Between the 15th-17th centuries there was a whirlwind of global imperialism during the Age of Exploration. The fateful voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492 exposed European powers to an entirely new continent they had never known existed. These early voyages would ultimately lead to the founding of the first English colonies in America.
Several years after Columbus, the voyage of Vasco de Gama around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa paved the way for a maritime route to Asia. The allure of land, resources, and trade in the Americas and Asia was too much to resist for these burgeoning European capitalist societies,
In order to boost the status of their nations and establish economic, military, and cultural superiority over their European counterparts, the race was on to gobble up as much land as possible.
The Spanish and Portuguese had a head start over the rest of the European nations. The Spanish dominance of Central and South America was unrivaled with their early conquests of the Inca and Triple Alliance (Aztec) empires. On the other side of the world the Portuguese had unimpeded access to the spice trade routes to India and other Asian states.
The English came into the picture relatively later. While they sent many explorers in search of a Northwest Passage and other trade routes, they were constantly at odds with the Spanish. It wasn’t until the decisive victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 that the English were able to flex their imperial muscles and truly begin establishing their colonial empire.
While there were several mishaps and failed settlements at the start, here is a list of the first five successful English colonies in the Americas.
The First 5 Successful English Colonies in America
The first 5 successful English colonies in America consist of the following:
- Jamestown Colony (1607)
- St. George’s, Bermuda (1612)
- Plymouth Colony (1620)
- St. Johns, Newfoundland (1620s)
- Salem & Massachusetts Bay Colony (1626)
Each of these colonies helped to shape and expand the English presence in the New World. Eventually, England used the riches and wealth from these colonies to dominate trade and become a global empire.
Jamestown Colony (1607)
In 1606, the newly-formed Virginia Company was granted a charter to build a settlement in the Americas under the English flag. This venture was primarily a way to extend the English presence in the New World, though as a privately funded endeavor, the company was looking to turn a profit in the colony.
The first colonists landed in 1607 and chose Jamestown as the location for their settlement. Their main concern was to make the location defensible from the local natives, as well as from the Spanish.
This simple decision was one that made life very difficult for the initial settlers. The swampy land was not well-suited to agriculture and ~14,000 members of the Pohawtan Confederacy surrounded the settlement. While relations were initially amicable with the Pohawtans as the natives supplied and traded food, within a few years tensions arose and warfare was inevitable.
In order to keep the colony afloat, backers needed to send several additional supply shipments and the venture was anything but profitable.
“Being thus left to our fortunes, it fortuned that within ten dayes scarce ten amongst us could either goe, or well stand, such extreame weaknes and sicknes oppressed us.”– John Smith
Early records documented the trials and tribulations of the early Jamestown colony. Nearly 80% of colonists between 1609 and 1610 died during the “Starving Time,” though historians still debate over the exact figures.1
Despite almost becoming a failed colony itself, and in fact being completely abandoned for a day, an eventual third supply run finally brought the workforce and leadership the colony needed.
After this, the colony saw growth and their fortunes improved. The success of the tobacco crop brought by the infamous John Rolfe made the settlement economically viable, which attracted even more settlers. The survival of Jamestown was essential to English ambitions in the Americas.
St. George’s, Bermuda (1612)
Although St. George’s, Bermuda was officially founded in 1612, its roots go back to 1609. During the third supply run to Jamestown noted above, the main and largest ship wrecked off the coast of Bermuda. All the sailors and settlers survived and spent the next 10 months building two new ships before continuing on to Jamestown.
John Rolfe and future Jamestown governor Sir Thomas Gates were among the shipwrecked settlers. Rolfe even had to bury his first wife and child on the island.
Two settlers remained behind on the island, setting the claim that Bermuda is the oldest continually-inhabited English settlement in the Americas (since Jamestown was briefly abandoned in 1610).
By 1612 the Virginia Company managed to receive a third charter which extended the boundaries of their Virginia colony to include Bermuda. This opened the way for official settlement and shortly afterwards settlers built and occupied St George’s.
Although often forgotten as a colony compared to mainland North America, the Bermudian economy thrived as tobacco served as the cash crop. The colony also gained prominence for its ship building and dominance of trade, particularly in salt.
In 1615, ownership eventually transferred to The Somers Isles Company, which continued to administer the colony for the next several decades.
