When is Thanksgiving? Colonizing America: Crash Course US History #2
In which John Green teaches you about the (English) colonies in what is now the United States. He covers the first permanent English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, the various havens for persecuted religions in Maryland and Massachusetts, and even a bit about the spooky lost colony at Roanoke Island. What were the English doing in America, anyway? Lots of stuff. In Virginia, the colonists were largely there to make money. In Maryland, the idea was to create a Catholic colony safe from the depraved Protestants back in England. In Massachusetts, the Pilgrims and Puritans came to America to find a place where they could practice their religion freely. And also persecute those who didn’t share their beliefs. But there was a healthy profit motive in Massachusetts as well. Profits were thin at first, and so were the colonists. Trouble growing food and trouble with the natives kept the early colonies from success. Before long though, the colonists started cultivating tobacco, which was a win for everyone involved if you ignore the lung cancer angle. So kick back, light up a smoke, and learn how America became profitable. DON’T SMOKE, THOUGH! THAT WAS A JOKE!
I’m going to depart from my usual focus for a moment to talk about things John Green said (in this video) that are wrong or misleading.
I’m going to pick out a few things he said about Virginia, because that’s what I know well enough to refute. There may or may not be errors in the rest of the video, but it worries me that there are at all.
(01:47) "…So there were a disproportionate number of goldsmiths and jewelers there…"
The original group of settlers had a very reasonable distribution of craftsmen. The job with the most number of people who could do it? Carpentry. There were all of four carpenters in the first group of settlers. Carpenters were important; no carpenters, no buildings. Everything else was done by one person, maybe two.
Maybe one goldsmith is disproportionate in a region with no gold. But the way John says it, it sounds like there was a room full of men sitting around going to waste, which is just wrong.
(01:54) "…It turns out that jewelers dislike farming…"
No. See above.
(02:21) "But in 1618 … a recruiting strategy called the ‘headright system’…"
The headright system actually came into play in 1616, when the first seven-year contracts (established in 1609) ended.
(02:56) "…In 1619 … the first shipment of African slaves arrived in Virginia."
Yes, 1619 is our first record of Africans in Virginia. However, John makes it sound like Virginia went “Okay, we’ve been here a while, time to send off for some slaves,” which is far from what happened.
The Portuguese at the time were running a very profitable slave trade, taking Africans, Christianizing them, shipping them to Mexico, and selling them to the (mostly Spanish) colonies there. One such Portuguese ship was pirated by a couple of English ships (probably), who took on some of those Africans. Those (probably) English ships were then blown a bit off course, and decided to stop by Virginia to resupply. They exchanged twenty-odd Africans for some supplies, and went on their way.
Virginia had no established slavery at the time. It had indentured servitude. We don’t have records of what exactly came of those twenty-odd Africans, but it is far more likely that they became indentured servants, and served out their terms of service. We do have record of free Africans owning their own property later on.
Worth noting: Yes, Virginia eventually had slavery. The first laws concerning actual slavery went on the books around 1660. 1660 is not 1619.
(03:50) "Most of the people who came in the 17th century—three quarters of them—were servants."
Worth noting: Originally, everyone was a servant—of the Virginia Company. The only ways to not be a servant in Virginia were 1) to work off your contract with whoever paid your way across (either the company or some plantation owner) or 2) be rich enough to just sail over whenever you felt like it.
Not really arguing this point, just giving it some context. If you were in Virginia, you were a nobleman, or you were beholden to somebody. Or you had been, and you were lucky enough to survive.
(04:10) "[Men] outnumbered women five to one."
This really needed to be dated.The circumstances of the Virginia colony varied a lot in its first hundred years, in all ways really.
Men outnumbered women five to one only early on, when the colony was still acting primarily as a mercantile outpost. Thanks to a change in leadership leading to a change in priorities, two ships full of women arrived in Virginia in 1620 and 1621 respectively in an effort to establish Virginia as a more permanent settlement. That and further efforts supplied many women who were not beholden to an indentured service contract—rather, once a man decided to marry her, he would pay off her voyage. The ratio went down to more like three to one—though, sure, that’s still not ideal.
My sources: I work for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, where it’s basically our business to know the history of Jamestown and Virginia better than you (or nobody would visit!). To make sure I wasn’t making things up, I pulled out my Jamestown manual. I could go in and pull out the manual’s own cited sources if anyone really wants me to.