For decades prevailing thought said that 17th Century Virginia was chaotic, had little to build upon, and therefore left a scanty legacy. Historians such as Bernard Bailyn prominently argued that 17th Century Virginia was untamed and chaotic, but in 1985 Jon Kukla challenged that opinion.
Dr. Kukla argued that Pre-Restoration 17th Century Virginia was anything but chaotic and did indeed have order. That order may not be what we think of today, yet the foundations that Virginia settlers laid down in the 17th Century allowed for subsequent generations to build a strong colony. That colony would then go on to profoundly influence America’s founding generation, which in turn built what was then a radically different governmental/political entity that the world had never seen.
The English Civil War undoubtedly colored Sir William Berkeley’s first administration. Berkeley’s first Assembly answered the issue concerning a revived Virginia Company, but once King Charles sent his reply across the Atlantic war had already broken out in England.
Berkeley was a staunch Royalist, but Virginia had many ties to those in Parliament. Some of those ties were economic, and many were religious. Therefore, Berkeley had to deftly navigate tricky waters in such a way that allowed him to proclaim his allegiance, while also appeasing opposition, and opposition that included the powerful William Claiborne.
Though Berkeley had many years in Virginia to look forward to, the seeds for trouble were being sown as soon as that first Assembly meeting. But seeds for a strong Royalist enclave were also being planted deep into Virginia’s heart, and Berkeley was the main planter.
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted. The featured image is Charles Landseer’s depiction “The Eve of the Battle of Edgehill, 1642” found at Wikipedia.
William Berkeley arrived in Virginia during the winter 1642. He had many obstacles to overcome, even before he left England, but once he handled those obstacles he started to build a solid foundation from which to govern Virginia.
In spite of former Governor Harvey’s failures, he did put a few things in place that Berkeley could build upon, such as increased domestic government. Berkeley decided to keep those innovations in place, and work through those established channels to get the job done.
Berkeley’s approach to Virginia’s affairs endeared him to the many opposing factions. He’d need all the help he could get to govern the colony, especially considering the ambiguous political situation upon Berkeley’s arrival.
A potentially volatile Powhatan tribe made Berkeley’s position all the more tenuous. But the new governor was up to the task, and the beginning of his first gubernatorial tenure signaled a time of stability unseen in the colony. Virginia was now poised to advance like never before.
William Berkeley lived during an exciting though volatile era. England was transforming into a powerful modern country, and William worked hard to put himself close to all the action. He used powerful connections which were tied to the monarchy in ways that most Englishmen could only wish for. But though Berkeley enjoyed those connections, he was often uneasy about his future.
William had reason to worry, especially after the Bishops Wars proved to be a massive failure for King Charles and England. Growing discontent swelled ranks against the Crown, and those attached to it. Many within the administration saw trouble on the horizon and fled the kingdom for places they deemed safer. Berkeley’s connections urged him to do the same, and it seemed that he would follow those connections to the continent. But at the last minute, the ever ambitious Berkeley organized a stunning change of heart.
Instead of moving to ancient, exotic locales, William Berkeley looked to the often plagued Virginia. He didn’t want simple comfort. He wanted to build a name. King Charles consented to Berkeley’s request, and Virginia would forever be changed. So too would England.
Next year marks the 400th Anniversary of the First Thanksgiving in the English speaking New World.
In this episode I had the special opportunity to discuss details surrounding Berkeley’s upcoming celebration of that 400th Anniversary with H. Graham Woodlief. If you have the chance to attend next year’s event, it promises to be spectacular, a celebration 400 years in the making!
Before you listen to this interview, let me express my gratitude to Berkeley Plantation for setting up space for Mr. Woodlief and I to record this interview. Specifically, Melissa Back, your hospitality is second to none!
Also thanks to Commemoration 2019 for once again coordinating the opportunity to interview Mr. Woodlief, who is a fountain of information concerning Berkeley’s history.
One final note, Berkeley Plantation is an active tourist destination. That being the case, please do mind the occasional background chatter as guests came to tour the mansion and grounds.
I love traveling all over Virginia. Finding off the beaten path locations, eating at local dives, learning poignant stories combine to make each trip memorable. Sometimes, however, I don’t have to travel to experience all that Virginia has to offer. Sometimes it’s in my back yard. That’s the case with Fort Monroe.
Fort Monroe’s story spans more than 400 years, even longer if one includes what we know of the native Kecoughtan tribe. The original Jamestown colonists first met the Kecoughtans in Spring 1607 before the colonists sailed up river to establish Jamestown. The colonists came back, established friendly relations, and over time built a series of lookout posts that endured through some hardest struggles that the colonists suffered.
That colonial outpost became the port of entry for one of America’s great peoples. In 1619 “20 and odd negroes” from Angola arrived signaling the beginning of a new era in Virginia and America’s history. That history hasn’t always been laudable as those original settlers built new lives and saw their progeny forced into slavery by as early as the 1640s. Those slaves and their stories have left a deep imprint not only on Virginia’s historical landscape, but on her physical makeup as well.
Point Comfort and her early fortifications developed into more permanent bastions in the early 19th century, largely aided by slave labor. After the British marauded the Chesapeake Bay region and burned Washington DC during the War of 1812, the sorely embarrassed government undertook a series of forts built to ensure such an invasion would never happen again. Fort Monroe was the keystone in that military wall.
