Poverty, Disease, and Starvation: The Early Colonists

During the 1600s, Europe was experiencing a combination of problems that included a lot of poverty, disease, starvation, and restrictions on religious beliefs.

When some formed groups that wanted to leave and come to the New World, they assumed that they would be going to a place that had more opportunities and less chance of illness and starvation.

The problem is that the early colonists were completely unprepared to deal with life in the colonies, and this led to creating many of the same conditions that they were leaving.


  • When the colonists first arrived, they set up small settlements and could take care of those that were most in need. As the settlements grew, poverty conditions grew, and since they were still considered to be British subjects, they looked to the Poor Laws that were supposed to help guide them. The Protestant Church was the Church of England and wasn’t involved in the laws.
  • The Dutch used different rules in their settlements. They relied on the rules of the Dutch Reformed Church as the main way to get donations and then distribute the money to those that were needy.
  • By the 17thcentury, those living in the British colonies took the view that the poor weren’t responsible for their situation, and to restore a sense of order, they believed it was the civic duty of all of the colonists to contribute money as a way of public relief.
  • The 18thcentury brought about a more humanitarian age, and this was partly due to the Declaration of Independence that emphasize the equality of people. They wanted their new nation to eliminate poverty and act as an example of hope and created better Poor Laws that continued into the 19th


  • The colonists that settled in many parts of the New World were unaware of the type of land, the crops that could grow, the weather, or even how to farm. They were used to relying on their home country for food. The British settlers did get some help from the Native Indians that gave them food and taught them how to farm and hunt. However, the earliest settlers, such as the Roanoke Community, tried to settle in a bug and disease-ridden area and ended up disappearing without a trace.
  • The British settlers were usually divided into three distinct groups: one group to look for minerals and valuable gems, one group to build the settlement, and one group to try to figure out how to farm. Landing in a time that was fall to winter, combined with a lack of knowledge of local wild game left them with little food and a lot of starvation.
  • The Spanish had created a settlement in St. Augustine, Florida, and were not prepared for the intensity of the heat, the lack of food, and poor soil to grow crops. These were explorers and not farmers, and they soon left the area in search of gold and other land that they could claim for Spain.


  • Early colonists from many of the European countries brought with them diseases such as Smallpox that the Native Indians had never been exposed to. Many of the Native Indian tribe populations were severely depleted as they caught diseases from the Europeans.
  • When you combine the lack of food with harsh living conditions, this created a situation where disease could be spread among the colonists. They weren’t prepared for attacks by the Native Indians, and the internal hardships caused death on a massive scale.


What type of laws did the Dutch use that were different from the British in dealing with poverty?
rules of the Dutch Reformed Church as the primary way to get donations for the poor

Instead of focusing on survival in Florida, what was the Spanish looking for?
gold and land

When British settlers arrived, what three groups were they divided into?
searching for land, building the settlement, try to figure out how to farm

What 18th-century document is thought to have improved the state of poverty in the United States?
Declaration of Independence

What laws did the British settlers turn to in addressing poverty?
British Poor Laws

How did the Native Indians help the early settlers survive?
brought them food, taught them how to plant and hunt