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First English Colonies: 1566–1619



In the 16th century England wanted to find a new corridor to China and new sources of trade goods. This eventually brought English explorers to the Atlantic shores of North America. However, establishing a thriving colony was a difficult task. An earlier attempt by the English to colonize Newfoundland had failed. Their first North American settlement on Roanoke Island lasted only a few years. Yet they persevered and finally achieved success in 1607 with the establishment of Jamestown, Virginia. While the settlement's early years were plagued by starvation, disease, and discord with native peoples, the colony eventually found its footing and purpose with tobacco exports.

At A Glance

  • The first English explorers to come to North America were seeking a new, less hazardous route to China.
  • Established in 1584, Roanoke Colony was the first official English settlement in North America, though it lasted less than three years.
  • Jamestown, established in 1607, was a business venture by the Virginia Company and the first English colony in North America to survive and flourish.
  • Lack of food, the spread of disease, and war with American Indians nearly led to the end of Jamestown.
  • Tobacco was the cash crop that stabilized Jamestown's economy, yet it required cheap labor, which eventually led to the import of enslaved Africans by Dutch traders.
  • The permanence and self-sufficiency of Jamestown were assured by a legislative government.
  • The arrival of women changed the character of the Jamestown settlement and encouraged social stability.