Before the creation of the United States of America, much of the east coast of America was under British colonial rule. From 1607 to 1776, British America comprised various colonial territories divided into three groups — namely, the New England Colonies, the Middle Colonies, and the Southern Colonies. What were the Southern Colonies known for?
The Southern Colonies stood out for their large farms, called plantations, that produced extensive cash crops including tobacco, cotton, corn, vegetables, and grain. They used a large number of slaves they used to work on them. The Southern Colonies included Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia.
This article will explore the Southern Colonies, their origin, and their history. We’ll also look at the economy of the regions, the climate, government, culture, and the history of slavery.
Origin and History of the Southern Colonies
The Southern Colonies have a rich history, officially beginning in Virginia in 1607. These would eventually become the core of the US Southern States after independence. Political, religious, and economic challenges in England created favorable conditions for settlers to explore opportunities in the New World.
The British were among the early European settlers to arrive in America. In the late 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I of England granted permission to Sir Walter Raleigh to colonize America.
He attempted to create a colony at Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina, which he named “Virginia” in honor of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth, in 1585. This attempt failed, however, and permanent settlement was unsuccessful.
Subsequently, in 1606, King James I of England granted a charter to the Virginia Company of London to colonize the coast of America between the 34th and 41st parallels (source). Three ships departed in late 1606, arriving in the Spring of 1607.
They established the Jamestown Colony, the first permanent English settlement in America, in 1607. Naming it after King James I of England, the settlers founded Jamestown Colony in what is now Virginia.
The early settlers suffered starvation and disease and also faced warfare with the indigenous populations. However, they began establishing tobacco plantations, which sustained them economically as the settlement grew (source).
In 1632, King Charles I, who had succeeded King James as King of England, granted Lord Baltimore the right to settle in Maryland, which he named after Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I.
However, Lord Baltimore died before settlement, and his son succeeded him and sought to establish it as a Catholic haven to escape the persecution of Catholics in England.
In 1634, a small group of settlers from Britain’s Isle of Wight established Maryland. They landed at St. Clement’s Island in southern Maryland and held the first Roman Catholic mass there on 25 March 1634 (source).
As a result, Maryland became a staunchly Catholic region and was also the destination for many English convicts sent to work in the New World. Like Virginia, tobacco was the dominant crop.
In 1649, the leaders of Parliament had King Charles I of England beheaded, and Oliver Cromwell then led England essentially as a military dictator until 1660. Englishmen continued to settle in the colonies, but the English established no further colonies until Charles II assumed the throne.
In 1663, he granted a charter to eight English noblemen for the Carolinas in acknowledgment of their defense of the English throne. French and Spanish explorers had already attempted to settle in the Carolinas, but they had been unsuccessful.
Although settlers from Virginia had started moving into the Carolinas during the 1650s, the English established the first permanent settlement in 1670 when a group of settlers arrived on the coast near Charlestown, which they named after their king — “Carolus” being the Latin translation of Charles (source).
The Carolinas were only officially split in 1712 when North Carolina received its own governor, independent of the governor of Charleston, SC. This led to the establishment of North and South Carolina as separate colonies.
The last of the colonies to emerge, English settlers established Georgia in 1732. Trustees based in London founded and ruled the colony, and for its first two decades, it had no governor. Its founder, James Oglethorpe, thought it would serve as a place to house those sitting in debtor’s prisons in England.
However, the chief motivation for the British government in establishing Georgia was to use it as a buffer to protect the important cash crops north of it in South Carolina from foreign enemies. These included France in Louisiana and Spain in Florida (source).
Economy of the Southern Colonies
The economy of the Southern Colonies was agriculture-based because the land was mostly flat and very fertile. The economy centered around cash crops and large plantations to produce them.
The early English settlers in Virginia struggled to survive. To make settlement more attractive, the Virginia Company offered 50 acres of land free to any adult man who could travel from England to the newly formed colony (source).
Many settlers banded these pockets of land together to form large settlements known as “hundreds” because they could support 100 people. These became the first plantations in English America.
The owners ran these “hundreds” to make a profit, and the crops they grew were “cash crops” because they grew them solely for sale and not subsistence. In the Southern Colonies, these crops included tobacco, rice, corn, and indigo.
The climate was well-suited to these crops, and farming took up a significant portion of the land in the area. As a result, there were fewer towns and cities. In Virginia and Maryland, the chief crop was tobacco. In the Carolinas and Georgia, indigo and rice dominated.
For more detailed information about this, read our article “Economic Activities of the Southern Colonies.”
Climate of the Southern Colonies
The climate and geography of the Southern Colonies were very different compared to the rest of Colonial America. The area enjoyed a much warmer climate with mild winters and long, hot summers that provided a lengthy growing season.
Along the coast, there are many rivers, bays, and wetlands, creating a tidewater region that is excellent for farming. The weather is warm for much of the year, with reliable rainfall and rich, fertile soil (source). These coastal areas also provided important access to the coast for shipping cash crops.
