Colony Of Virginia

A Brief History

"In the spring of 1541, six years from the discovery of the river St. Lawrence, another equally important river, the Mississippi, was discovered. This honor belongs to Ferdinand de Soto, a Spaniard, who, having projected the conquest of Florida from the natives, arrived from Cuba in 1539, with a considerable force. He traversed the country to a great distance, and in the spring of 1541, first discovered the Mississippi, five or six hundred miles from its mouth.

The object of Soto, in traversing so wide an extent of country, appears to have been to search for gold. The summer and winter of 1539 he spent in Florida. In 1540, he began his tour northeast, and, having crossed the Altamaha, Savannah, and Ogechee rivers, he turned westerly, and crossing the Alleghanies, proceeded southwardly as far as Mobile and Pensacola. The winter of this year he spent with the Chickasaws. The following spring, he made the important discovery above mentioned.

The next year in 1542, Soto died on the banks of the Mississippi River, May 21st, in the bosom of whose waters he was buried. Under the guidance of successor whom Soto had appointed, his followers wandered about the country, in an ineffectual effort to penetrate Mexico. During these wanderings, they once more came upon the Mississippi, a short distance above Red river. Here they encamped, and proceeded to build several large boats, on which they embarked, July 12th 1543, and in seventeen days reached the Gulf of Mexico. Continuing their voyage, in the following September they reached a Spanish settlement at the mouth of the river Panuco, in Mexico.

Prior to the year 1607, a period of one hundred and fifteen years from the discovery of San Salvador by Columbus, several attempts were made to effect settlements in various parts of North America, including Roanoke; but none had proved successful. In the Month of May of 1607, a colony from England, consisting of one hundred and five persons, arrived in Virginia; and on a beautiful peninsula in James river, began a settlement, which they called Jamestown. This was the first permanent settlement effected by Europeans in the United States.

This place was called Jamestown, in honor of James I of England, who, in 1606, claiming the country lying between the 34th and 45th degrees of north latitude—from the mouth of Cape Fear river, one hundred and fifty miles northeast from Charleston, South Carolina, to Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia—that was divided it into two nearly equal parts, and granted it to two companies, called the London and Plymouth Companies. The southern part, called South Virginia, he conveyed to the London Company; and the northern part, called North Virginia, to the Plymouth Company.

The first settlement of Virginia was commenced under the auspices of the London Company. The expedition was commanded by Captain Christopher Newport; but the government of the colony was framed in England, before it even sailed. It was to consist of a council of seven persons, with a president, to be elected by the council from their number. Who composed it was unknown at the time the expedition sailed, their names being carefully concealed in a box, which was to be opened after their arrival.

The original intention of the colony was to form a settlement at Roanoke; but, being driven by a violent storm north of that place, they discovered the entrance of Chesapeake Bay (Maryland), the capes of which they named Charles and Henry. Entering this, they at length reached a convenient spot upon which to commence a settlement. The code of laws, hitherto cautiously concealed, was now promulgated; and, at the same time, the council appointed by the company in England was made known. It consisted of Bartholomew Gosnold, John Smith, Edward Wingfield, Christopher Newport, John Ratcliffe, John Martin, and George Kendall. Mr. Wingfield was chosen president.

Among the most enterprising and useful members of this colony, and one of its magistrates, was Captain John Smith, whose devotion to the interests of the colony was as signal and unremitting, as his life had been replete with danger arid suffering. But for his spirit of patriotism and self denial, it is certain that its existence would have been short lived. Before the arrival of the colony, his colleagues in office, becoming jealous of his influence, arrested him on the absurd charge that he designed to murder the council, usurp the government, and make himself king of Virginia. He was, therefore, rigorously confined during the remainder of the voyage.

On their arrival in the country, he was liberated, but could not obtain a trial, although, in the tone of conscious integrity, he repeatedly demanded it. The infant colony was soon involved in perplexity and danger. Notwithstanding Smith had been calumniated, and his honor deeply wounded, his was not the spirit to remain idle when his services were needed. Nobly disdaining revenge, he offered his assistance, and, by his talents, experience, and undeniable zeal, furnished important aid to the infant colony. Continuing to assert his innocence, and to demand a trial, the time at length arrived when his enemies could postpone it no longer. After a fair hearing of the case, he was honorably acquitted of the charges alleged against him, and soon after took his seat in the council.

The colony, thus commenced, soon experienced a variety of calamities, incidental, perhaps, to infant settlements, but not the less painful and discouraging. Inefficiency and a want of harmony marked the proceedings of the council. Provisions were scarce, and of a poor quality. The neighboring tribes of Indians became jealous and hostile; and, more than all, sickness spread among them, and carried a large proportion of their number to an early grave, among whom was Captain Gosnold, the projector of the enterprise.

