Economics is at the heart of why Virginia existed. Colony founders wanted to become wealthy, the Crown saw it’s own mercantilistic opportunity, and settlers risked their lives in order to find a better station in life.
How did Virginia’s key players accomplish their goals? Were their policies sound? If not, what impact did they have on the colony? My guest, Tony Williams answered those questions and more in his book The Jamestown Experiment.
Tony argues that in a changing world the Virginia settlers figured out that the key to economic growth hinged upon private property. Once the Virginia Company extended private land ownership to the colonists the Colony began to emerge from her macabre past. The emergence wasn’t perfect, but it was the beginning of a profound economic explosion that made Virginia wealthy.
The lessons learned in 17th Century Virginia influenced later generations and laid the foundation from which the United States built itself into the wealthiest country in the world. As such, it is still wise to take a look back into Jamestown’s experiment today.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Virginia became officially became a Royal Colony in 1624. What did that mean? Would the newly formed freedoms be sacrificed on the monarchical altar? What about the rapidly expanding economy? Would that be brought back under governmental control, and suffer under mercantilistic ideas?
Virginia’s second generation had all of these questions and more in mind upon receiving news of the Virginia Company’s demise due to Royal interference. Sure, they suffered, and continued suffering for years to come, but they were figuring out life in the New World. The last thing they wanted was to be plagued by the Old World systems that they had risked their lives to escape.
As a result, 1620s Virginia became an era of change. Englishmen became Virginians, and those Virginians used their fledgling colonial freedoms to their fullest. Their work ensured a permanence hitherto unknown. It also ensured that Virginia was here to stay.
In hindsight it is easy to say that the Virginia Company was doomed. It had endured 17 years of hardship, but before Opechancanough’s 1622 raid, the situation seemed to be improving – in Virginia at least. Back in England serious company mismanagement ripped the venture apart.
King James, eager to be involved in some fashion, continued to keep an eye on Virginian developments, with special regard given to Edwin Sandys’ plans. James wanted to be rid of Sandys, but the able parliamentarian continued to sidestep the king at every turn. But Sandys’ maneuvering ended when a letter from a down and out Gloucestershire boy was published for king and subject to read.
The English had managed to fight back after Opechancanough’s raid, even gaining superiority by 1624. Yet, though the Powhatans suffered defeat in Virginia, their raids scored a direct hit against the Virginia Company at home. It was all King James needed to thoroughly investigate Company dealings, and in the end, shut down the Virginia Company of London. Thus, a new Virginia era would begin in 1624. She became a Royal Colony.
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author. The Featured Image is of the Royal Seal from the House of Stuart located within the Memorial Church at Jamestown. Van Dyck’s King Charles is available on Wikipedia.
2019 Commemoration and I teamed up once again, and this time the podcast returned to Jamestown to interview Dr. James Horn.
Dr. Horn has made quite a name for himself in the history world with his most notable work being concerned with Colonial America. He is currently the President and Chief Officer at Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation at Historic Jamestowne in association with Preservation Virginia. Previously Dr. Horn served as Vice President of Research and Historical Interpretation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Saunders Director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, and taught at the University of Brighton, England for 20 years.
In addition to Dr. Horn’s considerable positions, he has written many books and articles which are cited often by leading academics and intellectuals alike. In October 2018 he is due to add to this already well-known body of work by publishing 1619: The Origins of American Society. Do, be on the lookout for that volume, as it promises to be a great addition to 1619 scholarship.