Southern Colonies — the Colonial Era in the Chesapeake and the South

1585–1763

The Southern Colonies in Colonial America were known for their economic and social systems based on agriculture, including large plantations, cash crops, and landed gentry. The culture of the Southern Colonies is often associated with labor systems such as indentured servitude and slavery but also served as a driving force behind the ideology of the American Revolution.

Sir Walter Raleigh, Portrait, 1590

Sir Walter Raleigh funded the expeditions that founded the Roanoke Island Colony. Image Source: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Southern Colonies Summary

The American Colonies are generally divided into three regions — the New England, Middle, and Southern. The Southern Colonies, in geographic order, from North to South, were:

  1. Maryland
  2. Virginia
  3. North Carolina
  4. South Carolina
  5. Georgia

The warm climate and fertile land of the Southern Colonies were conducive to the growth of prosperous cash crops like tobacco, rice, and indigo. 

This led to the development of a society based on agriculture, from small farms to large plantations. However, large plantations with hundreds or even thousands of acres of fields required a large workforce. As a result, the Southern Colonies implemented a labor system that relied on indentured servants and, later, enslaved people.

Jamestown, Tobacco Field, Painting, King
This illustration depicts a tobacco field in Jamestown. Image Source: National Park Service.

The Southern Colonies prospered due to cash crops, which allowed them to trade with the other colonies and Great Britain. However, the Southern Colonies also relied on the Triangular Trade System to supply Africans for the workforce.

Religious tolerance was generally practiced in the Southern Colonies, and the governments included governors, councils, courts, and elected assemblies. The House of Burgesses, the first elected assembly in America, was established in 1619 in Virginia.

As the British Colonies became more established, they became more self-sufficient. When British officials ended the policy of Salutary Neglect and started enforcing the Navigation Acts, political and business leaders from the Southern Colonies joined their counterparts in the New England Colonies and Middle Colonies in protest.

Leaders from the Southern Colonies like Christopher Gadsden, Thomas Lynch, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison came to the forefront, helping fuel the ideology of the American Revolution, and, much later, the United States Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale
Thomas Jefferson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Southern Colonies Facts

  1. The Southern Colonies included Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
  2. Plantations were a prominent feature of the Southern Colonies, and they focused on growing cash crops such as tobacco, rice, cotton, and indigo.
  3. Slavery played a significant role in the Southern Colonies, with a large population of enslaved Africans working on the plantations.
  4. Virginia was the first permanent English colony in North America, founded in 1607 at Jamestown.
  5. Maryland was established in 1633 by Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, as a refuge for Catholics seeking religious freedom.
  6. North Carolina and South Carolina were originally a single colony, Carolina, and later became separate Royal Colonies.
  7. Georgia was founded in 1732, partially to serve as a buffer between Spanish Florida and the Carolinas.
  8. Agriculture, particularly farming on plantations, was the primary occupation in the Southern Colonies, with major crops including tobacco, rice, indigo, cotton, and sugarcane.
  9. The Southern Colonies had warm climates, fertile land, and longer growing seasons, enabling successful agricultural trade and economic prosperity.
  10. Religious diversity was present in the Southern Colonies, with Anglican and Baptist religions being significant, and varying degrees of tolerance observed among different religious groups

Southern Colonies Overview

The Southern Colonies were characterized by their large plantations and cash crop agriculture. Each colony had unique origins and economic focuses, with tobacco, rice, cotton, and indigo being significant cash crops.

Slavery played a significant role in the Southern Colonies, providing a workforce for the labor-intensive plantation economy. The region’s warm climate and fertile land allowed for successful agricultural trade with other colonies and Europe.

The colonies had diverse religious backgrounds, with varying degrees of tolerance, and their governments included governors, councils, courts, and elected assemblies. Life in the Southern Colonies revolved around farming on plantations, which led to the accumulation of wealth for some while being built on the unfortunate legacy of slavery.

Last Colony, Roanoke Island, Virginia Dare Baptism
This illustration depicts the baptism of Virginia Dare. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Virginia

Virginia was founded in 1607 when Jamestown was established. The first colonists, led by Governor Edward Maria Wingfield, were part of the Virginia Company of London, which was granted a charter by King James I to establish a colony in the southern half of a region that stretched along the East Coast. 

The purpose of the first expeditions was to find gold, and silver and to establish a trade route to the Pacific Ocean. The obsession with finding riches nearly led to the collapse of the colony. However, Captain John Smith took over and implemented a policy of “No Work, No Food,” forcing everyone, including the gentlemen in Jamestown, to help build homes and grow food.

