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.
Religious wars plagued Europe. The Thirty Years War claimed up to 40% of Germany’s population. Many towns were completely destroyed in the conflict that pulled not just the Germans, but so many of Europe’s other leading powers into the abyss.
Such a conflict inevitably spread beyond the European continent. The Dutch, who were also fighting their own religious war against the Spanish took advantage of the crumbling Portuguese and Spanish overseas empire during this time, while constant pressure from the Turks added bloodshed in Southeastern Europe.
King James anxiously watched from his island haven, especially as many of his relatives played key roles in the continental fight. He had to navigate those stormy times, but his piloting the English ship of state soon led to fallout that erupted into the English Civil War during which James’ son Charles lost his head.
Politics and religion mixed with devastating effect. The combination scarred the European landscape literally and figuratively for generations to come. Because of these horrific events many looked to escape the scene. They wanted to exchange the centralized, top-down governmental religious control responsible for Europe’s implosion.
Those settlers who wanted to escape sought refuge in the New World, and many of them leaving England found freedom to exercise their faith in Virginia.
Virginia was officially an Anglican colony, especially after 1643, but Puritans, Catholics, Huguenots, Baptists, and other groups filled the landscape. In time these groups started to work together in a way that influenced America’s religious thought, and brought about toleration. No longer would people be tied to whatever belief the king or government held. Individuals would be allowed to hold personal convictions that they’d be responsible for in front of God alone.
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.