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Colonial Settlement, 1600s-1763
Evolution of the Virginia Colony, 1610-1630
Virginia's Labor Problem, 1617-1620

The Virginia Company attempted to solve the labor problem in Virginia, in part, by shipping numerous laborers to the colony. Many laborers were sent at Company expense and were to work on Company lands. The Company also encouraged investors in the colony to pay for the travel of other laborers, who would pay off these and other support costs by working as servants for, usually, a period of seven years. According to the documents below, what is the labor problem in Virginia? What are some of the problems involved with each of these so-called solutions? What is Sir George Yeardley's advice to the Company for sending laborers to Virginia?

View the original documents by clicking on the links below. The first and second documents are from The Capital and the Bay. The third document is from the Thomas Jefferson Papers. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.


Samuel Argall and John Rolf, 1617

To supply us, the Councell and Company with all possible care and diligence, furnished a good ship of some two hundred and fiftie tunne, with two hundred people and the Lord la Ware. They set saile in Aprill, and tooke their course by the westerne Iles [i.e., the West Indies], where the Governour of the Ile of Saint Michael received the Lord la Ware, and honourably feasted him, with all the content hee could give him. Going from thence, they were long troubled with contrary winds, in which time many or them fell very sicke, thirtie died, one of which number was that most honourable Lord Governour the Lord la Ware, whose most noble and generous disposition, is well knowne to his great cost, had beene most forward in this businesse for his Countries good: Yet this tender state of Virginia was not growne to that maturitie, to maintaine such state and pleasure as was fit for such a personage, with so brave and great attendance: for some small number of adventrous Gentlemen to make discoveries, and lie in Garrison, ready upon any occasion to keepe in feare the inconstant Salvages, nothing were more requisite, but to have more to wait & play than worke, or more commanders and officers than industrious labourers was not so necessarie: for in Virginia, a plaine Souldier that can use a Pick-axe and spade, is better than five Knights, although they were Knights that could breake a Lance; for men of great place, not inured to those incounters; when they finde things not sutable, grow many times so discontented, they forget themselves, & oft become so carelesse, that a discontented melancholy brings them to much sorrow, and to others much miserie.

John Rolf, 1618

. . . Now you are to understand, that because there have beene many complaints against the Governors, Captaines, and Officers in Virginia, for buying and selling men and boies [i.e., trading their indentures or service contracts], or to bee set over from one to another for a yeerely rent, was held in England a thing most intolerable, or that the tenants or lawfull servants should be put from their places, or abridged their Covenants, was so odious, that the very report thereof brought a great scandall to the generall action. The Councell in England did send many good and worthy instructions for the amending those abuses, and appointed a hundred men should at the Companies charge be allotted and provided to serve and attend the Governour during the time of his government, which number he was to make good at his departure, and leave to his Successor in like manner, fifty to the Deputy-Governour of the College land, and fifty to the Deputy of the Companies land, fifty to the Treasurer, to the Secretary five and twenty, and more to the Marshall and Cape merchant; which they are also to leave to their successors, and likewise to every particular Officer such a competency, as he might live well in his Office, without oppressing any under their charge, which good law I pray God it be well observed, and then we may truly say in Virginia, we are the most happy people in the world.

Sir George Yeardley to Sir Edwin Sandys, 1620

. . . There lying at this psent vpon my shoulders so great a burthen that I am not able to looke into all pticulars so sodaynly as this Ship will depart, this great nomber of people also ariving Enexpected it hath not a littell pusseled me to pvide for the lodging of them, it being a thing of spetiall consequence and nessesity for theire healths, but herein I must acknowledge your care and zeale for the hasty and speedy erecting this good worke, in the sending so many people for sondry pfitable employments in Each where of I doe here passe my pmise vnto you, and hould my selfe bound to doe my best endever . . . .theire pvision wch came with them out of England being nothing but meale is very harsh for them to feed vpon being new comers, therefore I have for varyety sake and in regard allso the pportion out of England sent with them, will nothing neere hould out . . . Indian-corne allso of my owne I feede them with whereof I thanke the Lorde and praysed be his name, there is enough in the Country for all the people now Arived: theire Allovance I give them exceedeth the pportion thought of in England, because helpes of fflesh and ffish with such great abundance cannott readily be had therefore I Allow them the more of these pvisions. And had they arived at a seasonable tyme of the yeare I would not haue doubted of theire lives and healths, but this season is most vnfitt for people to arive here, and to tell you the very truth I doubt of much sicknes for many of them to the nomber of 100 at least came some very weake and sick some Crasey and taynted a shore, and now this great heate of weather striketh many more but for Lyfe I hope well, yett the Company must be content to have littell service done by new men the ffirst yeare till they be seasoned. . .

. . . but Sir I beseech you be not offended yf I deale playnly respecting the honor and reputation of my ffreinds and suffer me I pray you to advise you that you doe not run into so great matters in speedy and hasty sending so many people over hether and vndertaking so great workes, before you have acquainted me and have trewly bin enformed by me of the state of the Plantation and what may be done here, yf you doe not observe this rule I shall and must fayle in the executing of your piects, what thinke you yt I am able to pforme it being but yesterday to speake of since at my first Coming the Collony was in election of starving left so by Capt Argall . . . but I pray sir give me both tyme to pvide meanes and to build and settell before you lay one Loade, yf you will but take my advise hence I will enforme you trewly. . .

yf you will but observe the season, and allso to send men of such quallityes and vpon such conditions as I shall in my letters give you notice . . . except the Carpinters come for the Iron workes, there is now not one arived, and never a boate wryght but that silly fellow wch is dead and how doe you thinke I should build without good and skilfull workemen.


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View the original documents by clicking on the links above. The first and second documents are from The Capital and the Bay. The third document is from the Thomas Jefferson Papers. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.