In 1612, John Rolfe introduced a new cash crop, tobacco, which helped to turn the settlement into a profitable venture. Soon after, Rolfe married Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, which brought a period of peace between the colonists and the Powhatan Confederacy.

However, Tobacco required more workers. The Virginia Company created the Headright System to attract more colonists. The increased population led to inland expansion and conflicts with the Powhatans and other tries, culminating in Bacon’s Rebellion, an uprising against the Virginia government.

Following Bacon’s Rebellion, the landed gentry in Virginia moved away from indentured servants, whom they had to release when their contracts were completed, to chattel slavery.

Landing at Jamestown, Illustration
This illustration depicts the colonists landing in Virginia in 1607. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Maryland

Captain John Smith first explored the area of present-day Maryland during his expeditions in 1608. Roughly 24 years later, George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, asked King Charles I for permission to establish a colony in the Chesapeake Region. Calvert, who was Catholic, wanted to create a place for Catholics in the New World, where they could enjoy religious freedom. He also wanted the colony to be in an area where tobacco could be grown.

When the charter was granted, Maryland became the first Proprietary Colony, because the Calvert Family owned the land within the borders of the colony. 

In 1649, the Maryland legislature passed the Maryland Act of Toleration, which provided religious freedom for anyone who believed in the Holy Trinity, which included Catholics and Protestants. The Maryland Act of Toleration was the first law dealing with religious tolerance in America.

Maryland’s economy was reliant on iron, shipbuilding, and agriculture, including tobacco. Like Virginia, Maryland used the Headright System to increase its population. 

In 1689, tensions between Catholics and Protestants led to the Protestant Revolution, also known as Coode’s Rebellion. The rebellion led to the establishment of a Protestant government and Catholicism was outlawed. 

The Protestant government was unpopular and King William III appointed a Royal Governor in 1692.

Carolina, North Carolina, and South Carolina

In 1663, King Charles II granted a charter to eight men, known as the Lords Proprietors, paving the way for English colonization of the territory south of Virginia. The Proprietors promised political freedom and religious freedom to immigrants and also encouraged settlement with the Headright System.

Governor William Berkeley, Virginia
William Berkeley was one of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The first colonists set sail for the Province of Carolina in 1669 and arrived in 1670. Upon arrival, they established Albemarle Post. In 1680, the capital was moved to Charles Town — later Charleston.

Due to the popularity of Charleston as a port and trading center, the southern region of the Carolinas developed faster than the northern region. Travel between the two regions was also difficult due to the terrain.

In 1691, the Proprietors agreed to appoint a Deputy Governor for the northern region. The province was officially divided in 1712.

North Carolina had a significant agricultural industry with tobacco, rice, indigo, and livestock. South Carolina focused on rice, cotton, tobacco, and indigo plantations.

South Carolina

By 1719, people living in South Carolina felt the Proprietors were not doing enough to protect them. In part, it was due to ongoing issues with the famous pirate, Edward Teach — Blackbeard — and the Yamasee War. As British subjects, the people sought protection from the Crown. The Crown agreed and Sir Francis Nicholson was appointed as the first Royal Governor of South Carolina.

North Carolina

For the next decade, the Crown worked to buy the rights to the Carolinas from the families of each of the original Lords Proprietors. By 1729, King George II had purchased nearly all the rights and both colonies became Royal Colonies, under Crown control. 

The only family that retained its rights was that of George Carteret. However, the Carteret family had no say in how the colony was governed. The family’s land holdings were known as the “Granville District.”

Georgia

British officials looked to establish a colony between South Carolina and Florida in order to create a buffer between British and Spanish territory in the South. There was also a desire to create a place where the poor and destitute in England could be sent to give them a chance at a new life. 

A group of 21 Trustees oversaw the establishment of Georgia. In 1732, a ship called Anne was chartered and 114 colonists — men, women, and children, sailed to the new colony, under the leadership of Trustee General James Edward Oglethorpe. 

The colonists arrived in February 1733 and started laying out the town of Savannah. Colonists were given 50 acres of land and silkworms as an incentive to help Georgia prosper.

Savannah Georgia in 1734, Illustration
This illustration depicts Savannah in 1734. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

When Georgia was founded, the Trustees believed it was important that Georgia should not allow slavery. Not necessarily because they were Abolitionists, but because they thought the presence of slaves would encourage attacks by Spanish forces.

By the 1740s, the economy of Georgia was struggling and failed to compete with the other colonies. Many of the colonists complained about the hard work and hot climate they had to endure in order to succeed and turned to the use of slaves. On January 1, 1751, Parliament voted in favor of officially allowing the Trustees to make use of slave labor in Georgia.

