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[Detail] Illustration of the shield of Virginia, from the eighteenth century

Colonization of Virginia and Maryland

The Capital and the Bay has a strong collection of documents on the founding of the colonies of Maryland and Virginia. The earliest work, which dates to 1607, is "A Discourse of Virginia," by Edward Maria Wingfield, first president of that colony. Wingfield deals with relations with the Indians, illness in the colony, his ouster as president due to disputes with the colonists, and the story of Pocahontas. Interestingly, Charles Deane, who edited the volume when it was published in 1859, argues that the story of Pocahontas was not true (see note 8 on page 32). Some of Smith's own writings, including his recounting of the rescue by Pocahontas (see page 101), are provided in the document "The Generall Historie of Virginia."

  • What reasons does Deane give for not believing the story of Smith's rescue by Pocahontas? Does Wingfield's account support or refute Deane‚Äôs claim?
  • What is Deane's general opinion of Smith? What language in the note conveys that opinion?
  • Read Smith's account of his rescue. Does the story seem "awkward" to you? Why or why not? Can you think of another explanation for why the story was omitted from Smith's earlier accounts? (The Virginia Company did not want frightening stories about Virginia Indians to scare potential colonists so badly that they would decide not to migrate to Virginia.)
  • Much of what we know about the early years of the Virginia colony comes from Smith's writing. How might that fact affect our understanding of the period? Read Smith's account of events in 1609 (pages 180-182 of Chapter XI of the history). What accomplishments does Smith mention? What problems faced the colony? What did Smith do to try to solve the problems? Imagine that you are one of the colonists. How might you have reported on "the Presidents order for the drones"? (Note that while the record is slanted in Smith's favor, historians believe that his efforts in the difficult early years did save the Virginia colony.)

Use the Subject Index or search by keyword to find other sources on early relations between the Virginia settlers and the Indians in the area. Drawing information from at least two sources, create a timeline depicting important events in settler-Indian relations in Virginia. Expand your analysis by looking at sources that focus on Indians in Maryland.

Information about the founding of Maryland can be found in "The Calvert Papers" and "A Relation of the Successefull Beginnings of the Lord Baltemore's Plantation in Mary-land." Comparing and contrasting the early years of the colonies in Maryland with those in Virginia will demonstrate the varying reasons people had for coming to the New World and the different relationships between the colonies and the mother country.

Foreign visitors to the United States have been an interesting source for historians, providing a fresh perspective on Americans and their culture but also bringing their own biases to their observations. The Capital and the Bay includes the account of a 1686 visit to the colonies in "A Frenchman in Virginia," a document that provides insights not only on how life in the colonies had evolved by the latter part of the 17th century but also on how a European viewed those developments, a view that was not always positive, as the following quotation suggests:

THE place where we landed was in the county of Gloucester, outwardly one of the most charming in all Virginia, but neither the most healthy nor socially the most agreeable; there are, indeed, no gentlemen living there. My compatriot came on board daily to take me off in his canoe; but after seven or eight days of that experience, being weary of it, I thought of renting lodgings on shore, where I might stay until the ship was refitted. They demanded sixteen shillings a month for a single mean room.

(Page 13, "The North River Neighbourhood in Gloucester," in "A Frenchman in Virginia")

The observations in this document, particularly those in "Chapter XI: The Present State of Virginia in 1686," might be compared with those in "A Letter from Mr. John Clayton," who traveled to Virginia to serve as the rector at Wakefield in Yorkshire and was asked by the Royal Society to report on his observations.

  • What aspects of Virginia does Mr. Durand praise? What aspects of Virginia does he criticize?
  • The editor of "A Frenchman in Virginia" notes that "Durand is more accurate in recording what he saw than what he heard" (note 27, page 137, "Notes"). Identify three passages in which Durand is reporting something he heard rather than something he saw. How might you check the accuracy of these reports?
  • How is Mr. Clayton's account of Virginia different from Mr. Durand's? How are their accounts similar?
  • Imagine that you are living in England in 1690. You are thinking about setting out for Virginia. You read Mr. Clayton's and Mr. Durand's descriptions of the colony. Would you go? Why or why not?


