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White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Author:Nancy Isenberg

The leading planters in Jamestown had no illusion that they were creating a classless society. From 1618 to 1623, a good many orphans from London were shipped to Virginia––most indentured servants who followed in their train were adolescent boys. As a small privileged group of planters acquired land, laborers, and wealth, those outside the inner circle were hard-pressed to escape their lower status. Those who did become poor tenants found that little had changed in their condition; they were often forced do the same work they had done as servants. A sizable number did not survive their years of service. Or as John Smith lamented in his 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia . . . , “This dear bought Land with so much bloud and cost, hath onely made some few rich, and all the rest losers.”34

Among the more insidious practices in the colony, wives and children were held accountable for their husband’s or father’s indentured period of labor. After the Natives attacked in 1622, a colonist named Jane Dickenson was held by them in captivity for ten months. When she returned to Jamestown, she was told that she owed 150 pounds of tobacco to her husband’s former master. Unable to pay, she would be forced to work off her dead husband’s unmet obligations. She appealed to the governor, writing that her treatment was identical to the “slavery” she experienced among the “cruel savages.” Had English civilization been sacrificed in this colonial wasteland? That was Dickenson’s unspoken message. Nor was her treatment unusual. John Smith acknowledged in his Generall Historie that “fatherless children” were left “in little better condition than slaves, for if their Parents die in debt, their children are made bondmen till the debt be discharged.”35

The leaders of Jamestown had borrowed directly from the Roman model of slavery: abandoned children and debtors were made slaves. When indentured adults sold their anticipated labor in return for passage to America, they instantly became debtors, which made their orphaned children a collateral asset. It was a world not unlike the one Shakespeare depicted in The Merchant of Venice, when Shylock demanded his pound of flesh. Virginia planters felt entitled to their flesh and blood in the forms of the innocent spouses and offspring of dead servants.36

If civilization was to be firmly planted, Jamestown would have to be given the look of a normal English village, along with efforts to promote good habits among the people. The colony needed to shed its image as a penal colony and to plant firmer roots. It needed more than tobacco. It needed herds of cattle, fields of crops, and improved relations between masters and servants. Most of all, it needed many more manageable women. In 1620 the Virginia Company sent to the colony fifty-seven “young, handsome, and honestlie educated Maides.” Over the next three years, 157 more women made the crossing. They were thought of as emissaries of a new moral order. Company records hint at something else as well: the “greatest hindrances” to “Noble worke” rested on “want of comforts”; men deserved to “live contentedlie.” The transportation of female cargo would “tye and roote the Planters myndes to Virginia by the bonds of wives and children.” Sexual satisfaction and heirs to provide for would make slothful men into more productive colonists.

All that was required of the women was that they marry. Their prospective husbands were expected to buy them, that is, to defray the cost of passage and provisions. Each woman was valued at 150 pounds of tobacco, which was the same price exacted from Jane Dickenson when she eventually purchased her freedom. Not surprisingly, then, with their value calculated in tobacco, women in Virginia were treated as fertile commodities. They came with testimonials to their moral character, impressing on “industrious Planters” that they were not being sold a bad bill of goods. One particular planter wrote that an earlier shipment of females was “corrupt,” and he expected a new crop that was guaranteed healthy and favorably disposed for breeding. Accompanying the female cargo were some two hundred head of cattle, a reminder that the Virginia husbandman needed both species of breeding stock to recover his English roots.37

Despite everything, Jamestown never became a stable agrarian community. The Virginia plantation remained strangely barren during the first half of the seventeenth century. First, the anticipated harvest of the region’s natural resources did not occur. Nor did the various ranks and stations (balancing skilled laborers and manual workers) form according to plan. As late as 1663, Governor William Berkeley was still advocating for the goods Hakluyt had proposed: flax and hemp, timber and tar for ships, and exotics such as silk and olive oil. The “vicious ruinous plant of Tobacco,” as Berkeley condemned it, left Virginia without a diversified economy.38

At the heart of the Jamestown system was the indentured contract that made laborers disposable property. In so harsh an environment, survival was difficult, and the unappreciated waste people were literally worked to death. Young men and boys who came without families were the most vulnerable and most exploited of all. Unable to plant roots, many failed to produce heirs and secure the cherished English ideal of attachment to the land.

Class divisions were firmly entrenched. The ever-widening gap in land ownership elevated large planters into a small, privileged faction. At the same time, the labor system reduced servants to debt slaves, and, living so far from home, they had little recourse to demand better treatment. Isolation, then, increased the potential for abuse. The only liberty for colonial servants came with their feet—by running away. Jamestown’s founders reproduced no English villages. Instead, they fashioned a ruthless class order.

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Despite Jamestown’s intractable problems, a group of English investors and religious separatists secured a patent from the Virginia Company and set their sights on land near the mouth of the Hudson River. Whether by accident or, as some have speculated, by secret design, their first ship, the Mayflower, landed on Cape Cod, beyond the purview of the Virginia Company, in 1620. The small, struggling band lost half their number to starvation and disease during the first year. The wife of one of the leaders, William Bradford, mysteriously disappeared over the side of the Mayflower. It would be a full decade before the English settlers in Massachusetts made significant inroads in attracting new settlers to the region.39

When the mass migration of 1630 did take place, it was the well-organized John Winthrop who led a fleet of eleven ships, loaded with seven hundred passengers and livestock, and bearing a clear objective to plant a permanent community. Far more intact families migrated to the colony than had to Virginia, and a core of the settlers were Puritans who did not need the threat of a death sentence to attend church services on the Sabbath—one of the many examples of heavy-handedness practiced in the early days of Jamestown.

Land ownership was New England’s most tempting lure. During its first decade, the Bay Colony received some twenty-one thousand settlers, only about 40 percent of whom came from East Anglia and the coastal towns where a high percentage of Puritan converts lived. For every religious dissenter in the exodus of the 1630s, there was one commercially driven emigrant from London or other areas of England. The majority in these years came as extended families accompanied by their servants. And almost 60 percent of the arrivals were under the age of twenty-four—one-third of them unattached males.40