In 1752, Georgia became a Royal Colony, but it took two years for Governor John Reynolds to arrive.

Roanoke Island — The First Failed Southern Colony

In 1587, the first English settlement in the Americas was established on Roanoke Island, with financial backing from Sir Walter Raleigh. After the colonists were able to successfully build homes and plant crops, Governor John White returned to England to secure additional supplies. However, his voyage was delayed by the Anglo-Spanish War. When he returned in 1590, he found colonists were gone. He conducted a brief search but was forced to abandon them due to harsh weather conditions. He returned to England and the fate of the colonists — the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island — remains unknown

Lost Colony, Roanoke Island, Croatoan Carving
This illustration depicts John White finding the word “Croatoan” carved into a tree in 1590. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Carolana — Another Failed Southern Colony

In 1629, King Charles I of England granted a proprietary charter to Sir Robert Heath, his attorney general for land called “Carolana.” It stretched from Albemarle Sound, North Carolina, to the northern boundary of Spanish Florida. It was a “Sea to Sea Charter,” and extended westward to the Pacific Ocean. 

Heath tried to populate Carolana with religious refugees from France known as Huguenots. However, several attempts at colonization with failed, so Heath restricted future colonists to members of the Church of England. 

One attempt at settling the colony was sponsored by Samuel Vassall, a Puritan merchant. Vassall’s expedition conducted an exploration of the coast to identify suitable sites for settlements to be established. Unfortunately, the colonists who followed in 1633 were stranded in Virginia.

Heath eventually transferred his proprietary rights to others but all efforts that were made to settle in Carolana failed.

The land in the Carolana Charter was eventually granted to the Proprietors in their charter for Carolina. Owners of Carolana Charter filed a lawsuit, but the Privy Council ruled in favor of the new charter and terminated all previous charters and land grants. 

Southern Colonies Religion

Religion played a lesser role in the Southern Colonies in comparison to the New England Colonies. Although the Church of England was the official church in most of the Southern Colonies, religious tolerance was practiced, but only to a certain extent. There were clashes between Protestants and Catholics in Maryland and between Anglicans and Baptists in Virginia.

In the Southern Colonies, a significant effort was made to convert Indians to Christianity. One of the most famous converts was Pocahontas.

Southern Colonies Economy

The economy of the Southern Colonies focused on agriculture, with farming being the primary occupation. Small farms and large plantations were abundant, and the region’s resources and favorable climate allowed for prosperity. Plantation owners accumulated wealth through trade with other colonies and New England. 

Jamestown, Trading with Indians, Painting, King
This illustration depicts the Jamestown colonists trading with Native American Indians. Image Source: National Park Service.

Southern Colonies Climate

The Southern Colonies enjoyed a warm climate and typically experienced hot summers and mild winters. The hot, humid summers usually led to outbreaks of diseases, including malaria, yellow fever, and smallpox. These diseases led to a significant number of deaths within the population of colonists, but also among the Indian population.

Southern Colonies Geography

The geography of the Southern Colonies was diverse and shaped the economy of each colony. 

The Southern Colonies were situated along the coastal plains and harbors but also had fertile soil and land that encouraged agriculture. 

Due to the warm climate and mild winters, the Southern Colonies had the longest growing season of the three regions in Colonial America. The vast amount of farmland facilitated the cultivation of cash crops like tobacco, rice, indigo, cotton, and sugarcane. 

Along the coast, the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean provided abundant natural resources, including timber.

Roanoke Island, Lost Colony, Map, John White
This map by John White shows the location of Roanoke Island. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Southern Colonies Government

Government in the Southern Colonies was structured differently in each colony. Most Southern Colonies had a Governor and a Governor’s Council, as well as an elected General Assembly, like Virginia’s House of Burgesses

Some colonies operated under charters that allowed them to form their own government, but they eventually had their charters revoked, making them Royal Colonies under the control of the British monarchy. 

The elected assembly provided a voice for colonists. However, it was typical that only white male property owners were allowed to vote or hold office. 

The Southern Colonies were governed by Great Britain, and the local governments had varying degrees of latitude in how they governed themselves.

Indentured Servants, Slaves, and the Headright System in the Southern Colonies

Enslaved Africans and indentured servants provided a substantial workforce for plantations. After Bacon’s Rebellion, slavery became more prevalent in the Southern Colonies, with Virginia having the largest slave population.  

Indentured servants were individuals who migrated from New England and agreed to work on plantations to pay for their passage from Britain to the New World. In many cases, indentured servants were given land — although poor, undeveloped land on the frontier — when their contracts ended. 