Many settlers, including those who founded Maryland, came to the colonies to find freedom from religious persecution, but some believed they did not truly find it until after the revolution. A booklet marking the 1790 consecration of the first bishop of Baltimore celebrates religious freedom, saying that "The very term of toleration is exploded, because it imports a power in one predominant sect to indulge that religious liberty to others, which all claim as an inherent right," an interesting idea for consideration during study of the Bill of Rights. Also of note in the same document is a series of extracts from bills of rights enacted in the constitutions of individual states. A comparison of these statements with the First Amendment (enacted by the First Congress in 1789 and ratified in 1791) would be a useful exercise. Which statement do you prefer? Why?

Among the nation's leaders in its early years were many Virginians, on whom this collection provides interesting personal reflections. For example, the following descriptions of Thomas Jefferson can be found among the documents in The Capital and the Bay; the documents quoted below also contain rich information about political events in the new nation. As you read the quotations, answer the following questions:

  • Make a list of positive words and phrases used to describe Thomas Jefferson. Also make a list of negative words and phrases used. In what areas did Jefferson seem to excel? In what areas was he criticized?
  • What evidence can you find in these quotations or other sources in the collection that party politics existed during Jefferson's administration?
  • What do these sources tell you about Jefferson's family life? According to these sources, how did his family situation affect his presidency?
  • How does William Wirt define eloquence? Do you agree with this definition? Why or why not?

"And is this," said I, after my first interview with Mr. Jefferson, "the violent democrat, the vulgar demagogue, the bold atheist and profligate man I have so often heard denounced by the federalists? Can this man so meek and mild, yet dignified in his manners, with a voice so soft and low, with a countenance so benignant and intelligent, can he be that daring leader of a faction, that disturber of the peace, that enemy of all rank and order?" Mr. Smith, indeed, (himself a democrat) had given me a very different description of this celebrated individual; but his favourable opinion I attributed in a great measure to his political feelings, which led him zealously to support and exalt the party to which he belonged, especially its popular and almost idolized leader. Thus the virulence of party-spirit was somewhat neutralized, nay, I even entertained towards him the most kindly dispositions, knowing him to be not only politically but personally friendly to my husband; yet I did believe that he was an ambitious and violent demagogue, coarse and vulgar in his manners, awkward and rude in his appearance, for such had the public journals and private conversations of the federal party represented him to be.

(Pages 5 and 6, "The First Forty Years of Washington Society, Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith")

The . . . . . . . . . . . . of the United States is, in his person, tall, meager, emaciated; his muscles relaxed, and his joints so loosely connected, as not only to disqualify him, apparently, for any vigorous exertion of body, but to destroy every thing like elegance and harmony in his air and movements… his head and face are small in proportion to his height; his complexion swarthy; the muscles of his face, being relaxed, give him the appearance of a man of fifty years of age, nor can he be much younger; his countenance has a faithful expression of great good humour and hilarity; while his black eyes—that unerring index—possess an irradiating spirit, which proclaims the imperial powers of the mind that sits enthroned within. This extraordinary man, without the aid of fancy, without the advantages of person, voice, attitude, gesture, or any of the ornaments of an orator, deserves to be considered as one of the most eloquent men in the world; if eloquence may be said to consist in the power of seizing the attention with irresistible force, and never permitting it to elude the grasp, until the hearer received the conviction which the speaker intends. As to his person, it has already been described. His voice is dry, and hard; his attitude, in his most effective orations, was often extremely awkward… As to fancy, if she hold a seat in his mind at all, which I very much doubt, his gigantic genius tramples with disdain, on all her flower-decked plats and blooming parterres. How then, you will ask, with a look of incredulous curiosity, how is it possible that such a man can hold the attention of an audience enchained, through a speech of even ordinary length? I will tell you. He possesses one original, and, almost, supernatural faculty; the faculty of developing a subject by a single glance of his mind, and detecting at once, the very point on which every controversy depends, No matter what the question: though ten times more knotty than "the gnarled oak," the lightning of heaven is not more rapid nor more resistless, than his astonishing penetration. Nor does the exercise of it seem to cost him an effort. On the contrary, it is as easy as vision. I am persuaded that his eyes do not fly over a landscape and take in its various objects with more promptitude and facility, than his mind embraces and analyzes the most complex subject.

