England Plants a New Nation in Virginia

Americanist History, George Bancroft, History of the United States

Chapter 6: England Plants a New Nation in Virginia

“I SHALL yet live to see Virginia an English nation,” wrote Raleigh to Sir Robert Cecil shortly before the accession of James I. When the period for success had arrived, changes in European politics and society had moulded the forms of colonization. The Reformation had broken the harmony of religious opinion, and differences in the church began to constitute the basis of political parties. After the East Indies had been reached by doubling the southern promontory of Africa, the great commerce of the world was carried upon the ocean. The art of printing had been perfected and diffused; and the press spread intelligence and multiplied the facilities of instruction. The feudal institutions were undermined by the current of time and events. Productive industry had built up the fortunes and extended the influence of the middle classes, while habits of indolence and expense had impaired the estates and diminished the power of the nobility. These changes produced corresponding results in the institutions which were to rise in America.

A revolution had equally occurred in the objects for which voyages were undertaken. Columbus sought a new passage to the East Indies. The passion for gold next became the prevailing motive. Then islands and countries near the equator were made the tropical gardens of Europeans. At last the higher design was matured: to plant permanent Christian colonies; to establish for the oppressed and the enterprising places of refuge and abode; to found states in a temperate clime, with all the elements of independent existence.

In the imperfect condition of industry, a redundant population had grown up in England even before the peace with Spain, which threw out of employment the gallant men who had served under Elizabeth by sea and land, and left them no option but to engage as mercenaries in the quarrels of strangers, or incur the hazards of “seeking a New World.” The minds of many persons of intelligence and rank were directed to Virginia. The brave and ingenious Gosnold, who had himself witnessed the fertility of the western soil, after long solicitations, prevailed with Edward Maria Wingfield, a merchant of the west of England, Robert Hunt, a clergyman of fortitude and modest worth, and Captain John Smith, an adventurer of indomitable perseverance, to risk their hopes of fortune in an expedition. For more than a year this little company revolved their project. Nor had the assigns of Raleigh become indifferent to “western planting,” which the most distinguished of them all, “industrious Hakluyt,” still promoted by his personal exertions, his weight of character, and his invincible zeal. Possessed of whatever information could be derived from foreign sources and a correspondence with eminent navigators of his times, and anxiously watching the progress of Englishmen in the west, his extensive knowledge made him a counsellor in colonial enterprise.

With these are to be named George Popham, a kinsman of the chief justice, and Raleigh Gilbert. They and “certain knights, gentlemen, merchants, and other adventurers of the city of London and elsewhere,” and “of the cities of Bristol and Exeter, and of the town of Plymouth and other places in the west,” applied to James I for “his license to deduce a colony into Virginia.” The king, alike from vanity, the wish to promote the commerce of Great Britain, and the ambition of acquiring new dominions, entered heartily into the great design. From the “coast of Virginia and America” he selected a territory of ten degrees of latitude, reaching from the thirty-fourth to the forty-fifth parallel, and into the backwoods without bound. For the purposes of colonization, he divided the almost limitless region equally between the two rival companies of London and of the West. The London company were to lead forth the “FIRST COLONY OF VIRGINIA” to lands south of the thirty-eighth degree; and north of the forty-first parallel the Western company was to plant what the king called “THE SECOND COLONY OF VIRGINIA.” The three intermediate degrees were reserved for the eventual competition of the two companies, except that each was to possess the soil extending fifty miles north and south of its first settlement. The conditions of tenure were homage and rent; the rent was no other than one fifth of the net produce of gold and silver, and one fifteenth of copper. The right of coining money was conceded. The natives, it was hoped, would receive Christianity and the arts of civilized life. The general superintendence was confided to a council in England; the local administration of each colony to a resident council. The members of the superior council in England were appointed exclusively by the king, and were to hold office at his good pleasure. Their authority extended to both colonies, which jointly took the name of VIRGINIA. Each of the two was to have its own resident council, of which the members were from time to time to be ordained and removed according to the instructions of the king. To the king, moreover, was reserved supreme legislative authority over the several colonies, extending to their general condition and the most minute regulation of their affairs. A duty of five per cent, to be levied within their precincts, on the traffic of strangers not owing obeisance to the British crown, was, for one-and-twenty years, to be wholly employed for the benefit of the several plantations; at the end of that time was to be taken for the king. To the emigrants it was promised that they and their children should continue to be Englishmen.

