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Daily Life & Challenges in Early English Settlements

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about daily life in three early North American English settlements. We will learn what it was like to live in this type of environment, and we will highlight some of the challenges facing English settlers.

Modern Society vs. Early Colonial Society

Compared to the early colonists, most of us today have it pretty easy. Sometimes we take our lives for granted. We become impatient if our Internet page takes too long to load or we get upset if our Starbucks order is not quite right. As a whole, our modern American society, while certainly not perfect, is a relatively safe and comfortable place to live compared with the early English settlements of the past.

Imagine constantly fearing Native American attacks, having to consistently battle sickness and disease, or worrying about not having enough food for your family to survive. These were the daily realities facing English settlers of North America during the early colonial period. Remember, when the English settlers first arrived in North America there was nothing here except for territory controlled by native Indian populations. English settlers had to start from scratch when they were building their fortifications, houses, villages and roads. This was no easy task.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke

We often hear so much about the English settlements of Jamestown and Plymouth, that we forget there was a failed colonial settlement before them. The Roanoke Colony was established on Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina in between 1584 and 1587. The first groups were charged with military and scientific missions. It was in 1587 that the third group of colonists arrived. Entire families arrived with women and children accompanying the men. That meant that the third group was intending to settle in the New World permanently. Queen Elizabeth of England commissioned Sir Walter Raleigh to organize the colony, which was intended to be England's first permanent settlement.

In nearly all the settlements, maintaining adequate food supplies remained a challenge, especially in the winter season. In the case of the Roanoke Colony, low provisions required some of the colony's leaders to sail back to England to re-supply. When they returned three years later the colony had completely vanished. The only clue as to what happened was the word 'Croatoan' carved into a post, but the relief party was unable to figure out the word's meaning.

The only clue as to the whereabouts of the Roanoke Colony was the word Croatoan carved into a post.
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To this day, no one knows for sure what became of the Roanoke Colony. There was no sign of a battle, leaving many historians to believe that the colony moved voluntarily. Other historians have theorized the settlers assimilated into Native American tribes, or where taken captive by the Spanish. No one really knows.

The Jamestown Colony

Established in 1607, the colony of Jamestown in what is now Virginia is usually regarded as the first permanent English settlement in the New World. The settlers of Jamestown were charged with building a secure settlement, finding gold, and finding a water route to the Pacific Ocean. They didn't find any gold, and the water route to the Pacific came later. Instead, they concentrated on building a secure colony but they suffered all kinds of deprivations, especially early on. As with other settlements, acquiring enough food was a major challenge. The settlers of Jamestown were not able to grow as much food as they hoped because the water was brackish and the soil was not as fertile as they hoped it would be. A dry growing season also hindered their early endeavors. In fact, the winter of 1609-1610 is considered the Starving Time because out of 200-300 settlers, all but 60 died of starvation and/or disease. Things became so bad during the Starving Time that some settlers resorted to cannibalism.

A 1608 map depicting the fort at Jamestown.
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Initially, and sporadically, the Powhatan Native Americans, who inhabited the Jamestown region, were friendly toward the English, but in time their relationship soured, leaving the English wary of attack. The threat of attack became a daily concern. Settlers were forced to leave their village in packs, well-armed, and always on the alert. It goes without saying that daily life in early colonial America was hard work. Men labored long hours building homes and other structures. Women tended to the children, gardened, and maintained the home. Even children were required to work a good part of the day. There was not a lot of time for leisure in early colonial America.

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