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Historical Background

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Explorers and Settlers
Historical Background

The British Colonials and Progenitors (continued)


An ardent advocate of the existence of a Northwest Passage and a shareholder in Frobisher's Company of Cathay, Sir Humphrey Gilbert turned the Queen's attention to colonization projects. In 1578, a royal grant in hand, he set out from Plymouth to found an English colony in some part of the new lands "not actually possessed by any Christian prince." Storms and misadventures drove him back to England, but he was undaunted. Using funds that he had solicited from his countrymen, in 1583 he left England again, with 5 ships and more than 250 colonists. But the colony that he established in Newfoundland also ended disastrously, and on the return trip he was lost at sea.

The first Englishmen arrive in "Virginia." Roanoke Island is shown in the bay. From an engraving by Theodore de Bry, after John White's on-the-scene drawing.

The following year, Elizabeth renewed Gilbert's grant in the name of his half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh—poet, soldier, historian, and adventurer—who had invested heavily in Gilbert's second effort. Plans were again laid for an English colony in the New World. Raleigh first sent out an expedition, led by Philip Amandas and Arthur Barlowe, to make a reconnaissance of the North American coast. In 1584, sailing by way of the Canaries and the West Indies, it traveled up the coast to present North Carolina, explored the region, and returned to recommend it enthusiastically for a colony. Raleigh christened the new land "Virginia"—for the "Virgin Queen"—and appointed Sir Richard Grenville to establish a settlement. Grenville, a renowned sea rover, left in 1585 with 7 vessels and about 100 colonists. After brief exploration, the group settled on Roanoke Island. Grenville placed Ralph Lane in temporary charge and sailed away, promising to return the next year with supplies.

Obsessed with the dream that they might discover gold in the New World as the Spanish had done, the colonists were little inclined to labor at clearing fields and planting crops. By summer of the following year, they were constantly quarreling and warring with the Indians, from whom they had first obtained supplies, and were nearly out of provisions. In June a fleet approached—not Grenville but Drake, returning from a triumphant raid in the West Indies. Discouraged, Lane and his men returned to England with Drake. They had missed Grenville and the supply expedition by only a few weeks. After a brief and futile search, being "unwilling to loose possession of the countrey which Englishmen had so long held," Grenville stationed 15 of his men at the post on Roanoke Island and hastened southward to cruise for Spanish prizes. The 15 were never heard from again.

Southern Algonquian Indians fishing
Southern Algonquian Indians fishing along the coast of present North Carolina. From an on-the-scene watercolor by John White, 1585. (Courtesy, Smithsonian Institution.)

But Raleigh persisted. In 1587, he dispatched another and larger group of colonists to Roanoke under the leadership of John White. The group landed and refurbished the fort built by Lane. Among the 150 colonists were 17 women, one of whom was White's daughter, the wife of Ananias Dare. At this tiny outpost of England, she gave birth to the first English child born in America, Virginia Dare.

Late in 1587, White returned to England for supplies, and Raleigh patiently equipped another fleet to supply his colony. But destiny interfered. Philip of Spain had finally tired of Elizabeth's sport and had launched a mighty armada to destroy English seapower once and for all—even perhaps to invade England itself. During defense preparations, the Queen requisitioned Raleigh's entire supply fleet into the royal service.

England's momentous victory in 1588 over the Spanish Armada in the English Channel was a major turning point in history, for Spanish seapower, as well as Spanish dominance in Europe, was dealt a severe blow. Elizabeth's grand triumph, however, meant Roanoke's demise. By the time White was able to return to the colony, in 1590, it had disappeared. The mystery of its fate has never been solved. The bare letters C-R-O-A-T-O-A-N—the name of an Indian tribe and island south of Cape Hatteras—carved in the bark of a tree were the only clue.


The defeat of the Spanish Armada made the New World safer for the English. Though the Raleigh ventures failed, they excited interest in colonization. Between 1602 and 1605, a few expeditions, including those led by Bartholomew Gosnold and Capt. George Weymouth, unsuccessfully attempted to settle groups of colonists at various points along the Atlantic coast. The next British attempts were to be made by joint-stock companies, which had emerged in the 16th century. Early successes of the Muscovy and Levant companies in Europe had led to the organization of the highly profitable East India Company, and a number of others. Chartered and loosely supervised by the Crown, these companies began to lead in the expansion of the British Empire.