The charter for colonizing the great central territory of the North American continent, which was to be the chosen abode of liberty, gave to the mercantile corporation nothing but a wilderness, with the right of peopling and defending it. By an extension of the prerogative, which was in itself illegal, the monarch assumed absolute legislative as well as executive powers. The emigrants were subjected to the ordinances of a commercial corporation, in which they could not act as members; to the dominion of a domestic council, in appointing which they had no voice; to the control of a superior council in England; and, finally, to the arbitrary legislation of the sovereign. The first “treasurer” or governor of the London company, to whom fell the chief management of its affairs, was Sir Thomas Smythe, a merchant zealous for extending the commerce of his country, and equally zealous for asserting the authority of the corporation.

The summer was spent in preparations for planting the first colony, for which the king found a grateful occupation in framing a code of laws. The superior council in England was permitted to name the colonial council, which was independent of the emigrants, and had power to elect or remove its president, to remove any of its members, and to supply its own vacancies. Not an element of popular liberty or control was introduced. Religion was established according to the doctrine and rites of the church within the realm; and no emigrant might avow dissent, or affect the superstitions of the church of Rome, or withdraw his allegiance from King James. Lands were to descend according to the laws of England. Not only murder, manslaughter, and adultery, but dangerous tumults and seditious, were punishable by death, at the discretion of the magistrate, restricted only by the trial by jury. All civil causes, requiring corporal punishment, fine, or imprisonment, might be summarily determined by the president and council, who possessed legislative authority in cases not affecting life or limb. Kindness to the savages was enjoined, with the use of all proper means for their conversion. It was further ordered that the industry and commerce of the several colonies should, for five years at least, be conducted in a joint stock.

The council of the English company added instructions to the emigrants to search for navigable rivers, and, if any of them had two branches, to ascend that which tended most toward the north-west to its sources, and seek for some stream running the contrary way toward the South sea. Then, on the nineteenth day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and six, one hundred and nine years after the discovery of the American continent by Cabot, forty-one years from the settlement of Florida, the squadron of three vessels, the largest not exceeding one hundred tons’ burden, with the favor of all England, stretched their sails for “the dear strand of Virginia, earth’s only paradise.” Michael Drayton, the patriot poet “of Albion’s glorious isle,” cheered them on, saying:

Go, and in regions far such heroes bring ye forth
As those from whom we came; and plant our name
Under that star not known unto our north.

Yet the enterprise was ill concerted. Of the one hundred and five on the list of emigrants, there were but twelve laborers, and few mechanics. They were going to a wilderness, in which, as yet, not a house was standing; and there were forty-eight gentlemen to four carpenters. Neither were there any men with families.

Newport, who commanded the ships, was acquainted with the old passage, and sailed by way of the Canaries and the West India islands. As he turned to the north, a severe storm, in April, 1607, carried his fleet beyond the settlement of Raleigh, into the magnificent bay of the Chesapeake. The headlands received and retain the names of Cape Henry and Cape Charles, from the sons of King James; the deep water for anchorage, “putting the emigrants in good Comfort,” gave a name to the northern Point; and within the capes a country opened, which appeared to “claim the prerogative over the most pleasant places in the world.” “Heaven and earth seemed never to have agreed better to frame a place for man’s commodious and delightful habitation.” A noble river was soon entered, which was named from the monarch; and, after a search of seventeen days, during which the comers encountered the hostility of one savage tribe, and at Hampton smoked the calumet of peace with another, on the thirteenth of May they reached a peninsula about fifty miles above the mouth of the stream, where the water near the shore was so very deep that the ships were moored to trees. Here the council, except Smith, who for no reason unless it were jealousy of his superior energy was for nearly a month kept out of his seat, took the oath of office, and the majority elected Edward Maria Wingfield president for the coming year. Contrary to the earnest and persistent advice of Bartholomew Gosnold, the peninsula was selected for the site of the colony, and took the name of Jamestown.

