George Washington: A Biography - Vol. 1

By Douglas Southall Freeman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
AN AMBITIOUS LANDED SOCIETY
(1640-1722)

IT WAS amazing how the early settlers between the Potomac and the Rappahannock Rivers in Virginia progressed. They had not come in any considerable number to "the Northern Neck," as they called the long peninsula, until 1640 and after. A few were what one of their early historians styled "gentlemen of good descent";1 most of then were small farmers, artisans, clerks, tradesmen or adventurous younger sons of the middle classes who believed they would have a better chance in the new world than they could hope to win in the old.2 They possessed little money with which to buy slaves, farm animals and tools, and they received no help from government except "headrights" of fifty acres for each immigrant. Some did not trouble themselves about land titles. Without any formality, they took vacant woodland, cleared fields and planted crops.

Many paid with their lives for their enterprise. Mortality among the seventeenth-century pioneers was disheartening. "Bloody flux," typhoid and perhaps yellow fever slew hundreds in their first year of settlement. Malaria weakened those who survived the other diseases. Indians raided the scattered farms. Rebellion swept the countryside in 1676. Storm destroyed crops. In spite of everything, the families increased fast and with no loss of vigor. Slaves became more numerous, the livestock multiplied, the tobacco grown on expanding plantations crowded yearly the holds of a larger fleet. The second generation began to buy luxuries from England and enjoyed larger leisure. Men of the third generation considered themselves aristocrats. Within seventy-five years, a new and

____________________
1
Hugh Jones, The Present State of Virginia, ( New York, 1865, reprint of the edition of 1724, cited hereafter as Jones, Virginia), p. 23.
2
The complete lack of information concerning the antecedents of most of the early settlers of Virginia was the subject of two admirable notes, presumably by W. G. Stanard, in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, v. 15, p. 217 ff, and v. 18, p. 339. In accordance with the abbreviations used in E. G. Swem, Virginia Historical Index, this publication is cited hereafter as V. The number of the volume precedes the initial.

-1-

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