In 1606, a group of merchant investors founded the joint-stock Virginia Company and obtained a charter from James I that authorized colonization of the lands claimed for England by John Cabot. From the first, the company consisted of two groups: The London Company, whose domain was the southern coast; and the Plymouth Company, the northern. The latter made the first attempt at colonization, but it was unsuccessful; in August 1606, the Spanish captured a shipload of about 30 colonists in the West Indies. Another expedition of the company, commanded by George Popham, left England in May 1607 and landed in August on the New England coast near the mouth of the Kennebec River, in present Maine. There the colonists built Fort St. George, a church, and 15 small huts. Late the following year, a shortage of supplies, the severity of the winter, and dissension and idleness brought about the end of the colony, and the survivors returned to England.

Meantime, in 1607, the London Company had established a successful settlement in Virginia. In December 1606, the company had dispatched a full-scale colonization expedition from London that consisted of 3 small ships—the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery—that carried about 140 men. Christopher Newport, an experienced navigator, was in command until the group landed. In a sealed box in his cabin were the names of the Governor and council of the colony.

Capt. John Smith's map of Virginia, published in London, in 1612. (Courtesy, Smithsonian Institution.)

After entering Chesapeake Bay and landing temporarily on April 26, 1607, at Cape Henry, where they stayed for 4 days, the colonists moved up the James River to find a more defensible location. On May 13, the colonists selected a site and named it James-Forte, or Jamestowne. A swampy, wooded peninsula about 30 miles from the sea, it provided good docking facilities and satisfactory defense against the Indians. But malaria-bearing mosquitoes swarmed about, fresh-water springs were insufficient, and the profuse trees were not only an obstacle to clearing the land, but also provided natural cover for the Indians.

When Newport opened the sealed instructions, the names of the seven councilors were revealed. Among them were Edward M. Wingfield, who was selected as Governor; Bartholomew Gosnold, a navigator; and Capt. John Smith, whom Newport had placed in irons during the voyage for his fractious behavior. Yet, in the long run, it was Smith who was to save the colony. From the outset, troubles and dissension plagued the governing council. Wingfield served as Governor only a few months; he was removed from the council in September and replaced as Governor by John Ratcliffe. Capt. George Kendall, another council member, was executed for treason, and Gosnold died of malaria.

Newport, who had returned to England for supplies and more settlers in June of 1607, arrived back in Jamestown in January the following year to find that only 38 of the original settlers had survived disease and Indian ambuscade. Because the colony continued to dwindle alarmingly, in April 1608 Newport set out on his second trip to England; he returned in October with supplies and about 70 settlers, including the first 2 women. The previous month, Smith, who had gained the ascendancy in the council, had succeeded Ratcliffe as Governor. Initiating rigid discipline, he directed the erection of a blockhouse fort, a score of cabins, and a well. He also forced the colonists, who traded with the Indians to obtain corn, to raise livestock and chickens, as well as to plant crops.

The plight of the colony caused so much alarm in England that in May 1609 the King issued a new charter to the London Company which placed responsibility for government of the colony solely in the hands of the directors. Confidence reinspired, shareholders raised additional funds, and in June 1609 a well equipped relief expedition of 9 ships and 500 settlers left England. Lord Delaware (de la Warr) was appointed as Governor, but delayed his departure. Sir George Somers, Sir Thomas Gates, and Christopher Newport led the expedition. Caught in a hurricane, one of the vessels foundered and another bearing Gates and Somers was wrecked in the Bermudas. In August, the remaining seven, carrying about 300 settlers, including women and children, limped into Jamestown.

Smith was in charge of the colony, but the newcomers refused to recognize his authority. Once more quarrels broke out among the colonists. Smith, badly burned by a gunpowder explosion and discouraged by the turn of events, returned to England and left Jamestown leaderless. The winter of 1609-10 was devastating. Food became so scarce that the colonists first ate their horses and dogs, then tried to catch rats and snakes. During this "starving time," the population slumped from about 500 to 60.