The condition of the colony, however, was, at length, somewhat improved, by the arrival of Captain Newport (who had been dispatched to England), with a supply of provisions, and an additional number of men. Captain Nelson, who had sailed with Newport, also soon after arrived, with additional emigrants and provisions. With these accessions, the colonists now amounted to two hundred men. This number was still further increased, before the end of 1608, by the arrival of seventy colonists, among whom were many persons of distinction.

Early in the year 1609, the London Company, not having realized their anticipated profit from their new establishment in America, obtained from the king a new charter, with more ample privileges. Under this charter, Thomas West, otherwise called Lord De la War, was appointed governor for life. The company under their new act of incorporation, was styled as "The Treasurer and Company of Adventurers and Planters for the First Colony in Virginia." They were now granted in absolute property what had formerly been conveyed only in trust—a territory extending from Point Comfort two hundred miles north and south, along the coast, and throughout the land from sea to sea.

Lord De la War, being appointed governor of the colony, but not being able to leave England, immediately dispatched to America nine ships and five hundred men, under command of Sir Thomas Gates, his lieutenant, and Sir George Somers, his admiral. Eight of these ships arrived in safety at Jamestown, in the month of August; but that on board of which was Sir Thomas and other officers, being wrecked on the Bermudas, did not arrive till May of the following year; and then in two small vessels, which meanwhile they had built.

At the time Sir Thomas and the other officers arrived, the colony had become reduced to circumstances of great depression. Captain Smith, in consequence of a severe accidental wound, had some time before returned to England; and his departure was the signal for insubordination and idleness. Moreover, the Indians refused the usual supplies of provisions; in consequence of which, famine ensued, during which the skins of the horses were devoured, the bodies of the Indians whom they had killed, and even the remains of deceased friends. Of five hundred persons, sixty only remained. At this juncture, the shipwrecked persons from Bermuda arrived. An immediate return to England was proposed; and, with that intent, they embarked. But just as they were leaving the mouth of the river, Lord De la War appeared, with supplies of men and provisions, and they were persuaded to return. By means of his judicious management, the condition of the colony soon wore a better aspect, and for several years continued to prosper.

It was unfortunate, however, that ill health obliged Lord De la War, in March, 1611, to leave the administration. He was succeeded by Sir Thomas Dale, who arrived in May. Until then, no right of property in land had been established, but the produce of labor was deposited in public stores, and shared in common. To remedy the indolence and indifference growing out of such a system, Sir Thomas assigned to each inhabitant a lot of three acres as his own, and a certain portion of time to cultivate it. The advantages of this measure were soon so apparent, that another assignment, of fifty acres, was made, and, not long after, the plan of working in a common field was abandoned.

The year 1619 forms a memorable epoch in the history of Virginia, a provincial legislature being at this time introduced, in which the colonists were represented by delegates chosen by themselves. This colonial assembly—the first legislature to which the people of America sent representatives—was convoked by Sir George Yeardly, the governor general of the colony, and met at Jamestown, on the 29th of June. Before this, the colonists had been ruled rather as soldiers in garrison, by martial law; but now they were invested with the privilege of freemen. They were divided into eleven corporations, each of which was represented in the assembly.

In 1620, the colony received a large accession to their number. Eleven ships arrived, with twelve hundred and sixty settlers. Nearly one thousand colonists were resident here before. In order to attach them still more to the country, one hundred and fifty respectable young women were sent over, to become wives to the planters. These were sold at the price, at first, of one hundred, and afterwards, one hundred and fifty, pounds of tobacco, which was worth, at the time, three shillings per pound. Debts incurred for the purchase of wives were recoverable before any others.

Accessions to the colony of a different character were also made. By order of King James, one hundred persons who had rendered themselves obnoxious to government by their crimes were sent to the colony by way of punishment. This, perhaps designed for its benefit, as the exiles were chiefly employed as laborers, was ultimately prejudicial to it; prosperity. During the year 1620, slaveholding was introduced into the colony. A Dutch ship from Africa, touching at Jamestown, landed twenty Africans for sale. These were purchased by the planters; and slavery was thus introduced into the country.

In 1622, the Virginia colony, which for some time had enjoyed great prosperity, and had received frequent accessions, experienced a stroke which proved nearly fatal. The successor of Chief Powhatan, of a proud, revengeful spirit, and extremely hostile to the colony, concerted a plan to cut them off at a blow; and, on the 1st of April, it was so far put in execution, that three hundred and forty-seven of the colony—men, women, and children—were butchered almost in the same instant.

