Jamestown Matters
Virginia matters

France and Spain on the North American Coast

Stirring up English Interest

The Beginning of the Virginia Venture

John Smith and Jamestown, 1607-1609

A Second Chance for Jamestown

Settlement Encouraged

Virginia Commodities

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John Smith and Jamestown, 1607-1609

On April 26, 1607, three ships sent by the Virginia Company to establish a new colony in Virginia anchored in Chesapeake Bay.  Among the would-be settlers was the adventurer, John Smith, who had already irritated some of his fellow passengers enough to have been placed under arrest for conspiracy on the voyage over.  Nonetheless, he was one of seven Councilors that the Virginia Company had selected to govern the colony, and by September, 1608, he was the only one left.  For the next year Smith aided the struggling outpost with his determination and wit, forcing the disheartened colonists to work for their survival and negotiating peace terms with the wily Native American leader Powhatan, who quite possibly had more experience of the ways of Europeans than Smith would ever have suspected.

[13] Smith's First Report  larger view

John Smith. A true relation of such occurrences and accidents of noat as hath hapned in Virginia since the first planting of that colony. (London, 1608).

Christopher Newport, one of the captains who had transported the colonists in 1607, returned to Virginia to resupply the colony the following year.  Smith gave him a report on what had transpired since their arrival and probably a map as well, which showed the extent of the colonists’ explorations to date.  The map has been lost, but Smith’s report was eagerly received and printed (without his permission) for an audience hungry for the first news of the venture.  Smith’s report didn’t mince words about what he thought were the sources of the colony’s problems.  To be sure, there were elaborate diplomatic dances and skirmishes of wits between the American natives and the ever-more-desperate English, but the colonists’ inability to set aside rank and status to work together for the common good was especially destructive.

"The Indians, thinking us neare famished, with carelesse kindness, offered us little pieces of bread, & small handfuls of beanes or wheat, for a hatchet or a piece of copper."

"At this time were most of our chiefest men either sicke or discontented, the rest being in such dispaire, as they would rather starve and rot with idleness, than be persuaded to do anything for their own reliefe without constraint."

[14] Ethics of Colonization  larger view

As word of problems within the colony itself and between the colony and the Native Americans began to filter back to England through official and unofficial letters and reports, several authors began the process of questioning or defending the legitimacy of the colonization process itself.

[Robert Gray]. A good speed to Virginia. (London, 1609).

“…there is no intendment to take away from them [the Indians] by force that rightfull inheritaunce which they have in that countrey… wee desire not, neither do wee intend to take anie thing from them, … but to compound with them for that we shall have of them:  and surelie except succession and election, there cannot bee a more lawfull entrance to a kingdome than this of ours."

[15] "Christianitie for their souls ..."  larger view

Wiliam Crashaw. A sermon preached in London before the right honorable the Lord Lawarre, Lord Governour and Captaine Generall of Virginea. (London, 1610).

[We give them] "such things as they want and neede, and are infintely more excellent than all wee take from them: and that is
1. Civilitie for their bodies
2. Christianitie for their suls:
The first to make them men:
the second, happy men."

[16] The Prophecy  larger view

"Chapt. 5. A true description of the people." William Strachey. The first book of the historie of travaile into Virginia Britania. (London, 1612). 19th century copy

William Strachey, Secretary of the Virginia Company, spent close to two years in Virginia.  This compendium, which he wrote for the benefit of the Company, combines information about his experiences on the Chesapeake with a determined justification of English claims to North America.   Strachey here suggests that a prophecy of foreign invasion, which was revealed to Powhatan by his priests, could explain much of the American leader's suspicion of the settlers.

The manuscript shown here was copied in the nineteenth century from the original document in the British Library.  Before the availability of cameras and photocopy machines, libraries and collectors would routinely pay to have important texts hand-copied.


[17] Smith's Map of Virginia  larger view

John Smith. A map of Virginia with a description of the country, the commodities, people, government and religion. (London, 1612).

Smith’s great map of Virginia was not published until 1612 in the book shown here, which was an expanded version of the True relation of 1608 and a showcase for Smith’s wide-ranging curiosity and powers of observation.  The information on the map was gathered on Smith’s reconnaissance voyages in the summer of 1608—the crosses on the map show the extent of English exploration, while geographic detail about the land beyond the crosses was provided by Native Americans.  This map had a long life and was not superseded until Augustine Herrman’s map of the Chesapeake was published in 1673.

[18] The Hurricane of 1609  larger view

In June 1609, the Virginia Company sent out five ships and a new governor, Sir Thomas Gates, who was given absolute power to institute martial law and bring order and progress to the struggling settlement.  But the fleet was dispersed by a hurricane and the ship with the governor was shipwrecked on Bermuda.  The remainder limped into the Chesapeake and attempted to oust John Smith, but without the presence of the new governor and his official authorization Smith refused to step down.  The impasse between the rival factions was broken when Smith, badly injured in a gunpowder explosion, returned to England in October, never to return to Virginia.

William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. (London, 1623).

The storm in which Governor Gates and his men were thought to have been lost inspired Shakespeare's Tempest, which was first performed in London in 1611.  Shakespeare made use of several Virginia-related details—Caliban's refusal to continue to provide food for Prospero reflected similar tensions in Virginia between the colonists and the Native Americans—and much of the play's language recalls the words of those who had experienced, and lived to write about, the great storm.

[19] The Winter of 1609/1610  larger view

The Starving time.

A true declaration of the estate of the colonie in Virginia, with a confutation of such scandalous reports as have tended to the disgrace of so worldly an enterprise. (London, 1610).

By the fall of 1609 the strong-willed John Smith had returned to England leaving in place a government of hurricane survivors who lacked the official papers necessary to legally govern.  The settlement, wracked by internal dissension and external harassment by Powhatan, barely made it through the winter.  Meanwhile, in London, unaware that Gates had survived the hurricane, the Virginia Company attempted to deal with the bad news that their newly appointed governor had perished.  In this pamphlet the Company defends the legality and future profitability of the Virginia colony and announces the appointment of a replacement governor, Thomas West, Lord de la Warre, whose projected arrival at Jamestown in that spring with supplies and reinforcements would immediately turn the struggling colony around.

Exhibition by Susan Danforth, John Carter Brown Library

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