Labor Problems and Terrible Conditions for Workers in Jamestown

Everything has to start somewhere, and building something from scratch is no easy task. It takes extreme thought, extensive planning, and even trial and error to form a product in the end that works well for the majority. Most of all, it takes hard work. In the beginning of what is now the United States of America, the first early settlers had a big job ahead of them. This job included the planning and building of the foundation of what would later be built into a country. Unfortunately, these people that were emigrating from Europe and settling into the colonies lacked the one major thing that even allows anyone to accomplish anything at all: work ethic. Since these people lacked this major quality, it led to a huge problem in the colonies that allowed many other significant problems to arise, one example being slavery. Many who know about the labor problem in colonial settlements believe it was based only on shortages of workers, which it was, but it was also based on the sheer laziness of early settlers, poor health, treatment, and conditions of existing workers and indentured servants, which led the officials in the colonies to take drastic measures to fix this problem which included creating laws, sending in more indentured servants, and introducing slavery.

The largest part of the labor problem in the early settlements was caused by sheer laziness of workers. This idea can be proven in “The Labor Problem at Jamestown” by Edmund Morgan. The author describes the root of the problem as plain and simple laziness by the new settlers in the early 1600s, and how they do not want to work for anything; they want things to be handed to them and easy as they were in England. Also, the upper and middle classes were not really expected to work. To fix this issue, the a law was passed to prevent idleness in the colony, and requires the people to plant corn and other crops to prevent starvation and food shortages. Another reason for the idleness was also blamed on disease and malnutrition, since the settlers were disease laden and sick very often. Jamestown officials did everything they could to spark something in settlers to get them to work, and the thing that finally got them excited was tobacco.

Tobacco was something that they were able to plant and ship to England for money, but they ran out of people to plant it. There was more land than people to take care of it. They received indentured servants from England, but this proved to not be enough for the plantation and farm owners, they wanted something cheaper than indentured servants. This is when the people in Virginia turned to African Slave labor, and then enslaved Africans were shipped to Jamestown to take over the work of the colonists. But, before turning to other sources of labor such as slavery, a series of laws were enacted by the First General Assembly of Virginia to try and fix this problem, as Morgan had said. The very first laws written were laws against idleness, drunkenness, and excess in apparel. The law says that free or enslaved, there shall be no idleness whatsoever. Every person has to be employed/put to work regardless, and they have to do their fair share of planting for their households. Tradesmen are also to be paid according to the quality of their work, not for the work itself.

If someone put forth poor work of poor quality, they were to be paid poorly. The law against drunkenness says that any person who is found drunk is to be given two warnings, with the third offense they are to be degraded by the church. This was to prevent drunkards from not putting in their share of work. Lastly, the law against excess in apparel is that no person owns more than they really need to have. Trading with Indians is allowed, only the free settler, but no man is allowed to actually go into Indian settlements/territory. These laws were enacted to try and correct the labor problem at its root, which was laziness and lack of work ethic. In the end, this didn’t completely work because you can lead a horse to the water, but you cannot force it to drink. So, this is when officials attempted to turn to import of indentured servants.

The poor working conditions, treatment, and health of existing workers and indentured servants heavily contributed to the labor problem in early colonies, which had failed to be corrected. In a letter written in 1617, settler John Rolfe writes about how government officials, captains, officers, and colonists in Virginia had been complaining about the buying, selling, and trading of men and male children indentured servants in Jamestown. They thought that this was not right, and they considered it abuse. Rolfe talks about how the Council in England sent a lot of instructions to prevent this from happening.

The council appointed people to help these officials in Virginia to prevent the trading, buying, and selling of servant labor. Rolfe says that they are to serve without oppressing any person under their charge. This was evidence that there was little respect for the people that were working because they were being treated as less than humans; they were being treated as property. It seems that officials in Virginia believed that these actions of buying and selling came from lack of able workers, because in 1820, Sir George Yeardly, who was the governor of the Virginia Colony, wrote a letter to Sir Edwin Sandys, who was the treasurer of the Virginia Council in England. Yeardly is writing to Sandys to tell him about the great number of people they sent, as seen in “800. And Choise Persons”.

