- Historic Sites
Of Raleigh And The First Plantation
The Elizabethans and America: Part II -- The fate of the Virginia Colony rested on the endurance of adventurers, the financing of London merchants, and the favor of a courtier with his demanding spinster Queen.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
Money and management were to be supplied by the city of London; and here the merchants weighed in, above all the East India magnate Sir Thomas Smythe, to whom the establishment and survival of the colony at Jamestown is chiefly due. It is significant that where the independent and ill co-ordinated resources of courtiers, gentlemen, and merchants had not answered earlier, the resources of the City merchants, made more maneuverable by the mechanism of the joint-stock company, succeeded. One must pay tribute to the unfaltering leadership of these merchant magnates—both Smythe and his opponent, Sir Edwin Sandys, with their supporters in the City—in all the discouragements and disasters that befell Virginia, for its ill luck continued, on the Chesapeake as at Roanoke. Lesser men would have given up in despair, would have had to for want of resources. But these men had, no less important, resource, resilience, flexibility: they turned their hands to anything rather than see it fail. And this time they saw it through.
The little fleet of three ships, the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, with the usual complement of 100 men, sailed in December, 1606, under the command of Captain Christopher Newport. Now a man of forty, who had been concerned in the capture of the Madre de Dios, richest of the prizes in the war, he was one of the best-esteemed sea captains of the day.
Newport brought his ships safe into the Chesapeake without let or hindrance. George Percy, brother of Raleigh’s companion in the Tower—the “Wizard Earl” of Northumberland, tells us of “fair meadows and goodly tall trees, with such fresh-waters running through the woods, as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof.” They picked on the site of Jamestown, low and marshy as it was, unhealthy as it proved to be, because, being almost an island, it was defensible. There they constructed their fort. In obedience to their instructions they explored up the James River, till they were checked at the falls where now Richmond is.
We note the continuing stress upon finding a passage through to the Pacific; they were continually led to hope by stories of the Indians about a sea just beyond the mountains, and hope was not entirely extinguished until the end of the century. It is tribute to Captain John Smith’s sense that he describes the bounds of Virginia as on the east “the great ocean; on the south lieth Florida; on the north Nova Francia; as for the west thereof, the limits are unknown.” To discover them constituted the saga of the American people, and not until a couple of generations ago was the process, set in being by the Elizabethans, complete. In that sense, looking over the last prairie country to be settled, going through Rockies or Cascades, we may feel ourselves for a moment linked, in touch, with those first Elizabethans who started it all.
Theirs were the sacrifices; and the cost in human life in the first two decades of Virginia was terrible. No doubt this first venture was experimental and exploratory. Captain John Smith says that they had eaten up their provisions on too long a sea voyage, had arrived too late to plant, and in any case were insufficiently provided. He adds philosophically, “such actions have ever since the world’s beginning been subject to such accidents, and everything of worth is found full of difficulties, but nothing so difficult as to establish a commonwealth so far remote from men and means, and where men’s minds are so untoward as neither do well themselves nor suffer others.” In other words, there was what is called the human factor—and it proved very human.
There is no point in entertaining illusions about it—these voyages transported the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, even the better-than-average proved selfish and listless and would not work to save themselves, let alone others. Famine and the marshes bred disease, and men began to die. Without any concentration of authority, bickerings and quarrels increased. By the end of the first winter, they were down to 38 men left alive.
Then the first supply arrived just in time, for they might have given up. (The colony planted contemporaneously by the Plymouth Company in the north at Sagadahoc did give up and went home.) With two supplies sent out in 1608 things began to look up; buildings that had been burned down were repaired, and the colonists began to plant a little. Faced with a second winter of privation, Captain John Smith, “whom no persuasions could persuade to starve,” came to the fore and as president took matters forcefully in hand. “If any would not work, neither should he eat”; he threatened to drive those who would not work into the wilderness.
By these means, and by his own energy and force of character, Smith carried the colony successfully through the second winter with few losses.