Southern Colonies: 1566–1733

Life in the Southern Colonies

Economy of the Southern Colonies

Rich soil and a mild climate led the Southern colonies to develop a strong agrarian economy. The growing demand for cheap labor by Southern plantations created a regional dependence upon the institution of slavery.

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.

Estimated Population of the Southern Colonies, 1630-1750

The free and enslaved black population of the Southern colonies grew rapidly as the economy became more dependent upon slavery.
Despite international laws that outlawed slavery, use of enslaved Africans spread beyond the tobacco industry as cash crops like rice, indigo, and eventually cotton grew in popularity. As demand for these goods rose, planters relied even more heavily on the enslaved population to keep costs low and production high.

Government and Social Structure of the Southern Colonies

A distinct government structure and social order emerged in the Southern colonies during the 1600s and 1700s.

Virginia was originally founded as a joint-stock company, and Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia began as proprietary colonies. However, by the mid-1750s they were all under royal control. Their governments followed a similar structure: a royal governor at the top, an advisory council acting as a cabinet, and an elected assembly.

The royal governor was appointed by the king. Governors were not colonists and came from England's upper class. This meant they were largely out of touch with colonial life and politics. Royal governors were assisted by an advisory council either appointed by the king or selected by the governor himself.

Laws were passed by the colony's assembly, made up of colonists elected by the people. To be elected to the assembly, candidates were required by law to own land—often large amounts. Thus, assembly members were always wealthy white men. The governor had the power to call the assembly to order or to dissolve it. He also had the power to veto laws. Over time, colonial assemblies gained more power and more autonomy. They voted on matters of local taxation and defense and eventually paid the salaries of royal officials. This, in turn, dramatically increased the power of the colonial assemblies.

Depending on the colony, between 50 and 90 percent of white men were permitted to vote. This did not mean all groups in society were truly represented in the colonial assemblies. Instead, the Southern colonies came to be dominated by an elite ruling class. The highest orders were comprised of wealthy planters and a handful of merchants and lawyers. These men occupied the majority of the positions in the colonial assemblies and courts. They maintained their status by passing laws requiring massive land holdings in order to hold office. Other social classes were made up of professionals and tradespeople, yeoman, or small-scale farmers. Free blacks and enslaved Africans were at the bottom of the order.
Construction on the Shirley Plantation began in 1723 and was completed in 1738. This Virginia plantation is one example of the lavish homes built by wealthy Southern planters.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-det-4a10729
Daily life and culture varied from region to region. Those living on the coasts generally embraced European culture, while colonists living farther west developed a distinct frontier culture. Instead of living in lavish homes like their coastal counterparts, frontier families lived in cabins and spun their own cloth.

Public education was virtually nonexistent in the Southern colonies. The rural nature of the South made it difficult to build community schools because families were geographically divided. Wealthy families had little incentive to invest in public education, instead opting to hire European tutors to homeschool their children.

Like in most colonies, society in the South was patriarchal, meaning it was male-dominated. Men controlled politics, business, and the family. Women were expected to marry, raise children, and run the household. There were some instances where widowed women ran their family's business, but this was unusual. Men made up the majority of a colony's population, which meant people usually married later and had fewer children. Also, widows living in colonies were given greater choice to choose a husband because of the gender imbalance. Women living on the frontier often had more shared responsibilities than their wealthy counterparts because they played a greater role in their family's survival. These women carried greater burdens, as living on the frontier, which was often isolated and far from trade routes, was much more difficult than living along the coast.