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What led to the use of slavery and the creation of different colonies? In this lesson, learn about the unique purposes and patterns of settlement, growth and society in the southern colonies (Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia).


Virginia was started by a group of men in 1607 who wanted to get rich quick. Even through the 1620s, ¾ of Virginia’s population was still male, and the goal of the colony was still money. This was achieved through large farms called plantations that planted cash crops – namely, tobacco.

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But tobacco requires a lot of manpower, and Jamestown had a population problem. The birth rate was low, and the death rate was high. England had the opposite problem: there were too many people.

There was not enough work, no chance to own land and no opportunity for the poor. Even some rich kids faced this dilemma, because English inheritance laws required that all property be passed to the oldest son – and England was full. The younger sons of the noblemen had plenty of money, but no land to build their own estates.An English politician named Edwin Sandys proposed a solution called the headright system. Anyone who paid for the trip to Virginia received 50 acres. So the rich guys paid for poor people to come with them as servants. These servants were indentured to the landowner, typically for seven years.

The gentlemen got the land and free workers for seven years. The lucky 15% of servants who survived their indenture had almost nothing. As a result, Sandys’ system created class divisions between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’A deep social divide quickly overtook Virginia. Wealthy planters owned all of the best land and controlled all of society. Though the House of Burgesses was an elected government, only landowning men could vote.

Bacon’s Rebellion

Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion against colonial leadership in Virginia
Nathaniel Bacon

Many former indentured servants – both black and white – headed out onto the western frontier where they fought constantly with the natives. In Jamestown, the leaders ignored their pleas for help. So they took matters into their own hands. A frontier planter named Nathaniel Bacon organized a militia to take revenge on the Indians.

When the governor ordered him to stop, the frontiersmen felt like the upper class had absolutely no regard for them. Bacon’s army turned into a rebellion against colonial leadership. In 1676, the frontier militia marched into Jamestown, trashed the governor’s home and burned the capitol.

Nathaniel Bacon died of dysentery, so the rebellion fell apart. But it wasn’t without consequence. To weaken the power of the lower class, the House of Burgesses granted all free white men the right to vote, dividing society along color lines.

Bacon’s Rebellion also helped turn planters away from indentured servitude and towards slavery.


Back in 1632, two communities dominated America: the money-hungry colony of Virginia and the Puritan refuge of Massachusetts. Civil war in England had driven thousands of Puritans to the northern colony. This same war also led a man named Cecilius or Cecil Calvert (whose title was Lord Baltimore) to start a new American colony for Catholics. He called the colony Maryland, and it resembled Virginia in many ways, including tobacco plantations, indentured servants and slave labor and high mortality.

A settler in Maryland lived ten years less than someone in New England.Despite Calvert’s plan, Maryland had a Protestant majority. To protect the Catholics, he approved the Act of Religious Toleration in 1649, guaranteeing political rights to anyone practicing any form of Christianity.

But that same year, the king of England was beheaded and Puritans took over the English government. Within a few years, they took over Maryland and overturned that law.

A map of the Carolina colony established in 1663
Carolina Map

The Carolinas

The Puritan government of England lasted just 11 years. The monarchy was restored and the newly crowned King Charles II decided to reward eight of his supporters by giving them a colony in 1663. The eight owners (called proprietors) named it Carolina in his honor.

Like most of the American colonies, Carolina was already inhabited, but not just by Native Americans. Some former indentured servants from Virginia had migrated into the northern part of the land at least ten years before the charter was granted. The southern part was inhabited by poor farmers who had been run off of the island colony of Barbados by wealthy planters. Their crops wouldn’t grow in America, but they figured out that hogs thrived with almost no overhead cost.In 1670, a shipload of rich men also arrived from Barbados. They came for the same reason that rich, young men had gone to Virginia: there was just no land left for them on the island.

They founded the Port of Charlestown, and sold pork to Barbados in exchange for slaves.Soon, Carolina’s economy was transformed by the introduction of rice as a cash crop, but growing it requires specialized knowledge. When planters realized that slaves imported directly from West Africa were already skilled in growing rice, the scramble for land – and the laborers who knew how to work it – was on. By 1708, Africans became the majority of the population.

The more money slaves made for their owners, the more the Southern elite were committed to slavery and its permanence.By contrast, North Carolina didn’t have any cash crops. But even if it did, it would’ve had difficulty exporting anything without a deep water port and only one river that flowed directly into the ocean. So the region attracted very few colonists from overseas. A few Welsh and Scottish immigrants settled up the Cape Fear River, but most of the northern settlers were poor farmers from other areas in search of fertile land. With greater diversity, no exports and no cash crops, North Carolina was much less committed to slavery than South Carolina.

The two regions split officially in 1729.

Men from Barbados established the Port of Charlestown in Carolina
Port of Charlestown


Slaves in South Carolina learned that if they could survive the dangerous journey through the swamps, Florida promised them their freedom. Thousands of slaves attempted to escape. But Carolina also had another problem: the Spanish in Florida kept attacking them.

The utopian vision of a British gentleman intervened to solve both problems.James Oglethorpe believed that even the worst people in society could succeed, given the same opportunity. So he asked the King for a charter to settle a colony of people from debtors’ prison. In one stroke, the King was able to buffer South Carolina from Spanish attack and create an obstacle for escaping slaves. In 1733, more than a century after Virginia was established, the colony of Georgia was settled.

Oglethorpe intended for Georgia to be a utopia of hard work and social equality, so he outlawed slavery and large landholdings. As a result of these restrictions (and because England wouldn’t let its debtors out of prison), Georgia attracted very few settlers, and those who did come complained constantly about their situation. Colonists started moving to South Carolina, so within two decades, Oglethorpe lifted the restrictions, and his utopia turned into a society that looked very much like South Carolina with a plantation economy based on rice.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. The plantation system established in Virginia had a lasting impact on most of the South. Edwin Sandys’s headright system created an economic divide in society because wealthy planters soon owned all of the land. Under Nathaniel Bacon’s leadership, former indentured servants tried to defend themselves against Indian attacks, but turned their hostilities against the Virginia leadership when they were ordered to stop. Bacon’s Rebellion alarmed the gentry, who purposely created a racial divide in society to weaken the power of the lower classes.

Maryland was settled in 1632 by Cecil Calvert (Lord Baltimore), who wanted to create a Catholic refuge during the English civil war. To protect Catholics from a Protestant majority, he signed the Act of Religious Toleration.At the end of the Civil War, the new monarch rewarded some of his supporters by naming them as the proprietors of a new colony, which they called Carolina. South Carolina soon transformed into a plantation economy by growing rice. Because North Carolina was so different from South Carolina, the two regions formally split.

In order to create a buffer zone between South Carolina and Florida, the King granted a charter to English politician James Oglethorpe, who wanted to create a utopia for English prisoners. But Oglethorpe was forced to lift his ban on slavery and large landholdings within a few years, transforming Georgia into another plantation economy.

Lesson Objectives

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Understand how the southern colonies formed and changed
  • Identify Nathaniel Bacon, Cecil Calvert and James Oglethorpe and describe their impact on their respective colonies
  • Define the terms headright system, indentured servant and the Act of Religious Toleration

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