The English Colony of Virginia
So, how did this colony get started? Here’s a bit of backstory. By the time James I became King of England in 1603, England and Spain had been at war for the past 30 years. James relaxed the situation partially by signing the Treaty of London in 1604 with Spain’s Philip III. It allowed James to set his sights on some territory in the Americas, which he hoped to lay claim on before Spain gobbled it all up. In April 1606, he founded the London branch of the Virginia Company – named in honor of his predecessor Queen Elizabeth I. The company had a royal mandate, which allowed it to colonize the Chesapeake area of North America (dubbed Virginia) and grant all lands colonized by the company the right to self-governance.
In December 1606, the London company’s colonizing expedition set sail, containing 104 people total – 100 men and 4 boys. On May 13th, 1607, after landing in the Chesapeake area. They then traveled up the nearby river, which they named the James River, subsequently landing at the site they would call Jamestown. The English settlers chose to settle in Virginia because of its apparent defensive strength and lack of Native-American inhabitants. It seemed like a safe area for a new colony. However, they quickly found out why no other humans were there when they arrived. There was no fresh drinking water close by, nor was there suitable farmland. There were, however, an enormous population of mosquitoes and flies due to the humid, marshy environment. What the settlers didn’t realize was that, even though no Native Americans roamed the immediate area, the site of Jamestown was on land held by the powerful Powhatan Confederacy. Weakened by disease and the hot weather, the colonists were easy prey for Powhatan raiders. By the time a supply ship found the settlement in September 1607, more than half of the original population were dead.
Part of the group’s weakness was the fact that there were almost no settlers who were skilled at farming, which was necessary to create a self-sufficient settlement. The early settlers were intending to trade or purchase their food, or to have it supplied from England rather than farm it. Yet another factor working against them was the fact that the land they settled in was in a prolonged and severe drought, which made food pretty scarce.
Despite all of this, the London company and its agents pressed on. Under Captain John Smith, the situation began to improve. As an resourceful captain, Smith knew how to scour the countryside for food, and began encouraging farming. On top of that, he led expeditions of plunder and trade in Powhatan territory, which allowed him to stockpile supplies in Jamestown with a degree of efficacy. Difficulties continued to plague the settlement though. In 1609, a ship carrying 500 settlers wrecked off the coast of Bermuda. The 400 weakened survivors came to Jamestown that summer and quickly consumed the carefully gathered supplies. During the brutal winter of 1609-1610 that became known as “The Starving Time,” the population fell from around 500 to roughly 60 – just a few more than the number of people who had been hanging on a few years previously.
By the time the drought had ended in 1612, the colony was able to rebuild their farms, which in turn would help swell its population. The new growth in farming and agriculture was sparked by experimentation with sweet strains of tobacco that had been brought in from Bermuda by John Rolfe. The Virginia Colony was slowly becoming able to support itself agriculturally, with several developments in other areas helping to speed it up.
Beginning in May 1611, Governor Sir Thomas Dale used the increased authority of his office to oversee the large-scale planting of corn, raising of livestock, and manufacturing of goods, each in specific areas. By year’s end, new arrivals had boosted Virginia’s population to roughly 700 people.
On the foreign-relations front, the violent, years-long war with the Powhatan reached a brief truce in 1614 thanks to John Rolfe’s marriage to Pocahontas, daughter of an influential Powhatan chief. The conflict with the Powhatan would resume after the death of Pocahontas three years later.
As the tobacco trade grew into an important source of revenue for the Virginia Colony, individual settlers were eventually allowed to personally participate in the colony’s expansion. In what became known as the Great Charter of 1618, 50 acres of land was granted to any person who paid the cost of his or her passage or any other person’s passage to Virginian lands. The Great Charter also led to the 1619 founding of the colony’s General Assembly in Jamestown. This assembly consisted of 22 representatives elected from the colony, as well as the governor and members of the governor’s council. The charter itself was the brainchild of Sir Edwin Sandys, who became the Virginia Company’s treasurer in April 1619. He attempted to use the General Assembly to build a political base of support for the colony. As a strong advocate of free trade, he encouraged large groups of people to move to the colony as a way to expand the market for English goods. In 1618, he helped 310 settlers reach Virginia, and from 1619 to 1624 he helped arrange for 4,000 people to emigrate across the Atlantic Ocean to the colony. His efforts in population increase were a major reason the colony survived a surprise massacre by the Powhatan in 1622 which killed 347 Virginians, including men, women, and children. With tobacco a booming cash crop and land settlements expanding, Virginians were committed to protecting their colony. They struck back in 1623, killing over 200 Powhatan after giving poison-laced liquor to Powhatan emissaries.
Sandys had been removed from the position of treasurer in 1620 by King James. The king was angered that Sandys had rejected the idea of kings having full control, instead favoring a constitutional monarchy. Though Sandys managed to keep controlling the company’s business decisions from the sidelines, he couldn’t really put a dent in the company’s mounting debt. This debt was mainly due to high settler mortality from disease. This situation provided a reason for King James to intervene, placing the company’s charter under Crown control in 1624. However, the Virginia Colony’s right of self-governance was nonetheless preserved.
In 1643, the democratically elected house within the General Assembly became a separate legislative body, known as the House of Burgesses. The Virginia House of Burgesses would eventually include several of the Founders of the United States, among them George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Okay, now that we’ve covered the Colony of Virginia, let’s go over a review question.
Which of the following was not true of the English Colony of Virginia?
- Poor choice of location for the original settlement of Jamestown resulted in disease and attacks by Powhatan raiders
- John Rolfe helped the colony prosper by introducing sweet-tobacco cultivation and marrying Pocahontas.
- Once the colony moved to be under crown control in 1624, the right of self-governance was taken away.
The correct answer is C! Once the colony was under crown control, they still retained the right of self-governance.
That’s all for this review! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!