The Southern Colonies

Start Free Trial

Compare and contrast the colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts Bay.    

The colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts were similar in some ways and different in others. They were both founded in the first half of the 17th century and they both practiced some form of self-governance. They had very different climates, however, which meant that the Massachusetts economy was driven by things like shipping and shipbuilding while Virginia's warmer temperatures allowed for an agriculture-based economy.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Virginia Colony began as an explicitly economic venture, an attempt to establish a profitable colony that would also serve as a strategic check on Spanish expansion. It was first founded as a joint-stock company, and settlers were beholden to investors who hoped the colony would turn a profit, as...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The Virginia Colony began as an explicitly economic venture, an attempt to establish a profitable colony that would also serve as a strategic check on Spanish expansion. It was first founded as a joint-stock company, and settlers were beholden to investors who hoped the colony would turn a profit, as it did when it turned to tobacco as a cash crop. Massachusetts Bay also began as a company, and its founders were hardly averse to profit. But it was created as a sort of religious community for Puritans, famously described by John Winthrop as a "city on a hill."

Settlers in both regions encountered powerful Native peoples, and early cooperation eventually gave way to brutal wars of conquest within fifty years of settlement. Jamestown settlers entered a land ruled by the Powhatan Confederacy, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony was surrounded by a variety of peoples including the Narragansett, the Pequot and many others.

Unlike the Virginians, Puritans made a sustained attempt to convert area Natives to Christianity, but also fought a series of brutal wars. Virginia's Anglo-Powhatan Wars began for similar reasons to the Pequot War and King Philip's War in New England: Native peoples became convinced that they could not survive in the face of colonial expansion.

Finally, another comparison between the two colonies is the labor systems that existed in each. In Virginia, the demand for labor associated with cultivation of tobacco meant the colony quickly turned to indentured servitude and, not long afterward, slavery as the dominant labor system. Unfree labor of all types also existed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but most of its people were small landholders. Therefore, slavery was nowhere near as prominent as it was in Virginia.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Virginia and Massachusetts colonies were both settled by English people. Both colonies wanted to create societies based on an English model and had little interest in understanding Native peoples already in the area.

The Virginia colony was a business venture. The financial backers hoped to profit from the rich resources of the New World. The Massachusetts colonies were established by Dissenting Protestants, called Puritans, who wished to escape persecution in England. Groups of Puritans had tried settling in Holland, where they had avoided persecution but were dismayed to find their children assimilating to Dutch culture. Part of their desire to settle in North America had to do with preserving their distinct English heritage. Because of this, they were unwilling to adopt Native American customs, even when it would have made sense, as in the case of wearing lighter clothing in the summer heat.

The Jamestown settlers were Church of England followers, who today we would call Anglicans. While both Jamestown and Massachusetts settlers considered themselves Christians, both treated the Native populations they encountered cruelly, unable to understand or tolerate cultural differences once they no longer had to rely on the Indians to survive. Both groups suffered intense hardship early on, but both eventually prospered and helped establish English cultural and legal norms in what would later become the United States.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Both colonies were English and both ultimately experienced issues with the native populations. Both colonies had limited self-rule. Both were also settled around the same time—Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620. However, this is where the similarities end. The colony of Virginia was settled largely by single men who were looking at making a great deal of money. They initially tried to mine gold, but, finding none, they turned to cash crops such as tobacco. The tobacco industry turned out to be quite lucrative; the effort of the Virginians led to a worldwide tobacco craze.  The Virginians ultimately had to turn to using chattel slaves in their fields.

On the other hand, the Massachusetts colony was settled by middle-class families who were leaving England in search of religious freedom. They initially settled in Holland but they did not want to lose their English identity. The Massachusetts colonists made money for the Crown through shipbuilding and fishing. Whereas the Virginia colony had large farms and cash crops, Massachusetts farmers focused on subsistence agriculture and smaller farms. Some Massachusetts colonists owned slaves, but slavery would never be on the scale that it was further south.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Virginia and Massachusetts Bay colonies both had a number of similarities and differences. They were both colonies of England and settled in roughly the same time period. Their early inhabitants faced many of the same difficulties in establishing a viable colony. Both colonies were helped by the native populations in their respective regions. The story of the help the Pilgrims in Massachusetts received with agriculture is celebrated each year during Thanksgiving, and without the help of Pocahontas it is possible Virginia colony would have been destroyed.

Additionally, each colony established systems of self-government to help them survive; these systems would eventually form some of the foundations of the American political system. The Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact, the first example of self-government in the new world, before they disembarked from their vessel. Additionally, the Virginians formed the Virginia House of Burgesses, the first representative governing body in America.

While they had many similarities, some key differences existed between the two colonies. The Virginia colony was primarily an economic venture, while the Massachusetts Bay colony was founded as more of a social entity. Massachusetts was settled by people seeking religious freedom and self-determination. While, undoubtedly, people sought to make a living in the colony, preserving their culture by building a sustainable colony was their focus, not sheer profit. Obviously many geographic differences existed as well. Massachusetts, located in modern-day New England, was much colder, with extreme winter conditions, while the Virginia colony was founded in a much warmer climate.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team