The Chesapeake region was composed of several colonies: Virginia, with its first successful settlement Jamestown established in 1607, Maryland, and North Carolina. All three colonies developed a similar agricultural system that revolved around tobacco, which was later diversified with the introduction of cotton and indigo.
During the later part of the seventeenth century, the development of the Chesapeake region revolved around tobacco cultivation, which required intensive labor. At first, Chesapeake farmers hired indentured servants, men and women from England that sold their labor for a period of five to seven years in exchange for passage to the American colonies, to harvest tobacco crops. However, by the 1680s, fluctuating tobacco prices and the growing scarcity of land in the region made the Chesapeake less appealing to men and women willing to indenture themselves. The scarcity of indentured servants meant that the price of their labor contracts increased, and Chesapeake farmers began to look for alternative sources of bonded labor.
As a result, many Chesapeake farmers turned towards imported Africans to alleviate this labor shortage. Although African chattel slavery was a more expensive investment that white indentured servitude, it guaranteed a lifetime service of labor, which precipitated the American slave institution, as it existed for three centuries. As African slaves were generally more expensive to purchase than indentured servants, the introduction of African slavery to the Chesapeake and, later, South Carolina, increased the social and economic divisions between wealthy and poor farmers. The wealthy planters invested heavily in African slaves and agricultural technology and expanded their lands, while poor farmers struggled to maintain their smaller agricultural enterprises.
As the demand for Chesapeake cash crops continued to grow, planters began to increasingly invest in the Atlantic slave trade: until Charleston was a leading importer of enslaved Africans in the region and a key port of call in the triangular trade.
Rural Economy and Society: Slavery as a Social Identifier
The local economy in the Chesapeake was overwhelmingly agrarian and rural and rooted in the Headright, guaranteeing numerous acres of land to any immigrant who settled in the region. The Headright was designed to promote immigrant settlement and the cultivation of key staple crops such as indigo, rice, and tobacco, which were in high demand in the Atlantic markets and thus increased the prosperity of the Chesapeake region. As the Headright attracted more and more settlers to the Chesapeake, an increasing divide between coastal planters and farmers on the frontier began to emerge--with those in the westernmost areas usually poorer and more vulnerable to Indian attacks than planters in the east.
Furthermore, with the importation of African slaves, most social and economic divisions between wealthy and poor farmers in the Chesapeake increased. African slaves were expensive, and, as the more wealthy planters invested heavily in African slaves and agricultural technology, and could therefore expand their lands, while poor farmers struggled to maintain their smaller agricultural enterprises. These wealthy planters, descended from English families came to dominate the top of the social and political hierarchy in the Chesapeake--placing pedigree and wealth as significant social identifiers. However, small farmers composed the largest social class in the Chesapeake. These agriculturalists owned small amounts of property and a limited (if any) enslaved labor force. The class division between wealthy planters and small farmers continued well into the nineteenth century, until the Civil War united these factions together against the Northern states.