He says that the large number of people that were sent was very overwhelming, and that he was not able to neither house all of them nor feed all of them. He says that this large amount of people will not be in good health because of the time of year they were sent to Virginia and how the food was scarce. He pleaded with Sandys for the company to not be angry at how little will be accomplished in the colonies due to the lack of supplies and sickness of the workers, because nothing can be built quickly and efficiently without good workmen. Governor Yeardly’s claims were accurate according to Richard Freethorne, a young male indentured servant in the Virginia Colony (who described himself as a child). Freethorne wrote a letter in 1623 that is addressed to his mother and father who live back in England. Freethorne writes in his letter about how horrible, nasty, and disease laden the conditions are in Jamestown for the indentured servants, and even asks his parents to send him food and supplies from England. He said that indentured servants hardly get any food, they are constantly living in fear of their lives, they do not ever get any breaks from work, and they make little money.

They are overworked, sick, scared, and own little to nothing. The Virginia officials attempted to correct the labor problem by sending in more servants to prevent the buying and selling of human beings, but was made worse by importing more people to work because the conditions became a lot poorer than they were to begin with; in other words the way they attempted to fix the problem was overkill and they had actually made it worse.

Finally, the part of the labor problem in the early settlements that seems to be the most obvious was caused by shortages of workers: too much work to do and not enough willing or able hands. Virginia specifically had been struggling, and so in 1620 they reached out to the Virginia Company of London to help them with this issue. This is seen in “Eight Hundred Choise Persons”, and it is a document of declaration of how the Virginia Company of London intends to send supplies to the Virginia Colony free of charge. They planned to send 800 people total, and they assigned each person a different job in the colonies; all of these people turning into indentured servants. The majority of servants that were sent were placed on farms and plantations. They deemed that the sending of servants from England to Virginia was necessary for the adventurers (explorers) and planters, and the general good and prosperity of the colony since there was so much land to be controlled, food to be grown, and work to be done, but lacked in the labor area. But, the problem with indentured servants is that they have to be in a contract, which guarantees them 50 acres of land at the end of their contract, and they have to be paid.

A good example of this is seen in “Richard Lowther Servant Indenture”, which was merely just a contract that proves that land is promised and the person is paid throughout the servant indenture upon providing owner with loyal servitude. Thus, the fact that they had to be given something in return, and have to be paid at all made them expensive; plantation owners and merchants wanted to have cheap, if not free, labor so that they can keep all their profit for their benefits. Purchasing African American slaves, and having no requirement to neither pay them nor take good care of them was the solution to this specific problem. So, in the same year that the 800 indentured servants were sent to the Virginia colony (1620), African American slaves were shipped in and thus started slavery in the U.S. In “20 and Odd Negroes”, which is a letter from Virginian colonist John Rolfe to the treasurer of the Virginia Company of London, Sir William Sandys, Rolfe basically fills Sandy’s in on the labor problem in Virginia, and tells him about all the shortages in workers that they are experiencing. He also talks about a trial that has taken place in Virginia already, and how Negroes had been sent over in from the West Indies in ships. Rolfe says, “They met with the treasurer in the west Indyes, and determined to hols consort ship hitherward, but in their passage lose one the other. He brought not anything but 20 and odd Negroes, which the government and cape marchant bought for victuals at the best and easiest rates they could. He had lardge and ample commission from his excellency to range and to take purchase in the west Indyes”.

The only rates that were being paid were basically rates for shipping them to the colonies. Once they arrived, they were sold and not paid for the labor that they do. This increased the revenue for plantation and farm owners due to the fact that they did not have any regulations on how they had to pay and how they treated the slaves. The importation of slaves in 1620 was actually the first known shipment of Africans to the colonies. This first shipment opened up an entirely new problem that would be disputed all the way up to the civil war: disagreements over slavery.

The labor problem in the early colonies was caused by many things, but many of the problems that were presented were due to attempting to fix the initial problems. At the end of the day, it seems that there would not be as much as a problem if the people who first settled into the colonies would have been willing to put in the work and effort. Yes there was a lot of work to be done, and yes maybe they did not have as many hands as they needed. But if everyone had put in their fair share of work and effort, there may not have been dire instances where the Virginia colony needed help from the Virginia Company in Britain. The labor problem in colonial America was caused by the lack of work ethic by settlers, and created the thoughts that they needed more servants, that ultimately led to slavery.

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Labor Problems and Terrible Conditions for Workers in Jamestown. (2021, Jun 01). Retrieved August 6, 2022 , from

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