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Jamestown - life and labor in the Chesapeake

English colonists in Jamestown found tobacco as a valuable crop but needed labor to grow it. They used indentured servants from England and a few enslaved Africans. The unhealthy environment and high mortality rate made indentured servitude profitable for planters. This led to a social structure with wealthy planters and a large lower class.

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Video transcript

- [Narrator] When last we left our English colonists at Jamestown, things were finally starting to go their way. Lord Delaware had successfully led English forces in their war of extinction against the nearby Algonquin tribe, the Powhatans. And John Rolfe had discovered that Virginia was a perfect place to grow tobacco. So even though they didn't find gold in Virginia, they found something that was almost as good and that was a luxury commodity that people in Europe were very eager to buy. But, tobacco was incredibly labor-intensive to grow and process. So, in this video, let's talk a little bit more about what that need for labor meant as the Virginia colony began to grow. Now in the last video, I mentioned that the very first ship bearing enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown in 1619. So, just twelve years after Jamestown was founded Africans had been brought to the area. So this shows that enslaved Africans were some of the very first people who weren't of native origin in the new world and would help shape the English colonies pretty much from the very start. But even though there were enslaved Africans in Virginia that early, the system of broad race-based slavery that will really characterize the American South up until the Civil War didn't get started right away and there were a couple of reasons for that. One was, as we mentioned many times, it was not particularly healthy to live in this area. You can see here, this is pretty much all a giant swamp,. To this day some people joke that one of the reasons that Washington DC was founded here in this area of Virginia is that it is so unpleasant to be there, they thought it would keep the American government smaller because legislators wouldn't actually want to go to the Capitol. So a pretty good number of people who came to the new world in the early years died of mosquito borne diseases. So swamp, standing water, mosquitoes, leads to epidemics. So, say I'm an English planter, and I want to plant a lot of tobacco, many acres of tobacco. So I'm going to need some people to help me. Now I have some choices. I could purchase an enslaved African person, from one of these ships, and that might cost me hundreds of pounds. Slaves are pretty expensive, and since it's such an unhealthy environment in this area, there is a reasonable chance that any person that I purchase might die within a year or so, and then I'd lose my investment. So, this is a pretty cruel and terrible form of economics, but if you're a planter in this time period, this is exactly how you're thinking. Now, my other option for help is to bring over white laborers from England and these are called indentured servants. So, perhaps there is a young man living in London, he has lots of older brothers, so he's not going to inherit anything, he doesn't have much in the way of economic opportunity, so he thinks I could go for a new start, in the New World, but I don't have the money to pay my passage on a ship across the Atlantic. So, what the planters would do, is they would say, alright, I will pay your fare across the Atlantic, and maybe that's 15 pounds, say, and in exchange you will work for me for a period of, say three to seven years. Some indentures were shorter than that, some were longer, but this is kind of a general guideline of how long they might work. And at the end of that three years, you will get land of your own and I'll give you some tools and clothes. Things you need to succeed. And then you can be your own planter. So this was a pretty good investment, if you were a young person without many opportunities in England. There's only one problem and it's the same problem we've been talking about all along, is that this is a swamp full of mosquitoes and you are quite likely to die in Virginia. So this actually turned out to be a pretty good deal for the planters who were there early. They also took advantage of something called the headright system. Which meant that they got 50 acres of land in Virginia, and of course this is just Native Americans land that they're just appropriating for themselves, but that's a whole separate issue. So you got 50 acres more land, every time you brought one person over from England. So if you could afford to bring more and more of these indentured servants over from England, you could amass huge, huge amounts of property. Just gigantic tobacco plantations. And in early on in the history of indentured servitude, very few of the servants, a pretty small percentage, actually lived to finish their indenture and to make good on this promise of land for themselves and tools and clothes to get started. So this very quickly, begins to build a social structure in Virginia, where there are few planters, who are extremely wealthy, who own lots of land and then there's everybody else. There's a large number of indentured servants, who've only been there for a couple of years, who may or may not live to see out the end of their indenture. So this is kind of a large lower class and then there are a handful of small farmers who managed to live through their period of indenture and are now getting started on their own and then there's just a tiny smattering of enslaved Africans, so just a few slaves in Virginia. This is in the early years of the 1600s. So how do we get from a world where the vast majority of workers in the southern part of what will become the United States, are white, to a world where the vast majority of people working on plantations were enslaved black Africans. We'll talk more about that in the next video.