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Colonial Experiments, First English Settlements

Stuart kings, English colonization, English population, English Reformation, latecomer

The Spanish, French, and Dutch wanted to find precious metals in the Americas, to trade with the indigenous peoples, and to convert them to Christianity. Their agricultural colonies in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America were worked by African slaves and by unwilling native peoples, and relatively few Europeans settled permanently in those places. In contrast, England, a latecomer to New World colonization, sent more people to the Americas than other European nations—about 400,000 in the 17th century—and established more permanent agricultural colonies.

English migrants came to America for two main reasons. The first reason was tied to the English Reformation. King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in the 1530s. Through a series of political and religious twists and turns, the new Church of England developed a Protestant theology, but it retained much of Catholic liturgy and ritual forms. Within the Church of England, radical Protestants, later called Puritans, wanted to suppress the remaining Catholic forms. The fortunes of the Puritans depended on the religious preferences of English monarchs. Queen Mary I, who ruled from 1553 to 1558, was a committed Catholic who tried to roll back the tide of religious change; she executed hundreds of Protestants and chased many more into exile. Her successor, Elizabeth I, invited the exiles back and tried to resolve differences within the English church. The Stuart kings who followed her, James I and Charles I, again persecuted Puritans. As a result, Puritans became willing to immigrate to America.

The second reason for English colonization was that land in England had become scarce. The population of England doubled from 1530 to 1680. In the same years, many of England’s largest landholders evicted tenants from their lands, fenced the lands, and raised sheep for the expanding wool trade. The result was a growing number of young, poor, underemployed, and often desperate English men and women. It was from their ranks that colonizers recruited most of the English population of the mainland colonies.

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