While the men toiled in felling trees to make room for their tents, and in gathering freight for the two ships which were soon to return to England, Newport, Smith, and twenty others ascended the river, with a perfect resolution not to return till they should have found its head and a passage through the mountains to the western ocean. Trading on their way with the riparian tribes, they were soon arrested by the falls of the river, below which they were hospitably entertained by the great chief of the country. They examined the cataract to find a mode of passing around it, but “the water falleth so rudely and with such violence not any boat could possibly pass them.” The next day in idle admiration they gazed upon the scene, while Newport erected a cross with the inscription, “James the king, 1607,” and proclaimed him to have most right unto the river. They were again at Jamestown on the twenty-seventh of May.

During their absence the Indians had shown a hostile disposition. Captain Newport set things in order, made peace with one of the neighboring chiefs, and completed the palisado around the fort. On the twenty-first of June, in a church which consisted only of a sail spread from tree to tree to keep off the midsummer sun, with rails for walls and logs for benches, the communion was administered, and on the next day he embarked for England, leaving behind him a colony of one hundred and four persons, reported to be “in good health and comfort.”

Meantime the adventurers of the west of England had wholly disconnected themselves from the London company by obtaining for the superintendence of their affairs a separate council resident in the kingdom, and had completed their arrangements for the colonization of the northern part of Virginia.

Five months after the departure of the southern colony, one hundred and twenty passengers sailed as planters from Plymouth in the Mary and John, with Raleigh Gilbert for its captain, and in the Gift of God, a fly boat commanded by a kinsman of the chief justice, George Popham, who was “well strickened in years and infirm, yet willing to die in acting something that might be serviceable to God and honorable to his country.” The corps with which they went forth, to plant the English monarchy and the English church in that part of Virginia which lay north of the forty-first parallel, was more numerous and more carefully chosen than that of their rivals.

After a voyage of two months, in the afternoon of the last day of July, they stood in for the shore, and found shelter under Monhegan island. Their first discovery was that the fishermen of France and Spain had been there before them. They had not ridden at anchor two hours when a party of Indians in a Spanish shallop came to them from the shore and rowed about them; and the next day returned in a Biscay boat with women, bringing beaver-skins to exchange for knives and beads. In the following days the emigrants explored the coast and islands; and on the sixteenth of August both ships entered the Kennebec.

On the nineteenth all the members of this “second colony of Virginia” went on shore, made choice of the Sabine peninsula, near the mouth of that river, for the site of their fort, and “had a sermon delivered unto them by their preacher.” After the sermon they listened to the reading of the commission of George Popham, their president, and of the laws appointed for them by King James. Five men were sworn assistants. Without delay, most of the company, under the oversight of the president, labored hard on a fort which they named St. George, a storehouse, fifty rude cabins for their own shelter, and a church. The shipwrights set about the building of a small pinnace, the chief shipwright being one Digby, the first constructor of sea-going craft in that region. Meantime Gilbert coasted toward the west, judged the land to be exceeding fertile, and brought back the news of the beauty of Casco bay with its hundreds of isles. When, at the invitation of the mighty Indian chief who ruled on the Penobscot, Gilbert would have visited that river, he was driven back by foul weather and cross winds. Remaining faithfully in the colony, in December he sent back his ship under another commander, who bore letters announcing to the chief justice the forwardness of the plantation, and importuning supplies for the coming year. A letter from President Popham informed King James that his praises and his virtues had been proclaimed to the natives; that the country produced fruits resembling spices, as well as timber of pine; and that it lay hard by the great highway to China over the southern ocean.

The winter proved to be intensely cold; no mines were discovered; the natives, at first most friendly, grew restless; the storehouse caught fire and a part of the provisions of the colony was consumed; the president found his grave on American soil, “the only one of the company that died there. To the despair of the planters, the ship which revisited the settlement with supplies brought news of the death of the chief justice, who had been the stay of the enterprise, and Gilbert, who had succeeded to the command at St. George, had, by the decease of his brother, become heir to an estate in England which required his presence. So, notwithstanding all things were in good forwardness, the fur trade with the Indians prosperous, and a store of sarsaparilla gathered, “all former hopes were frozen to death,” and nothing was thought of but to quit the place. Wherefore in the ship which had lately arrived, and in the Virginia, their own new pinnace, they all set sail for England. So ended “the second colony of Virginia.” The colonists “did coyne many excuses ” for their going back; but the Western company was dissatisfied; Gorges esteemed it a weakness to be frightened at a blast. Three years had elapsed since the French had hutted themselves at Port Royal; and the ships which carried the English from the Kennebec were on the ocean at the same time with the outward-bound squadron of those who in that summer built Quebec.