(Pages 178, 179, and 180, "Letter V" of "The Letters of the British Spy. By William Wirt")

. . . The weekly levee was abolished by Mr. Jefferson, and no receptions were held except on New Year's Day and the Fourth of July. Whatever visions of gayety in the White House may have been cherished by the maids and matrons of the capital, they were doomed to disappointment. Mr. Parton tells of an effort made by some persistent dames to cajole Mr. Jefferson into resuming the customary levees; but, with his habitual courtesy and gallantry of address in the presence of women, he was the last man in the republic to yield to cajolery or flattery when he had decided upon any given course of conduct. Consequently, when a number of ladies donned their bravest attire and appeared at the White House to do honor to the new President, the reception accorded them, although quite within the bounds of civility, was so wanting in cordiality as to prevent a repetition of the experiment. The lack of gayety in the Executive Mansion was due not only to the simplicity of Mr. Jefferson's tastes and his conscientious scruples against anything approaching the formality of a court, but also to the fact that no woman presided over the President's household during this administration… Mr. Jefferson's friends said that he never recovered from the shock and grief of his daughter's death. It is difficult to believe that the man who viewed with apparent stoicism the sufferings of the royal family and noblesse of France, which drew tears from the eyes of Edmund Burke and Gouverneur Morris, was the same Thomas Jefferson who in his domestic relations and in his friendships manifested the most extreme sensibility.

(Pages 108, 109, 112, "Jeffersonian Simplicity" in "Social Life in the Early Republic")


Some of Jefferson's writings from the period can be found in "Notes on the State of Virginia." Search the collection for more information by and about Jefferson (or other noted Virginians of the era, such as George Washington or James Madison) and write a character sketch or biography based on the information gathered.

The Capital and the Bay includes one of the best-known and influential pieces of writing on slavery, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave / Written by Himself." While this document is worthy of extended study, the collection also includes several other slave narratives that could be used to broaden and deepen students' understanding; these narratives include the following:

The introduction to the American Memory WPA Slave Narratives collection by Norman Yetman is a critical resource for understanding the strengths and limitations of these sources. According to Yetman, slave narratives were intended to counteract the view put forth by supporters of slavery that slaves were happy and their lives secure. Stories from people who had become free and were then able to describe life in slavery were therefore powerful tools for abolitionists in the decades before the Civil War. Read several of the narratives and consider the following questions:

  • What kinds of work do the writers describe?
  • What difficulties did the writers' families face in slavery?
  • What similar experiences did the writers have? How were the writers' lives as slaves different? What do you think accounts for the similarities and differences?
  • How did the writers become free? What were their experiences as free African Americans?
  • When were most of the narratives published? Can you explain why such narratives might have been published in the 1840s and 1850s?
  • Imagine you are an abolitionist in the 1850s. You have read several of the slave narratives. Create a broadside using quotes from the narratives to support your position against slavery.

Excellent materials for teaching about slave narratives are also available on the National Endowment for the Humanities web site, including the essay "An Introduction to the Slave Narrative," by William Andrews, and a lesson plan, "Perspective on the Slave Narrative."

The slaveowner's perspective is also represented in the collection. For example, in "Chapter II" of his "Memories of Three Score Years and Ten," southerner Richard McIlwaine described in the early 1900s why he still believed slavery was "perfectly natural and proper and right":

It will, perhaps, seem strange to persons not acquainted with the benign influence of African slavery as it existed in Virginia during my early life, that many of the most vivid and tender memories of my childhood are connected with the household servants of my father, and of other families to which I had intimate access. The trouble with these persons is that they know nothing of the institution as it really was, as I knew it, and of the relations between master and servant. To me and others similarly situated it appears perfectly natural and proper and right, and we look back on those days without misgiving or regret, but with thanksgiving for what we experienced and learned under those conditions,—for the love and kindness we cherished for our colored friends and received from them, and for the relations we sustained to them and they to us. We have no antipathy to negroes as negroes. We were nursed and nurtured by the older of them, played with the younger and a mutual esteem and affection grew up between us. No institution has been more grossly misrepresented and maligned. Those were good old days for white and black,—better, far better, for multitudes of both races than these degenerate times of insincerity, lust, pelf, mammon-worship, strife, and murder.

(Page 19, "Chapter II," in "Memories of Three Score Years and Ten")

Other documents present debates about the institution. These include the following:

Close analysis of these documents and others located via searches of the collection can help develop deeper understanding of slavery and its role in 19th-century America. Questions such as the following can guide that analysis:

  • What arguments are made for slavery in these documents?
  • What arguments against slavery are made?
  • Examine your lists and sort the arguments into categories (e.g., moral arguments, economic arguments)? Do the pro and con arguments tend to fall into the same or different categories? Which categories of arguments do you think were most persuasive?