The New England Colonies

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Compare the demographics of the Virginia and New England colonies.

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Both colonies were similar in that they were largely populated by English people. There are key differences, however. New England was populated by families who belonged to the Calvinist Church. The men of the family brought skills in trades and/or farming with them to the New World. The families looked to the community or kin to help them with their labor needs. They largely settled in towns close to each other where the church was the most important place religiously and socially.

Virginia was initially settled by young Englishmen who were hoping to make a quick profit in the New World and then return home. They brought few skills with them, and they were forced to work by the colony's leader, John Smith, in the production of tobacco. Jamestown was established in 1607, but the first women and slaves were not brought to the colony for another twelve years. Though New England would have some slaves, they were considered luxuries there, and New England ended slavery before the American Revolution. Virginia, on the other hand, would maintain slave labor until the end of the Civil War. The colony also tried to use indentured servants, but this idea never caught on as the servants died of malaria and they had to be freed once their term of service ended. Virginians owned large farms that they used to produce cash crops such as tobacco. Though the church was important, it was not the driving force in the community, and people lived far away from their nearest neighbors. Those who were religious were followers of the Church of England.

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Historians who study the British colonies in North America tend to focus on the differences between northern colonies such as those of New England and southern and/or Chesapeake colonies like Virginia.  These colonies were demographically different in a number of ways.

While we do focus on the differences between these colonies, there were some similarities.  The most important similarity was the ethnicity of the people who lived in the colonies.  In both Virginia and New England, the majority of white colonists were English.  There were some Scots-Irish, particularly in backcountry areas, but English people predominated. 

Outside of this, the demographics of the two areas were very different.  The first difference also has to do with ethnicity or race.  The difference here is that Virginia had a very large population of people of African descent while New England did not.  This is not to say that slavery did not exist in New England.  However, it was much less important to their economy.  Therefore, (as can be seen in this link), Massachusetts only had about 4,000 African people in its population in 1750 as compared to about 185,000 whites while Virginia had about 130,000 whites and 101,000 Africans in that same year.  This is, of course, a very important difference.

A second demographic difference is one that was more important early in the colonies’ history but gradually disappeared with time.  This was the difference in age, sex, and family structure between the two areas.  New England’s colonists generally came in family groups.  Therefore, there were a variety of ages and both sexes were fairly evenly represented.  By contrast, most people who came to Virginia were young and single and more men than women came.  Many of these were people coming as indentured servants.  This meant that Virginia’s population was younger, more male, and less likely to be in family groups than the population of New England.

Finally, we can look at religious affiliation as a demographic difference.  Of course, the vast majority of white people in both colonies were Christian.  However, different Christian sects dominated in each area.  The New England colonies were a stronghold of Congregationalism, the religion associated with the Puritans.  This was the established religion in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut.  By contrast, the established religion in Virginia was the Anglican church and most Virginians belonged to that denomination.

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One of the most significant differences between the Northern and Southern colonies was the prevalence of slavery in the South. One very simple reason for this was that the milder climates of states like Virginia, Georgia, et al, allowed for large farming concerns and the establishment of plantations. These large plantations growing tobacco, cotton, beans, and other crops were owned by businessmen who decided that using slave labor would allow them to make maximum profit.

Farmers in New England were barely able to subsist on their crops, much less make any profit from them. The earlier years of Colonial settlement required a great deal of land clearing to create homesteads, and in New England, the harsh winters made it very difficult to farm. Because many of the people who emigrated from England were unable to make a living at their chosen vocations, there was widespread resentment and hostility among the haves and have nots, which, in part, created the superstitious and volatile environment that allowed the Colonial witch hunts (most notably the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts) to occur. 

Because of the more successful economic growth of the Colonies further south, the cost of purchasing slaves and paying for this transport was more manageable than in the North. But generally speaking, the New England Colonies felt more negatively towards slavery than their Virginia counterparts.

Slavery became a controversial issue between the Virginia and New England Colonies, which eventually fed the tensions leading to the Civil War. Even after the war ended and the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal, many freed slaves were still treated as second class citizens in the South.

One other key to the demographics in the early years of Colonial settlement was the disparity in gender. In the Chesapeake Colonies, men outnumbered women six to one, possibly due to the enthusiasm for building wealth and business concerns, whereas in New England, most of the immigrants traveled from England as families with children. The journey by ship was harsh, and the very cold winters took their toll. Some young children did not survive into adulthood. Single women were in short supply and the pressure to bear many children (due to the risk of losing children to disease, as well as the need for children to work the land) meant that marriage was itself both a necessity and a hardship for Colonial women.

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