The best military engineers of the day, including Robert E. Lee, descended upon Hampton to build the stone structure, as well as her sister fort known then as Fort Calhoun, but now known as Fort Wool, just off of Point Comfort’s coast.
These engineers were so successful that when the Civil War exploded onto history’s pages the Union maintained control of Fort Monroe, and never endured a serious threat to losing control of the strategic location.
Because the Union kept control they could use the fort as a starting point of major campaign thrusts toward Richmond. But the fort was also used for something else. Area slaves viewed Fort Monroe as potential salvation. Freedom.
On one May 1861 night three slaves tested their fate. They got into a skiff near Sewell’s Point, Norfolk, and rowed across the dangerous Hampton Roads waterway to reach Fort Monroe.
The Fort’s commanding officer, Benjamin Butler, had just been installed a day earlier, and now he had a decision to make. Butler was a lawyer from Massachusetts. He knew full well the law stating that runaway slaves were to be returned to their masters under the Fugitive Slave Law, but in a history changing decision, Butler decided to keep the runaway slaves as “contrabands of war.”
Word of Butler’s decision spread, and many more slaves poured into “Freedom’s Fortress” throughout the war.
After the Civil War ended, the region’s blacks largely remained. They started schools, notably built upon Mary Peake’s pioneering work, some of which was done in Fort Monroe before her 1862 death.
The American Missionary Association brought black and white leaders together in 1868 to formalize education by starting the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, today’s Hampton University. Their mission was to teach and train freed black slaves, which attracted attention far and wide, perhaps most famously, Booker T. Washington.
Because of new opportunities, America’s black history, beginning in 1619, could now be seen as beginning anew in the 1860s, and it still centered at Point Comfort. The shining monument to that storied history is Fort Monroe, “Freedom’s Fortress.”
1619 was the beginning of Black History in English North America. That history began here at Point Comfort.
Lee’s Quarters, as seen from Fort Monroe’s South Wall
Fort Monroe’s Southeastern wall and moat
Gun emplacements atop Fort Monroe
Quarter’s #1, where Lincoln stayed while visiting Fort Monroe
The “Lincoln” gun
Entrance to Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum
Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe
Harriet Tubman honored at Fort Monroe
Edgar Allan Poe at Fort Monroe
Inside Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum
Jefferson Davis Park
The Jefferson Davis Exhibit at Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum
Jefferson Davis Jail Cell at Fort Monroe
Inside Jefferson Davis Jail Cell at Fort Monroe
Examples of the types of shells used at Fort Monroe
A recreated watering hole at Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum
A cargo ship passes Fort Monroe and her outer defenses at Hampton Roads
Virginia never succumbed to the hysteria that plagued Salem, Massachusetts, but she does have an infamous witch trial in her history.
Grace Sherwood’s story is one of a kind. She was the only woman to be tried and convicted for being a witch in Virginia.
In this special episode, I am joined by the historical re-enactors that form the group Shades of Our Past, who travel Virginia re-enacting various historical events and personages. We discussed the events surrounding Grace Sherwood and her life.
It’s a story that we only know in part, but what we do know has influenced the local landscape to this day. Take a moment, and learn about this fascinating woman who endured so much during her lifetime.
Virginia transformed during the first half of the 17th Century. Two men were behind most of that transformation – Samuel Mathews, Sr. and William Claiborne. Their extensive connections as well as growing New World wealth elevated both men to prominent positions in the colony.
They soon formed a powerful alliance that dominated the scene and clashed sharply with Governor John Harvey. In the end, Harvey lost, an old governor was reinstated, and then the power-brokers created a deal that allowed Virginia to move on from the Harvey nightmare.
Virginia’s history boasts many firsts. One of those firsts was the 1619 meeting of the House of Burgesses. It was a major event in that it was the first time a representative governmental body had met in the New World.
The meeting would set the example for future generations as Virginia and her sister colonies developed a tradition that would over time bring freedom not only to themselves, as at first, but to all, including those who were not represented in that first meeting.
It was my distinct pleasure to interview the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s Nancy Egloff. We discuss how the House of Burgesses formed and evolved in the 17th Century, as well as how the body evolved and influenced later generations. I trust you will find this episode informative and enjoyable.
Billings, Warren. “The General Assembly of 1619: Myths and Realities” in UNBOUND: An Annual Review of Legal History and Rare Books. Journal of the Legal History and Rare Books Special Interest Section of the American Association of Law Libraries, Volume 3, 2010. pp. 39-50.
Virginians exerted a measure of some independence in electing their own governors for a short time during the 1620s. But King Charles and his privy council as well as a cabal of London merchants wanted to take some power back for themselves. These groups accomplished their goal by appointing Captain John Harvey to be governor in 1628.
Harvey arrived in Virginia sometime during late winter, early spring 1630. He tried to impose a more centralized authority on the colony, but the Virginian’s wanted none of it.
When another well connected merchant entered into the mix, a wide rift separated Virginians from newly arriving Maryland settlers. John Harvey fell on the wrong side of that ever widening chasm, and lost it all. What became Harvey’s loss, however, became Virginia’s gain.