Meanwhile, Gates and Somers had constructed two small ships and in May 1610 reached Jamestown. Overcome by what they saw, they loaded the nearly demented survivors and turned down the James River for home. Only by coincidence was the colony saved from abandonment. Lord Delaware, aboard one of three ships commanded by Capt. Samuel Argall, put into the river's mouth just as Gates and Somers were about to sail out into the sea. The fortuitous meeting would not have occurred had young Argall not determined to "trace the ready way" straight across the mid-Atlantic, rather than sailing by way of the Canaries, the West Indies, and the Florida coast. The year before, when bringing supplies to Jamestown, he had proved the feasibility of the new route, his use of which now saved the colony.

Delaware ordered the outward-bound ship to put about and took charge of the overwhelming task of rebuilding not only the colony but also the colonists' morale. Progress was soon apparent under his wise leadership, but in the spring of 1611 he became ill and returned to England. Thereafter, he governed the colony through deputies. The first of these was Sir Thomas Dale, a strict disciplinarian but a competent leader. "Dale's Laws," as his regulations were called, were necessarily severe. However, his leadership was constructive and the colony survived. The colonists erected buildings, planted crops, established outposts, and made peace with the Indians.

Peace with the Indians was the result of the enterprise of Argall, who in 1613 met Pocahontas, the youthful daughter of the Indian chief Powhatan, along the shores of the Potomac. She was married to a neighboring chief, but Argall resolved to "possesse myself of her by any Stratagem that I could use, for ransoming of so many Englishmen as were Prisoners with Powhatan . . . as also to get such Armes and Tooles as he and other Indians had got." He had only to trade the chief a copper kettle for the girl, who was delighted to accompany the Englishman back to Jamestown. There John Rolfe became attracted to her and married her. As a result, until Powhatan died, relative peace prevailed with the Indians. Rolfe took his bride to visit London. There she gave birth to a son, but she died soon afterward.

In 1617, Rolfe returned to Virginia as secretary to Argall, who had just been appointed as Deputy Governor. Under Dale (1611, 1613-16), Gates (1611-13), and Argall (1617-19)—however strict the martial rule—the colony began to prosper. A new charter in 1612 encouraged emigration from England; the introduction that same year by Rolfe of West Indian tobacco provided Virginia with an economic base; the colonists founded a dozen or so inland settlements; and the population reached more than 1,000.

In 1618, the company decreed the end of martial rule in Virginia and instructed Lord Delaware to institute a popular assembly. He died en route to the colony, however, and his successor, George Yeardley, in 1619 brought into existence the first representative assembly in America, the Virginia House of Burgesses. In the same year, the first Negroes landed—apparently as indentured servants rather than slaves. And, the following year, to supplement the small group of women who had come in 1609, a group of marriageable maidens arrived.

first women arrive at Jamestown, Virginia
The first women arrive at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Recruited by the Virginia Company to help stabilize the colony, the women became wives of the settlers. From a sketch by an unknown artist, published in 1876. (Courtesy, Library of Congress.)

Yet, in the years immediately following, the colony barely survived. In 1622, the Indians laid waste to the outlying settlements and killed about 350 colonists. Even more serious were the chronic problems of disease and lack of food and other necessities; many deaths resulted and numerous colonists returned to England. Between 1619 and 1624, more than 4,000 colonists joined the few hundred already in Virginia, but by the end of the period the population was only 1,275. Because of adverse conditions in the colony and political trends in England, in 1624 James I annulled the charter of the Virginia Company and made Virginia a royal colony directly under his control.

Despite all the early trials, over the years a plantation-small farm system began to extend along the coasts and rivers of Tidewater Virginia. As the colonists grew stronger, they began to assert their rights. In 1635, they temporarily deposed the royal Governor; and, in 1676, a century before the Declaration of Independence, some of them rose in open rebellion against the administration of Sir William Berkeley. Nathaniel Bacon and his followers drove Berkeley from Jamestown, which they put to the torch and almost completely destroyed because they considered it to be a "stronghold of oppression." Bacon died, Berkeley was replaced, and the rebellious spirit cooled, but Jamestown never fully recovered. In 1699, the year after the statehouse accidentally burned, the General Assembly moved the seat of government to Williamsburg. Within a few years, Jamestown was practically abandoned. About the time of the War for Independence, the isthmus connecting it with the mainland was washed out and an island created. The town ceased to exist.

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005