In 1624, the London Company, which had settled Virginia, was dissolved by an act of King James I, under pretext of the calamities which had befallen the colony, and the dissensions which had agitated the company. Their charter was taken away, and the government of the colony assumed by the crown. The king himself appointed the governor, in whom, with twelve councilors, the powers of government were vested.

The London Company, thus dissolved, consisted of gentlemen of liberal views, who had expended more than one hundred thousand pounds of their fortunes in this first attempt to plant an English colony in America; and more than nine thousand persons had been sent from the mother country to settle this new colony. At the time of the dissolution of the company, scarcely two thousand survived.

The dissolution of the charter was an arbitrary act on the part of the king; and not less arbitrary and odious were his subsequent regulations. Under these the people suffered until 1636, at which time, inflamed to madness by the oppressive conduct of Sir John Harvey, the then governor, they seized him, and sent him prisoner to England. Their conduct in this was so displeasing to the king, Charles I, successor of James 1, that he sent Harvey back. But, in 1639, the king appointed Sir William Berkley to succeed him, with instructions again to allow the Virginians to elect representatives. For this privilege they were so grateful, that they continued faithful to the royal cause, even after Oliver Cromwell had usurped the government. This loyalty brought upon them the vengeance of Parliament, in 1652, at which time a fleet was dispatched to reduce then to submission. At this time Governor Berkley was obliged to retire.

About the time of Cromwell's death, but before that event, the Virginians proclaimed Charles II, and invited Berkley to resume his authority. On the accession of Charles, he confirmed Berkley in his office. But, from this time, the conduct of the governor was odious and oppressive. Agents were sent to England, to lay their grievances at the foot of the throne; but agents were unsuccessful, and, at length, the discontent of the people ripened into a formidable insurrection, known by the name of "Bacon's Rebellion."

This Bacon (Nathaniel) was an Englishman, who, soon after his arrival, had been appointed a member of the council. He was young, of commanding person, and distinguished for ambition, energy, and enterprise. The colony, at this time, being engaged in war with the Susquehannah Indians, Bacon, dispatched a messenger to Governor Berkley, requesting a commission to proceed against them. This, for a time, was refused; in consequence of which, great animosity arose between Berkley and Bacon,; and; at length, the former publicly denounced Bacon as a rebel, although previously he had given him the required commission. Hearing of this denunciation, Bacon, instead of marching against the Indians, proceeded to Jamestown, wreaking his vengeance upon all who opposed him. Finding it in vain to withstand him, the governor fled across the bay, and the council dispersed, leaving Bacon in possession of supreme power.

At length, the governor, with a small force, under command of Robert Beverly, re-crossed the bay, to oppose the malcontents. Civil War had now commenced. Jamestown was burnt by Bacon's followers; various parts of the colony were pillaged, and the wives of those that adhered to the governor's party were carried to the camp of the insurgents. In the midst of these commotions, Bacon died. The malcontents, thus left to reflection, began to disperse. Two of Bacon's generals surrendered and were pardoned, and the people quietly returned to their hopes. Upon this, Berkley resumed the government and peace was restored. This rebellion forms an era of some note in the history of Virginia, and its unhappy effects were felt for thirty years. During its continuance, husbandry was almost entirely neglected, and such havoc was made among all kinds of cattle that the people were threatened with famine. Sir William Berkley, after having been forty years governor of Virginia, returned to England, where he soon after died.

It may be proper to add, that some historians take a more favorable view of Bacon's character and conduct than presented here. It must be admitted that the administration of Berkley, in many of its measures, was arbitrary, with severe fines and confiscations and even executions, were frequent; and, moreover, no printing presses were allowed in the province. It is not to be concealed that the people were grievously oppressed; but Bacon's conduct was condemned by the council, of which he was a member; and by them, also, he was declared a "rebel."

In 1679, some time after the death of Berkley, Lord Culpepper came over as governor, with certain laws prepared in conformity to the wishes of the ministry of England, and designed to be enacted by the assembly in Virginia. One of those laws provided for raising a revenue for the support of government. It made the duties perpetual, and placed them under the direction of his majesty. Out of the duties, Culpepper dishonestly took, as his salary; two thousand pounds, and one hundred and sixty pounds, in addition, for household rent. On presenting these laws to the assembly, Culpepper informed them that, in case they were passed, he had instructions to offer pardon to all who had been concerned in Bacon's rebellion; but if not, he had commissions to try and hang them as rebels, and a regiment of soldiers on the spot to support him. Thus threatened, the assembly passed the laws. From this period to the occurrence of the French War, no events are to be found, in the history of Virginia, of sufficient importance to be noticed in the present page.


— A History of the United States, by Charles A. Goodrich, 1857 (edited)


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