The first colony of Virginia was suffering under far more disastrous trials. Scarcely had Newport, in June, 1607, weighed anchor for home than the English whom he left behind stood face to face with misery. They were few in numbers, ignorant of the methods of industry, without any elements of union, and surrounded by distrustful and hostile natives.

The air which they breathed was unwholesome with the exhalations from steaming marshes; their drink was the brackish water of the river; their food was a scant daily allowance of porridge made of barley which had been spoiled on the long voyage from England. They had no houses to cover them; their tents were rotten. They were weakened by continual labor at the defences in the extremity of the heat; and they watched by turns every third night, lying on the cold bare ground, what weather soever came. It made the heart bleed to hear the pitiful murmurings and outcries of sick men without relief, night and day, for six weeks; and sometimes three or four died in a night. Fifty men, one half of the colony, perished before autumn; among them Bartholomew Gosnold, a man of rare merit, worthy of perpetual memory in the plantation.

Incessant broils heightened the confusion. The only efficient member of the government was Smith, who went up and down the river trading with the natives for corn, which brought relief to the colony. Wingfield, the president, gave offence by caring too much for his own comfort; and, being wholly inefficient, was, on the tenth of September, by general consent, deposed. The faint-hearted man, so he records of himself, offered a hundred pounds toward fetching home the emigrants if the plan of a colony should be given over. The office of president fell to John Ratcliffe from his place in the council, but he proved a passionate man, without capacity to rule himself, and still less to rule others. Of the only three remaining councillors, one was deposed, and afterward shot to death for mutiny; another was an invalid, and there was no one left to guide in action but Smith, whose buoyant spirit alone inspired confidence. In boyhood, such is his own narrative, he had sought for the opportunity of “setting out on brave adventures;” and, though not yet thirty years of age, he was already famed for various service in foreign wars. On regaining England, his mind was wholly mastered by the general enthusiasm for planting states in America; and now the infant commonwealth of Virginia depended for its life on his firmness. For the time he was the cape merchant or treasurer, as well as the only active councillor. His first thought was to complete the building of Jamestown, and, setting the example of diligent labor, he pushed on the construction of houses with success. He next renewed trade with the natives, and was most successful in his expeditions for the purchase of corn. On the approach of winter, when he had defeated a proposal to let the pinnace go for England, and when the fear of famine was removed by good supplies from the Indian harvest of maize and by the abundance of game, he began the exploration of the country. Ascending the Chickahominy as far as it was navigable in a barge, he then, with two red men as guides and two of his own company, proceeded twelve miles further; but, while with one Indian he went on shore to examine the nature of the soil and the bendings of the stream, his two companions were killed, and he himself was surrounded in the wilderness by so many warriors that he cast himself upon their mercy.

The leader of his captors was Opechancanough, a brother and subordinate of Powhatan, the great chieftain of all the neighborhood. He knew the rank of the prisoner, “used him with kindness,” and sent his letters to the English fort; and from the villages on the Chickahominy the Virginia councillor was escorted through Indian towns to an audience with Powhatan, who chanced to be on what is now York river. The “emperor,” studded with ornaments, and clad in raccoon skins, showed a grave and majestical countenance as he welcomed him with good words and “great platters of sundrie” food, and gave assurance of friendship. After a few days, which Smith diligently used in inquiries respecting the country, especially the waters to the north-west, he was, early in January, 1608, sent home, attended by four men, of whom two were laden with maize.
Bancroft, Hist. of the U.S., vol.1, p.93 – p.94
The first printed “Newes from Virginia” spread abroad these adventures of Smith; and they made known to English readers the name of Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan, a child “of tenne,” or more probably of twelve “years old, who not only for feature, countenance, and expression, much exceeded any of the rest of his people, but for wit and spirit was the only nonpareil of the country.” The captivity of the bold explorer became a benefit to the colony; for he not only observed with care the country between the James and the Potomac and gained some knowledge of the language and manners of the natives, but he established a peaceful intercourse between the English and the tribes of Powhatan. The child, to whom in later days he attributed his rescue from death, visited the fort with companions, bringing baskets of corn.