This became a key issue during Bacon’s Rebellion when the Virginia government refused to protect people living on the frontier. Former indentured servants joined the army that was organized by Nathaniel Bacon and eventually burned Jamestown to the ground.

Bacon's Rebellion, Burning Jamestown
This illustration depicts the Burning of Jamestown that took place during Bacon’s Rebellion. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Slaves also participated in Bacon’s Rebellion. At the time, many slaves were allowed to move about freely in the Southern Colonies. Following the rebellion, Slaves Codes were tightened and restricted the freedoms of slaves.

Over time, plantation owners preferred a workforce they had complete control over and did not have to compete with for land, or in the marketplace. As a result, slavery became more common and grew in the Southern Colonies. 

The Headright System also provided land to anyone who purchased slaves, because it increased the population of the colony. It was a loophole that was exploited by plantation owners and the landed gentry to increase the amount of land they owned.

Southern Colonies and the Navigation Acts

In order to force compliance with the Mercantile System, England — and later Britain — enacted the Navigation Acts. They were a series of laws passed by Parliament designed to regulate and control the shipping of raw materials and products within the empire. 

The laws were based on the economic theory of mercantilism and were intended to give England a favorable trade balance against other nations. The Navigation Acts played an important role in how the economy of the Southern Colonies was shaped.

Throughout the American Colonies, including the Southern Colonies, merchants turned to smuggling in order to avoid paying the taxes that were associated with shipping. They also traded illegally outside of the empire.

Southern Colonies and Salutary Neglect

Salutary Neglect in the Southern Colonies allowed merchants to ignore the Navigation Acts. It led to an increase in smuggling and bribery. Merchants knew they were breaking the law, but they also believed they were doing smart business. Salutary Neglect allowed merchants to flourish but also increased their independent spirit.

Robert Walpole, Painting
Prime Minister Robert Walpole was responsible for instituting Salutary Neglect. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Southern Colonies and Triangular Trade

Triangular Trade in the Southern Colonies contributed to the wealth of Southern merchants and plantation owners. Merchants in the Southern Colonies contributed tobacco, rice indigo, and other raw materials that were part of the Triangular Trade system. In return, the Southern Colonies received goods and products, and, most notably, Africans who were then purchased and enslaved.

Southern Colonies Significance

The Southern Colonies in Colonial America are important to United States history for the role they played in helping establish the 13 Original Colonies. They are also important for their contributions and participation in the Triangular Trade and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. 

However, the participation of the Southern Colonies in the American Revolution and American Revolutionary War played a significant role in the founding of the United States. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of leaders like Thomas Jefferson — a slaveowner himself — labor practices that resulted from slavery persisted in the Southern Colonies well after the American Revolution, eventually leading to the Civil War.

Southern Colonies Frequently Asked Questions

What were the Southern Colonies?

The Southern Colonies were a group of English colonies in North America, known for their predominantly agrarian economy and large plantations. Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia were the Southern Colonies. The region’s economy was based on cash crops like tobacco, rice, and indigo, cultivated with the labor of enslaved Africans. Socially, there was a significant difference between wealthy plantation owners — the landed gentry — and people living in the Backcountry farming communities.

What were the social characteristics of the Southern Colonies?

The Southern Colonies had distinct social characteristics based on the agrarian economy. Wealthy plantation owners held significant political power and lived in grand houses, while Backcountry farmers had a more modest lifestyle. Slavery was a dominant institution, and enslaved Africans formed close-knit communities to endure the harsh conditions imposed on them over time. Religion played a role, with the Church of England being dominant, but some colonies were more tolerant of religious diversity than others.

How did the Southern Colonies make money?

The Southern Colonies made money primarily through agricultural activities. Cash crops such as tobacco, rice, and indigo were cultivated on large plantations and exported to other colonies and Europe. Plantation owners became wealthy from these trade connections. Slavery was integral to the economy, as enslaved Africans provided the labor force for plantation work.

Why were the Southern Colonies founded?

The Southern Colonies were founded for various reasons. Virginia was established in 1607 as the first permanent English colony, with settlers hoping to find gold initially but later thriving through tobacco farming. Maryland was founded in 1633 as a haven for Catholics seeking religious freedom. North and South Carolina were initially one colony but were later divided for better governance. Georgia, founded in 1732, served as a buffer state between Spain and the Carolinas and also as a refuge for debtors and a chance to avoid a wealth gap between settlers.

What labor systems were used in the Southern Colonies?

