The Beginning of the Virginia Venture

At the opening of the seventeenth century, England cast a speculative eye on North American possibilities. The business objective of the Virginia Company of London was profit for its investors, but colonization of Virginia was also a national enterprise and a godly mission to convert the heathen to Christianity. The Englishmen who landed in Virginia processed what they saw through their own previous experience. Some, like John Smith, had already traveled widely and their acquaintance with peoples of other cultures shaped their responses to the Americans they encountered in Virginia; others had spent their lives until then at home in England. But all the colonists puzzled their way through Native American culture, trying to understand it in relation to their own, not realizing that many of the Americans they met had had previous contact with European castaways, deserters, fishermen, and explorers throughout the course of the previous century and, in some cases, probably knew more about European ways than the newcomers could ever have imagined.

These early accounts are lively, written by men with strong opinions and an equally strong desire to persuade the reader to their point of view. Some of the writers had first-hand experience of conditions in Virginia, while others were armchair critics or supporters, but the language of all of them is colorful with a sense of immediacy. Navigating this minefield of impassioned accounts––constructed in almost equal measure from on-the-spot observation and hearsay––has presented problems of interpretation for generations of historians and will, no doubt, continue to do so into the future.


[11] The Roanoke Outpost
"Americae pars, nunc Virginia dicta." Theodor de Bry. Grand voyages. Part I. (Frankfurt, 1590).

Queen Elizabeth had granted Sir Humphrey Gilbert a patent to plant a colony in North America but he had died at sea on his second attempt.  In 1584 Gilbert's half-brother, Walter Raleigh, took over the charter and sent out a reconnaissance expedition of his own, which explored the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Roanoke Island looking for a site that could support a settlement and serve as a base for English privateers to prey on Spanish shipping.  Roanoke was chosen on the advice of the Portuguese pilot Simon Ferdinando, who was familiar with the area from his earlier service with Spain.  The next year Raleigh sent out a colonizing expedition that included the artist John White and the scholar Thomas Hariot, whose reports and drawings gave Europeans their first view of the American inhabitants of Virginia and their culture.


[12] Drake to the Rescue
Baptista Boazio. The famouse West Indian voyadge made by the Englishe fleete. (London, 1589).

In 1585, with the official support of Queen Elizabeth, Sir Francis Drake set out to terrorize the Spanish in the West Indies by attacking their cities and capturing treasure.  On the way home, Drake stopped at Roanoke, where he discovered the settlers in grave straits following a harsh winter.  Unloading the "several hundred" passengers he had picked up in the course of his Caribbean adventures—African slaves, South American Indians, and galley slaves (including Europeans and Moors)—Drake made room on his ships and took the Roanoke settlers back to England.  No one knows what happened to the West Indian passengers so unceremoniously left behind at Roanoke.


Postscript to the Lost Colony
In 1587 Raleigh sent a third expedition to Roanoke under the command of the artist, John White, which was made up of families who intended to build a life in Virginia.  White’s daughter was among them and she gave birth that summer to Virginia Dare, the first English child born in Virginia.  But the colony soon grew short of supplies and White returned to England to arrange for additional support.  The attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588 disrupted their plans and when White was finally able to return to the colony in 1590, Roanoke was deserted.  The fate of the colonists has been shrouded in mystery and legend ever since.  This failure at Roanoke interrupted English colonial ventures until Elizabeth I died in 1603 and her successor, James I, made peace with Spain..


John Smith and Jamestown, 1607-1609

At the beginning of the sixteenth century explorations under John and Sebastian Cabot disclosed a substantial part of the northernmost coasts of North America, but the time was not yet right for English colonizing ventures and these voyages were not followed up.  The next several decades saw the extended coastline of eastern North America from Newfoundland to Florida revealed by French and Spanish reconnaissance voyages, but as none of the ventures found rich natural products to exploit, those early explorations did not lead to attempts at settlement either.  Spain did make a few tentative gestures in Florida between 1521 and 1561, but a permanent presence was not established until their interests were challenged by French Protestants who staked out colonies in what is now South Carolina at Port Royal in 1562 and Charlesfort in 1565.  Pedro Menéndez Avilés was sent to put a stop to these incursions and his successful destruction of the French colonies and the foundation of a Spanish outpost at St. Augustine left Spain in control of the southeast coast of North America.


[13] Smith's First Report
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
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 ..."
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
"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
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
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: 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 prepared by Susan Danforth, Curator of Maps and Prints, John Carter Brown Library.
On view in the Reading Room August to November 2007.