Unless otherwise indicated, all OI books are distributed by The University of North Carolina Press.

Adapting to a New World

English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake

James Horn

Paper: 978-0-8078-4614-8 ($33.95)

Copyright 1994
University of North Carolina Press

A Prize-Winning Book

  • Maryland Historical Society Book Prize (1995)

Often compared unfavorably with colonial New England, the early Chesapeake has been portrayed as irreligious, unstable, and violent. In this important new study, James Horn challenges this conventional view and looks across the Atlantic to assess the enduring influence of English attitudes, values, and behavior on the social and cultural evolution of the early Chesapeake. Using detailed local and regional studies to compare everyday life in English provincial society and the emergent societies of the Chesapeake Bay, Horn provides a richly textured picture of the immigrants' Old World backgrounds and their adjustment to life in America. Until the end of the seventeenth century, most settlers in Virginia and Maryland were born and raised in England, a factor of enormous consequence for social development in the two colonies. By stressing the vital social and cultural connections between England and the Chesapeake during this period, Horn places the development of early America in the context of a vibrant Anglophone transatlantic world and suggests a fundamental reinterpretation of New World society.

About the Author

James Horn is director of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library in Colonial Williamsburg.


Horn forces us again and again to see major topics in Chesapeake history—the organization of families, political stability and disorder, the nature of work, material culture, religious organization and beliefs—in a new light. . . . The consequence is a major contribution to the social history of Maryland and Virginia that has important implications for our understanding of all of British America.

--Russell R. Menard

An impressive achievement. It conjures up an entirely credible picture of the experience of English men and women, arriving in the Chesapeake with their baggage of assumptions carried over from England—some shed, some preserved virtually intact, some modified and adapted by the new circumstances. . . . It rivets attention and carries conviction.

--Joan Thirsk

James Horn’s Adapting to a New World is the most important general study of seventeenth-century Chesapeake society in the twenty years since Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom. Against the background of a sophisticated analysis of English local societies as represented by the counties Gloucester and Kent, he explores in more depth and with more cogency than any previous scholar how settlers adapted English patterns of social organization, work, private and public life, and religion to the social landscapes they created in the New World. . . . The volume is far and away the most sophisticated study yet published on the transfer of English culture to the Chesapeake.

--Jack P. Greene

A perceptive, well-written, and thought-provoking study. Anyone with a serious interest in early American history should consider adding Adapting to a New World to his or her library.

--Maryland Historical Magazine

A work of exceptional breadth, extensive research and reading, and skillful analysis.

--William and Mary Quarterly

[Horn] takes us through a careful analysis of what the colonists left behind and what they established anew through a finely drawn comparison of the communities whence they came and the communities they founded once again.

--Economic History Review

In a deeply researched, detailed, and nuanced portrait of the Chesapeake in the seventeenth century, Adapting to a New World both modifies and contextualizes our understandings of the particulars of social life in those colonies and challenges the picture of a disrupted society. The book both adds new information to our knowledge of Chesapeake society, much of it known already by those familiar with Horn's numerous articles, and incorporates much of the vast research uncovered by the current generation of scholars.

--Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The rich, the poor, the aristocrats, and the indentured servants are all included in this well-written volume that carefully balances the theoretical and empirical evidence to make the seventeenth-century Chesapeake come alive. Compared to most of the narrowly focused but thorough studies of the Chesapeake, Adapting to a New World is a welcome synthesis.

--North Carolina Historical Review

James Horn's superb study firmly places the development of early America in a transatlantic English context and constitutes a major contribution to the already rich body of scholarship on the seventeenth-century Chesapeake.

--Pennsylvania History

Adds a significant chapter to the long-standing debate over the degree to which English backgrounds influenced colonial development.


A splendid volume.

--Journal of American History

This is an important book, one of the few that examines the transfer of culture from Europe to America in a comparative way. The research is both wide and deep; the book is well-edited and beautifully produced.

--Virginia Quarterly Review