The colonists who first sailed to Virginia with Captain John Smith were a mixture of artisans from the upper working class and middle-class men who would have identified themselves as gentlemen. Smith himself was representative of the latter category. His family were tenants of the aristocratic Willoughby family, and Smith was educated at a grammar school, but did not go on to university. Gentlemen like Smith were not themselves members of the aristocracy, nor were they rich. However, the small estates they farmed would have been part of large landholdings owned by the nobility.
The social rank of these colonists was closely connected with the slave society they soon established in America. Their existence on the fringes of the English aristocracy had given many of them a hunger to become masters of great houses themselves, something they could only realistically accomplish by emigrating to the New World. The majority did not become landed plantation owners, however. Even by the middle of the nineteenth century, 75% of white people in the South owned no slaves, and only about 2,000 families lived like aristocrats on large plantations with more than 100 enslaved workers. Nonetheless, the class-conscious attitude of the yeoman farmers and small-scale planters meant that the position of the great magnates of the South was taken for granted in the same way as the status of an English nobleman.