Landing of Columbus

Many groups attempted to settle the New World – the Spanish, English, French, Dutch and others. Some succeeded and some failed. What made the difference? I’ve recently been reading We Could Perceive No Sign of Them: Failed Colonies in North America, 1526–1689 by David MacDonald and Raine Waters. Right in the introduction they give a pretty good synopsis of the problems that faced every expedition. In this post I’ve drawn from their work to produce a list of six challenged that all had to be overcome to make a colony successful.

1. Funding

No expedition could even leave Europe without securing funding. But how that funding was structured and the motives and plans of the investors would continue to have a major impact. Were they in it to make a quick profit or to establish a venture successful for the long term? Were they expecting (as most did) the colony to find gold, or some valuable but easily extractible natural resource to send back, to immediately be financially self sufficient? Did they anticipate that colonists would need further resupply missions, and were they prepared to fit them out at their own expense? Without the right backing in place the fledgling colony would wither on the vine.

2. Location

Once the expedition reached the new world, they at some point had to pick a site for their settlement. How long this took was an important factor, and that was based on how much knowledge they had of the area they were exploring. This varied vastly between expeditions and decades. Once they decided on a spot, they could be helped or hurt depending on the decision they made. Was it an area good for trading with the natives and receiving supply ships, ideally near the coast on a navigable river? Was it good for defense, both from Indians, European enemies or pirates? Was the soil good for growing crops? Was the climate healthy, or disease ridden swamp land? The answers to these questions were what made or broke many settlements.

3. Food

Food is a basic human need, so naturally it was a major hurdle for colonists as well. Between the expense and the dearth of methods for preserving food during ocean voyages, colonies couldn’t just depend on supply ships. Trading with natives was a possibility, but between the threat of war and the lack of excess food in the local economy to give to strangers this was not sustainable. Scavenging was also an option, and there were times when that needed to be resorted to, to survive. But colonies in it for the long haul needed to grow their own food. To survive, they needed to realize this quickly, and learn the best crops and farming methods for their area, as they were frequently different from what they were used to in Europe.

Reenactors at Jamestown

4. Colonists

Another major factor that influenced whether colonies succeeded or failed is who the colonists were. Were they families or single men? Both had advantages and disadvantages. Bringing families at the beginning meant more mouths to feed that were not able to pull their weight. On the other hand, a colony of adventurers who had left their families, or any hope to build a family, behind, were far less likely to endure the hardship and put in the effort to create a lasting settlement.

But far more than just the demographics mattered. Were they the dregs of society, shipped abroad because they were unwanted at home – criminals, orphans and disgraced gentlemen, or were they hard working people looking for a chance to build a new life? What was their work ethic? Were they trained in the trades or tasks that they needed to perform? Was the business side of the venture structured in such a way that they had incentives to work hard and build a society? Were they quarrelsome, ready to mutiny at the slightest provocation, or willing to submit to leadership? The answers to all these questions played themselves out in the story of every community that set foot on the soil of America.

5. Leadership

Leading a colony, far from home and any chance of immediate support, was a daunting undertaking. But it would be hard to bet on a settlement’s success without good leadership. The group’s leader had to deal with difficult subordinates, troublesome colonists, negotiations with sometimes hostile Indians, and restless investors and governments at home. This type of situation could easily magnify a man’s faults, pushing him to the breaking point. Many ventures rose and fell with the men who commanded them.

A single leader, though, often wasn’t enough. Not only were trustworthy subordinates helpful, but colonizing was a dangerous business. Often the first leader did not survive long, and if there wasn’t a man ready to step into his place, the entire colony could be doomed.

6. Security

Another critical factor was security. Colonies were always under threat of attack, both from Indians and Europeans. Obviously, failure to keep the peace or defend one’s self militarily would mean a speedy end to the colony.

7. Self Sufficiency

Once all the preceding hurdles were being passed successfully, there was one final one – could it be financially self sufficient. It would take many years for a new settlement to recreate all the industry that they left behind in the old world so that they could forgo any shipments from home without losing the comforts they were used to. Colonies needed to provide short and long term financial benefit to keep investors interested and pay for the goods shipped from home. They also needed to provide political benefit, whether for their home country to exert power in another region of the globe, provide an outlet for the home country’s trade goods, or even relieve a burgeoning population in a land short region. This gave their home government the political willpower to maintain their foothold, offensive as it may have been to their neighbors, and, if necessary, to even send military forces to fight for it.


Which of these factors do you think were most important? What did I miss? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

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