural improvements, very little.
By the mid-eighteenth century, tidewater Chesapeake households at all levels of wealth were both able and willing to buy a wide range of non-essential consumer goods either previously unavailable or long considered unimportant. The use of amenities and often luxuries as props for increasingly elaborated and differentiated life styles was not a result of country folk imitating city consumption patterns, however. Urban life styles did produce new spending habits, but the vast majority of the population who lived in rural areas managed to improve their consumption levels without altering traditional patterns of resource allocation.