Restored to Jamestown after an absence of but four weeks, Smith found the colony reduced to forty men; and, of these, the strongest were preparing to escape with the pinnace. This attempt at desertion he repressed at the hazard of his life.

Meantime the council in England, having received an increase of its numbers and its powers, determined to send out recruits and supplies; and Newport had hardly returned from his first voyage before he was again despatched with one hundred and twenty emigrants. Yet the joy in Virginia on their arrival in April was of short continuance; for the new comers were chiefly gentlemen and goldsmiths, who soon persuaded themselves that they had discovered grains of gold in a glittering soil which abounded near Jamestown; and “there was now no talk, no hope, no work, but dig gold, wash gold, refine gold, load gold.” Martin, one of the council, promised himself honors in England as the discoverer of a mine; and Newport believed himself rich, as in April he embarked for England with a freight of worthless earth.

Disgusted at the follies which he vainly opposed, Smith undertook the perilous and honorable office of exploring the bay of the Chesapeake, and the rivers which it receives. Two voyages, in an open boat, with a few companions, over whom his superior courage, rather than his station as a magistrate, gave him authority, occupied him about three months of the summer. With slender means, but with persistency and skill, he surveyed the bay to the Susquehanna, and left only the borders of that remote river to remain for some years longer the fabled dwelling-place of a giant progeny. He was the first to publish to the English the power of the Mohawks, “who dwelt upon a great water, and had many boats, and many men,” and, as it seemed to the feebler Algonkin tribes, “made war upon all the world;” in the Chesapeake he encountered a fleet of their canoes. The Patapsco was discovered and explored, and Smith probably entered the harbor of Baltimore. The Potomac especially invited curiosity; and he ascended to its lower falls. Nor did he merely examine the rivers and inlets. He penetrated the territories, and laid the foundation for beneficial intercourse with the native tribes. The map which he prepared and sent to the company in London delineates correctly the great outlines of nature. The expedition was worthy the romantic age of American history; he had entered upon it in the beginning of June, and had pursued the discovery with inflexible constancy, except for three days in July, when at Jamestown Ratcliffe, for his pride and cruelty, was deposed. The government would then have devolved on Smith; but he substituted for the time “his good friend Matthew Scrivener,” a new councillor, who had come over but a few months before.

On the tenth of September, 1608, three days after his return from his discoveries, Smith was formally constituted president of the council. Order and industry began to be established, when Newport entered the river with about seventy new emigrants, of whom two were women.

The London company had grown exceedingly impatient at receiving no returns for its outlays. Of themselves they were helpless in counsel, without rational plans, looking vaguely for a mine of gold, or a short route to India, and listening too favorably to the advice of Newport. By their orders a great company proceeded to York river to go through the senseless ceremony of crowning Powhatan as emperor of that country. A boat in five parts was sent over from England, to be borne above the falls, in the hope of reaching the waters which flow to the South sea, or by some chance of finding a mine of gold. For several weeks the store of provisions and the labor of one hundred and twenty of the best men that could be chosen were wasted in examining James river above the falls.

A few Germans and Poles were sent over to make pitch, tar, soap ashes, and glass, when the colony could not yet raise provisions enough for its support. “When you send again,” Smith was obliged to reply, “I entreat you rather send but thirty carpenters, husbandmen, gardeners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons, and diggers up of trees’ roots, well provided, than a thousand of such as we have.”

The charge of the voyage of Newport was more than two thousand pounds; unless the ships should return full freighted with commodities, corresponding in value to the costs of the adventure, the colonists were threatened with being “left in Virginia as banished men.” “We have not received the value of one hundred pounds,” answered Smith. “From toiling to satisfy the desire of present profit, we can scarce ever recover ourselves from one supply to another. These causes stand in the way of laying in Virginia a proper foundation; as yet, you must not look for any profitable returning.”