Plymouth Colony (1620)
The Pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1620 in search of religious freedom. The Pilgrims were Puritan separatists from the Anglican church of England and sought to escape persecution by settling in the New World.
After obtaining a land patent from the Plymouth Company in 1619 to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River (i.e. New York City), the Pilgrims eventually shipped off for the new world in 1620. After storms blew them far off course, the Pilgrims found themselves near Cape Cod when they finally spotted land.
With winter fast approaching the group decided to stay in the Cape Cod region and settle in Plymouth, signing the Mayflower Compact to ensure clear governing for the new colony (as Cape Cod was not where their land patent was).
While facing many hardships, the Pilgrims were able to secure powerful allies in the Wampanoag Confederation. The natives helped show them how to plant their fields and take advantage of the “three sisters” (maize, beans, and squash). Eventually the Pilgrims and Wampanoag even came together for a great feast which today we celebrate as the first Thanksgiving.
Despite being the second permanent English colony in North America, Plymouth colony never attracted the number of settlers that other settlements did. Instead, the colony relied upon incredibly high birth rates to increase population. Families in Plymouth had an average of 7-8 children that grew into adulthood.2
When the Plymouth colony eventually merged with the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1691, their total population was estimated at ~7,000. Comparatively, historians estimate that the Massachusetts Bay colony had ~50,000 colonists.
The First English Colonies of Newfoundland (1620s)
The settlements in the Newfoundland colony trace their origins back long before any of the other settlements listed here. As early as the 1520s, the settlement of St. John’s, Newfoundland showed up on maps as a seasonal fishing village. By 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert officially claimed the settlement as England’s first overseas colonial possession.
The village maintained seasonal occupancy for nearly a century due to royal decree. The West Country fishing industry in England did not want the additional competition and did everything in their power to thwart permanent occupancy in the colony.
Despite their efforts, Englishmen permanently settled St. John’s by the 1620s and it continued to be a successful venture. The fishing industry was the lifeblood of the colony as the colonists exploited the largest fishery in the world.3 The settlement’s population always swelled in the summer months with an influx of merchants and ships.
There were several other settlements that were founded in Newfoundland around this time period. These include Cuper’s Cove (1610), Bristol’s Hope (1618), Ferryland (1621), and South Falkland (1623).
None of these settlements had the staying power of St. John’s, with all abandoned (or virtually abandoned) within a few decades, or destroyed through war (Ferryland).
Though Newfoundland never gained the notoriety or relative success of the American colonies, historians note its strategic location and contributions towards English colonial dominance.
Salem & Massachusetts Bay Colony (1626)
A few years after the Plymouth Colony had its start, a group of colonists founded a settlement in 1626 which would eventually become known as Salem. The settlers involved were actually the remnants of a failed Cape Ann settlement that began a few years earlier in 1623 near present day Gloucester.
Like most colonies, the settlers struggled in the early years, though strong leadership from Roger Cronant held the group together. While Salem was left on its own with no financial backers, the Massachusetts Bay Company began to shape in England.
The company officially received its royal charter in 1629 and immediately began financing the logistics of sending supplies and settlers to the area, now known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colony was unique in that all the owners of the colony decided to govern and live in America.
For all other prior colonies, the company members had remained in England so there was a degree of separation.
The population of the colony exploded in the 1630s during “the Great Migration,” in which Puritans from across England settled into the area. John Winthrop became Governor of the colony and led a group of nearly 1,000 settlers to the area in 1630.
An estimated 20,000 people migrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony during this time. Often times the existing settlements simply didn’t have enough room for the new settlers. This led them to create even more towns nearby to give land to the new arrivals.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony survived up until the formation of the Province of Massachusetts in 1691, though its legacy as one of the initial English colonies in America has left a defining mark on the region.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Bernhard, Virginia. “A Response: The Forest and the Trees: Thomas Camfield and the History of Early Virginia.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 60, no. 4, 1994, pp. 663–70. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2211063.
2) Demos, John. “Notes on Life in Plymouth Colony.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 2, 1965, pp. 264–86. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1920699.
3) Robert C. H. Sweeny. “What Difference Does a Mode Make? A Comparison of Two Seventeenth-Century Colonies: Canada and Newfoundland.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 2, 2006, pp. 281–304. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3877354.