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The Colonial Period, 1607-1780
The Middle Period, 1781-1877
The Modern Period, 1877-Present
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Chesapeake Bay -
Our History and Our Future
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Bank of America
The Colonial Period, 1607-1780

The economy of the Chesapeake Bay region has always been tied to the accessibility of convenient transportation for goods and people. The region's fertile soil, plentiful supplies of fresh water, and situation on the Bay make this an ideal location for agricultural production, the seafood industry, import and export facilities, and other industries dependent on fast, economical transportation.

Agriculture, hunting, and fishing were the cornerstones of life for the area's first inhabitants as well as the settlers from across the ocean that decided to make it their new home. Before the arrival of the English in 1607, Virginia natives had "self-sufficient" agriculture, growing the food they needed, along with hunting and fishing, to sustain themselves. Since 1613, Virginia has had "cash-crop" agriculture, with a heavy commitment to tobacco as its main crop. A "cash- crop" is one that is grown for sale and not for use strictly by its growers.

The broiling of their fish over the flame
The broiling of their fish over the flame
In 1607 English settlers first landed in Virginia. Inadequately supplied or prepared, they survived at first by trading with and stealing from the Native American people they encountered. After a time the English learned how to grow the natives' primary food crop, 'Indian corn' or maize. They also discovered the natives' habitual pleasure, tobacco. Well known in England before the colonization of Virginia, the tobacco the Powhatan Indians grew and smoked was a harsh strain that the English did not care for. The Spanish had introduced tobacco to Europe after their colonization of the Caribbean and South America.
Illustration depicting an early colonial tobacco plantation
Illustration depicting an early colonial tobacco plantation
In 1612 John Rolfe started the colonial tobacco industry and plantation culture by shipping a crop of "sweet-scented" tobacco grown from seeds brought back from the Caribbean.

Portrait of King James the first of England from original portrait
Portrait of King James the first of England from original portrait
Before the first colonist set foot in Virginia, England's King James I had expressed his disgust for the smoking habit and issued an anti-tobacco proclamation. In "A Counterblaste to Tobacco, written in 1604, James described tobacco as "this stinking smoke," "perpetual stinking torment," " a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible stygian... smoke of the pit that is bottomless." James I had discovered by 1604 what many now hold true; smoking was bad for the health. Nothing, however, could stop the spread or the use of tobacco. High taxes imposed on tobacco failed to eliminate its use, they reduced the income the crown received from the sale of the tobacco. The taxes were again lowered and money from the sale of tobacco flowed into the treasury of England.

The expanding tobacco plantation economy in Virginia was based on cheap land and cheap labor. Growing tobacco was labor intensive, and colonial planters soon found that immigration from Europe and natural population increases were unable to supply the numbers of laborers needed to work the tobacco fields. In 1619 the first Africans were brought to the shores of Virginia on a Dutch ship, and were probably sold as indentured servants. By 1700, Virginia was importing huge numbers of slaves to provide the labor required to plant, top (remove flowers to force the leaves), and harvest the tobacco leaves.

Buying and selling the slaves was a major business in itself, and many slave traders made their fortunes this way. Meanwhile, reliance on tobacco as the chief source of income caused many Tidewater planters to go deeply into debt. As they competed with each other in displaying their wealth and status in colonial society, they were indebting themselves to the English merchants from whom the goods were purchased. Tobacco was initially exported directly to England, France, Holland, the Caribbean islands, and South America. Taxes on Virginia tobacco exports provided England with more total revenue than any other colony.

A Map of the Chesapeake Bay with a cartouche showing tobacco wharves for shipping tobacco to England
A Map of the Chesapeake Bay with a cartouche showing tobacco wharves for shipping tobacco to England
Close up view of a tobacco wharf
Close up view of a tobacco wharf
During the early seventeenth century in Scotland, religious persecution caused many people to leave their homeland and try to settle in the New World. Early settlements in East Jersey and South Carolina failed. In 1707 The Union of Parliaments agreement between England and Scotland allowed for increased trade between Scotland and America. Taking advantage of the enormous opportunities available in the American colonies, many Scottish merchants moved to Virginia where the tobacco trade was most lucrative. Scottish merchants opened stores in Virginia, in towns along the Fall Line and in Norfolk, enabling Virginia planters to sell their crop in Virginia (eliminating the risk of shipment and sale overseas) and to purchase farm tools, clothing and other supplies.


 

 

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