After the long delayed departure of the ships, the first care of Smith was to obtain supplies for the colony from the Indians. In the spring of 1610 he introduced the culture of maize, which was taught by two savages, and thirty or forty acres were “digged and planted.” Authority was employed to enforce industry; he who would not work might not eat, and six hours in the day were spent in toil. The gentlemen learned the use of the axe, and became excellent wood-cutters. Jamestown assumed the appearance of a regular place of abode. It is worthy of remembrance that Smith proposed to plant a town near the falls of the river, where the city of Richmond now stands. Eight months of good order under his rule gave to the colony a period of peace and industry; of order and health. The quiet of his administration was disturbed in its last days by the arrival of seven ships with emigrants, sent out from England under new auspices, so that they for the moment formed an element of anarchy. Smith maintained his authority until his year of office was over; and, under special arrangements, a little longer, until he was accidentally disabled by wounds which the medical skill of the colony could not relieve. He then delegated his office to Percy and embarked for England, never to see the Chesapeake again.

Captain John Smith united the strongest spirit of adventure with eminent powers of action. Full of courage and self-possession, he was fertile in expedients, and prompt in execution. He had a just idea of the public good, and clearly discerned that it was not the true interest of England to seek in Virginia for gold and sudden wealth. “Nothing,” said he, “is to be expected thence but by labor;” and as a public officer he excelled in its direction. The historians of Virginia have with common consent looked to him as the preserver of their commonwealth in its infancy; and there is hardly room to doubt that, but for his vigor, industry, and resolution, it would have been deserted like the Virginia of the north, and with better excuse. Of government under the forms of civil liberty he had no adequate comprehension; but his administration was the most wise, provident, and just of any one known to the colony under its first charter. It was his weakness to be apt to boast. As a writer, he deals in exaggeration and romance, but in a less degree than the foreign historians who served as his models; his reports and his maps are a proof of his resolute energy, his keenness of observation, and his truthfulness of statement. His official report to the company is replete with wise remarks and just reproof. He was public spirited, brave, and constantly employed, and, with scanty means, did more toward the discovery of the country than all others of his time.

After the desertion of the northern part of Virginia, intercourse was kept up with that part of the country by vessels annually employed in the fisheries and the trade in furs; and it may be that once at least, perhaps oftener, some part of a ship’s company remained during the winter on the coast. John Smith, on his return to England, still asserted, with unwearied importunity and firmness of conviction, that colonization was the true policy of England; and, in April, 1614, sailed with two ships for the region that had been appropriated for the second colony of Virginia. This private adventure of “four merchants of London and himself” was very successful. The freights were profitable, the health of the mariners did not suffer, and the voyage was accomplished in less than seven months. While the sailors were busy with their hooks and lines, Smith examined the shore from the Penobscot to Cape Cod, prepared of the coast a map—the first which gives its outline intelligibly well; and he named the country New England—a title which Prince Charles confirmed; though the French could boast, with truth, that New France had been colonized before New England obtained a name; that Port Royal was older than Plymouth, Quebec than Boston.

Encouraged by commercial success, Smith, in the next year, in the employment of Sir Ferdinando Gorges and of friends in London who were members of the Western company, endeavored to establish a colony, though but of sixteen men, for the occupation of New England. The attempt was made unsuccessful by violent storms.

Again renewing his enterprise, Smith was captured by French pirates. His ship having been taken away, he escaped alone, in an open boat, from the harbor of Rochelle. The severest privations in a new settlement would have been less wearisome than the labors which his zeal now prompted him to undertake. Having published a map and description of New England, he spent many months in visiting the merchants and gentry of the west: he proposed to the cities mercantile profits, to be realized in short and safe voyages; to the noblemen, vast domains to men of small means he drew a lively picture of the rapid advancement of fortune by colonial industry, of the abundance of game, the delights of unrestrained liberty, the pleasures to be derived from “angling, and crossing the sweet air from isle to isle over the silent streams of a calm sea.” His private fortunes never recovered from his disastrous capture by the French; but his zeal for the interests of the nation redounded to his honor; and he retired from American history with the rank of Admiral of New England for life.