Further inland, the land at the base of the Appalachian mountains, known as the piedmont, is flat, which provided a rich and fertile area for the region’s enormous plantations.
The downside of the hot and humid summers in the Southern Colonies was that it made it easy for diseases to spread. Many settlers suffered from diseases like yellow fever, typhoid, and malaria.
Government of the Southern Colonies
Although the colonies were under British law, they had their own government also. They had a governor, a governor’s council, and a court. Some also had an elected assembly, the first of which was Virginia’s House of Burgesses.
There were two systems of government in the South: Royal and Proprietary. Royal colonies were directly under the King of England, and Proprietary governments had more self-government.
Maryland and the Carolinas stared out under the Proprietary system. This meant that the proprietors were effectively able to rule, although they were ultimately responsible to the King.
The Crown established direct control of Virginia in 1624 and Georgia in 1752, meaning they had a governor appointed by the King. South Carolina became a royal colony in 1719. Later, descendants of the eight English noblemen sold their interests in North Carolina back to the British government in 1729.
Maryland temporarily became a royal colony from 1692 to 1715, but it remained a proprietary colony until the American Revolution.
Culture of the Southern Colonies
Because most settlers came from Britain, the culture of the Southern Colonies was largely British, including English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, and Scots-Irish settlers. The English comprised the wealthy upper class owning much of the land along the coast, while the Celtic groups generally settled further inland.
The large number of African slaves also contributed significantly to the culture. Thus, clearly demarcated social groups characterized the culture of the Southern Colonies.
The South embraced the British ideal of ladies and gentlemen and aspired to be refined and elite. Those with sufficient funds sent their children to school in England, and they highly regarded English fashions and products.
Religion was an important cultural foundation, and the dominant religion was Protestant Christianity, with the exception of Maryland due to its Catholic roots. This was predominantly Anglican, with a mixture of other denominations like Presbyterians, Baptists, and Lutherans.
There was also an influx of Jewish settlers to the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina.
Slavery of the Southern Colonies
Because of the large plantations and the need for strong men to work them, there was a higher demand for slavery in the South. Slavery existed throughout British America but was more prevalent in the South, and the treatment of slaves was generally harsher.
In the early years of the Southern Colonies, plantation owners used indentured servants to perform most of the hard labor rather than slaves. These workers came from Britain and worked without wages for four to six years to repay the cost of their passage to the New World.
Once they had completed their required time, they then took land and often became independent farmers.
Eventually, this created labor shortages, and plantation owners came to prefer the permanent labor of slaves. The first African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619 when the English ship White Lion, which John Rolfe referred to as a Dutch man-of-war, brought them to the colony (source).
Codification of Chattel Slavery
Technically, they were more indentured servants, but by 1661, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed legislation defining slavery in Virginia, and it became common practice. Georgia explicitly banned slavery at the outset, but they eventually legalized it in 1751.
The new legislation established chattel slavery. Once bought, slaves were enslaved for life, and their servitude was hereditary, meaning that their children were also enslaved. Almost all slaves were of African descent.
During this period, the largest slave populations by total number were in Virginia and Maryland. However, in South Carolina, slaves made up nearly 60 percent of the population (source). Conditions were brutal, and there were small uprisings.
For instance, the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina in 1739, where slaves revolted against their conditions, revealed the underlying tension. Although this resulted in some improvements, it also ushered in the Negro Act of 1740, which tightened restrictions on slaves.
For example, the act made it illegal for slaves to buy alcohol, assemble in groups, or earn money. Additionally, the act forbade masters from teaching slaves to read or write (source).
Still, the act specified that masters should not work them on Sundays and should provide them with adequate food and clothing. However, while the act amended the slave code so masters should not kill their slaves, it only viewed the killing of a slave as a misdemeanor punishable by a fine.
Cultural Regions in Colonial America
As Colonial America developed, three distinct regions emerged — namely, the New England, Middle, and Southern regions. This was largely influenced by the different geography of the three areas, but there were other factors as well.
The New England region, which included Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, was hilly and rocky, making the land difficult to farm. As a result, the inhabitants turned to fishing and whaling and developed crafts such as boatbuilding. Puritanism dominated the region.
The Middle region, which included New Jersey, New York, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, enjoyed a warmer climate and land that was easier to farm. Settlers farmed both crops and livestock and engaged in trading with the colonies around them. This area was more religiously diverse and more tolerant.
As we’ve discussed, the Southern region had the richest and most fertile soil, which enabled the wealthy settlers to develop huge plantations for tobacco, rice, and indigo. Because of the size of these farms and the need for labor, slavery was rife in this area. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
The dominant religion was Anglicanism, and the labor system created more defined classes than in the regions to the north.
The Southern Colonies have a rich and interesting history that helps us understand how the American South came to be how it is today. The people that chose to settle in the region informed much of the religions and cultural foundation.
The geography of the area meant that farming could be extremely profitable and created an environment where slavery became dominant.
Still, the South produced many important leaders during the American Revolution, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Though a slaveholder himself, Thomas Jefferson laid the foundations for the eventual abolition of slavery when he declared that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”