Economy of the Southern Colonies
A distinct economy emerged in the Southern colonies, largely because of their distinct climate and geographic features. Unlike the New England colonies, the Southern colonies had an abundance of fertile soil ideal for growing crops. The region also had a much longer growing season and experienced milder winters compared to the Middle and New England colonies. Both of these factors contributed to the South's agrarian, or agriculture-based, economy.
The Southern economy largely depended on the production of cash crops. A cash crop is a crop cultivated for sale, not personal use by the grower. Tobacco was the first successful cash crop produced by the English colonies. John Rolfe began experimenting with different varieties of tobacco as early as 1612. The Virginia Colony produced 20,000 pounds of tobacco in 1617 and 50,000 pounds in 1620. This number grew exponentially over the next 90 years, reaching 29,000,000 pounds of tobacco by 1709.
Growing tobacco was not an easy endeavor. The crop could only be grown on the same plot of land for three years before the soil wore out. This meant tobacco growers were constantly searching for more land. As a result a tobacco grower needed a large estate, or plantation. As the size of the plantations grew, so did the demand for inexpensive labor.
At first, tobacco planters relied on the labor of indentured servants. An indentured servant was an individual who agreed to work for a set number of years, usually between four and seven, in exchange for passage to the Americas as well as food, shelter, and clothing during their period of service. Over time, the number of indentured servants dwindled because of difficult living conditions and because servants living in Southern colonies had shorter life spans compared to those living in Middle or New England colonies. This forced planters to look for alternative sources of cheap labor. This void was ultimately filled by enslaved Africans.The first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown in 1619 by an English privateer sailing for the Dutch king. Slavery was slow to take hold in the South but grew steadily once established. The Virginia Colony was home to 150 enslaved Africans in 1640 and roughly 300 in 1650. By the 1680s the number of enslaved Africans living in the Virginia Colony grew into the thousands. Between 1700 and 1775, over 350,000 enslaved Africans were brought to the colonies. They accounted for a large percentage of the Southern population, 70% in South Carolina and 40% in Virginia.