In the early years, the Southern Colonies relied heavily on indentured servants, who worked on plantations to repay their passage to the New World. However, as the demand for labor increased, plantation owners turned to enslaved Africans. By the late 17th century, slavery became the dominant labor system in the Southern Colonies due to its availability and perceived benefits of locking workers into a lifetime of servitude.

What was the first representative government in the Southern Colonies?

The first representative government in the Southern Colonies was the House of Burgesses, established in Virginia in 1619. The burgesses were elected representatives who had the power to make and change laws. However, the right to vote or be elected was limited to white male property owners, which excluded the majority of the population from participation in the democratic process

Southern Colonies APUSH Notes and Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Colonial Era and the 13 Original Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Southern Colonies APUSH Definition

The Southern Colonies were a region in Colonial America consisting of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. This region’s economy was primarily based on agriculture, particularly cash crops like tobacco and rice, cultivated on large plantations using slave labor.

Southern Colonies Video for APUSH Notes

This video from Daily Bellringer provides an overview of the Southern Colonies during the Colonial Era.

Southern Colonies Key Concepts

Bacon’s Rebellion — Bacon’s Rebellion was an uprising in 1676 in colonial Virginia led by Nathaniel Bacon against the colonial government and Native American tribes. It arose due to grievances against political and economic inequalities, lack of protection from Native American raids, and perceived favoritism towards the wealthy elite.

Blackbeard — Blackbeard, also known as Edward Teach, was a notorious English pirate who operated in the early 18th century. Blackbeard operated off the coast of the Southern Colonies. His presence was a threat to colonial trade and maritime security.

Corporate Colonies — Corporate Colonies were colonies in Colonial America established through charters granted to Joint Stock Companies. These companies financed and organized colonization efforts, such as the Virginia Company, which played a significant role in establishing the Jamestown settlement.

Headright System — The Headright System was a land distribution system used in the Southern Colonies, particularly Virginia, during the Colonial Era. Under this system, individuals who paid for their passage to the New World were granted 50 acres of land, encouraging the influx of immigrants and indentured servants who were vital to the expansion of the colony.

House of Burgesses — The House of Burgesses, established in 1619, was the first representative legislative assembly in Colonial America, located in Virginia. It provided a forum for elected representatives, called “burgesses,” to make local laws and regulations for the colony.

Indentured Servant — Indentured servants were individuals who agreed to work for a specific period, usually four to seven years, in exchange for passage to the New World and the promise of land after their service. They played a significant role in the early development of the Southern Colonies, especially in the tobacco industry.

Jamestown — Jamestown, founded in 1607, was the first successful English settlement in Colonial America. It is located in present-day Virginia and played a crucial role in the establishment of English colonial presence in North America.

Joint Stock Company — A Joint Stock company was a business venture where investors pooled their capital to fund colonization efforts and share potential profits and losses. The Virginia Company, one of the most famous joint-stock companies, financed the settlement of Jamestown.

Lord Baltimore — Lord Baltimore, also known as George Calvert, was an English nobleman who founded Maryland as a Proprietary Colony in 1632. He sought to create a haven for English Catholics and established the Maryland Colony with a degree of religious tolerance through the Maryland Act of Toleration.

Maryland Act of Toleration — The Maryland Act of Toleration was a 1649 law in the Maryland colony that provided religious tolerance for all Christians, including Catholics. It was passed under the proprietorship of Lord Baltimore and aimed to attract a diverse population to the colony.

Powhatan — Powhatan was the paramount chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, a group of Algonquian-speaking Native American tribes in Virginia. He played a prominent role in the early history of Jamestown as he interacted with the English settlers, including John Smith and Pocahontas.

Roanoke Island — Roanoke Island, located off the coast of present-day North Carolina, holds historical significance as the site of England’s first attempt at establishing a permanent colony in the New World in the late 16th century. Sir Walter Raleigh sponsored the colony, which became known as the “Lost Colony” due to its mysterious disappearance.

John Smith — Captain John Smith was an English explorer and leader of the Jamestown settlement. He played a vital role in the survival of the colony during its early years, establishing trade relationships with Native Americans, including the Powhatan tribe.

Tobacco — Tobacco was a cash crop that became the mainstay of the Southern Colonies’ economy, particularly Virginia. Its successful cultivation and export to England helped the colonies thrive economically but also contributed to an increasing demand for cheap labor, leading to the expansion of slavery.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Southern Colonies — the Colonial Era in the Chesapeake and the South
  • Date 1585–1763
  • Author
  • Keywords Southern Colonies, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia Roanoke Island, Carolana
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 11, 2024

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