After 1607, the English quickly extinguished (or finessed) the Native American land claims, and successfully prevented rival European nations from settling in the Chesapeake Bay. According to English law and custom, the king was able to grant a great swath of North America to the the investors in the Virginia Company. The company tried to hold the land in common, but then began to grant it to groups and individuals in order to spur settlement. After the company charter was revoked, royal governors granted rights to tracts of Virginia in the name of the king.
For a century before Jamestown, Englishmen had been making a profit from the New World - but it came from fishing in the cold waters off the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Land was Virginia's great asset, and through tobacco farming the European immigrants were able to profit from that land.
That option was not available in England, where land was controlled by the hereditary aristocracy. Roughly half of the English population owned no land, and had few opportunities to acquire it no matter how hard they worked. In the days before the Industrial Revolution created a middle class, and wealth could be acquired through manufacturing, land was the basis of wealth. The English population grew from 3 million in 1500 to 5 million in 1650, unemployment was high, and the social unrest erupted into the English Civil War in the mid-1650's.1
Travel across the Atlantic Ocean was unpleasant and dangerous, and moving to the Virginia colony was a great risk. However, that was the easiest way for many Englishmen to become landowners, and for the lower gentry to climb into the upper ranks of wealth and power. The Virginia Company was an early expression of a new economic approach - the joint stock company, where investors could pool their capital and risk and share the rewards as a "corporation" rather than as individuals.
The intrusion of Europeans dramatically changed the native (Indian) culture that existed in the pre-contact period. In the process, the European patterns of the immigrants also changed. A new American culture emerged on the edge of European settlement, away from the "cultural hearths" of Europe and shaped in part by the Native American societies that were disrupted by European settlement.
The aristocratic society of Europe that was initially imported into Tidewater Virginia is still reflected in the mansions and brick Anglican churches east of the Fall Line, but a revolutionary political concept - democracy - developed in Virginia and elsewhere between 1600-1776, on the edge of the North American continent.
At that time, in the long-settled regions of Europe, a person's social status, economic opportunities, and political rights were defined at birth. The original lifestyle in the Virginia colony reflected this approach - the first president of the council at Jamestown, for example, was accused by John Smith of hoarding food for his own benefit at the expense of the other, hungry colonists. After formation of the elected House of Burgesses, the governor and his appointed council still retained great authority - and "until the latter part of the seventeenth century, the members of the governor's council were exempt from taxation; and only they, according to an early statute, could wear gold braid on their clothes."2
However, the shared difficulties of living on the American frontier (including the threat of Indian attack) helped to level the differences. The frontier provided the setting for a new culture to emerge, one based more on merit rather than on family heritage. Individuals can't change their genealogy - but the frontier led to an American society where a person could acquire wealth through initiative and accomplishment, if if their family connections were limited.
There was one factor on the frontier in America that reshaped the European patterns and led to a new way of life - vast amounts of cheap land. Even after the boundaries of the original Virginia colony were reduced by the establishment of Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania (and before the creation of Kentucky and West Virginia), Virginia alone had as much land as all of Great Britain.
The opportunity to acquire land in colonial Virginia led to a Virginian legal and social system that was substantially different from Europe. Indentured servants were lured to the colony through promises of land, and the system of headrights encouraged wealthy investors to acquire large tracts of land and "plant" them with settlers in order to gain title. Frontiersmen like Daniel Boone may have worn deerskins rather than cloth coats, but many managed to acquire title to land and provide a substantial inheritance to their children that would have been impossible in Europe. At the start of the 18th Century, Virginia shifted from the headrights system and allowed individuals to purchase 50 acres for 5 shillings, substantially reducing the price of Virginia land.3
The availability of land on the frontier did not guarantee that Virginia society would be less aristocratic than in England. The most obvious example: plantation agriculture based on tobacco led to slavery. In England, the amount of land owned by a farmer was the limiting factor - but in Virginia, land was cheap. The availability of labor determined how much tobacco could be produced. The Native Americans were eliminated, and the supply of indentured servants from Europe was inadequate by the 1660's, so Virginia law evolved in the 17th Century to create the status of "permanently enslaved" for blacks imported from the Caribbean and Africa. To maximize the profit potential, England chartered the Royal African Company in 1672 to transport the slaves to Virginia and other colonies.
The political viewpoints of the rich and powerful were shaped by the unique conditions in the American colonies. The Virginia gentry depended upon slavery for their wealth, yet Virginia gentlemen were the revolutionaries who wrote the Declaration of Independence and shaped the Constitution. George Washington was the "indispensible man" in converting the democratic concepts into an operational government, one where various factions were able to resolve their conflicts through peaceful elections rather than intermittent revolutions.
A "frontier" is more than a boundary, more than an edge between two places. Frederick Jackson Turner identified in The Frontier In American History that the frontier was the key place where a democratic America was created from a stratified English colonial society, "the meeting point between savagery and civilization."
The frontier experience was not a standard force, like gravity or magnetism. Life on the frontier changed as settlement moved inland. The effect of the frontier varied on the different Europeans who settled Virginia, who brought different cultural patterns with them. (Compare the architecture of colonial churches built by the English in Tidewater and the Presbyterians in the Shenandoah Valley to see the differences clearly.) West of the Blue Ridge, the challenge of transporting crops to market, together with the different cultural background of the original European settlers, led to a dramatically different agricultural economy - and ultimately to the separation of the western counties into the state of West Virginia.
1. Collier, Christopher and Collier, James Lincoln, The Paradox of Jamestown, 1585-1700, Marshall Cavendish, New York, 1998, p.17, 21-23
2. Abernethy, Thomas Perkins, Three Virginia Frontiers, Peter Smith, Gloucester Massachusetts, 1962, p.10 (For more, see Colonial Taxes in Virginia)
3. Abernethy, p. 39 Also, John Fontaine reported in 1715 that Robert Beverley was trying to sell him 100 acres near the Falls of the Rappahannock River for 7 pounds, 10 shillings. He also offered a 500 acre tract on the Rappahannock, at 15 pounds per hundred acres. The price was higher because 100 acres was already cleared, and the land was waterfront property with a creek deep enough to be navigable. (Alexander, Edward Porter [editor], The Journal of John Fontaine, and Irish Huguenot Son in Spain and Virginia 1710-1719, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1972, p.87, 89)