Almost from the start, investors in the Virginia Company in
England were unhappy with the accomplishments of their Jamestown
colonists. They therefore sought a new charter, which the king granted in
May 1609. They took immediate steps to put the company on a sounder
financial footing by selling shares valued at 12 1/2, 25, and 50 pounds
(English monetary unit, originally equivalent to one pound of silver).
Investors were promised a dividend from whatever gold, land, or other
valuable commodities the Company amassed after seven years.
Meanwhile, the charter allowed the Company to make its own laws and regulations,
subject only to their compatibility with English law. To avoid the
disputes that had characterized Virginia in its first years,
the Company gave full authority and nearly dictatorial powers to the
colony's governor. These changes were nearly too little and too late, for
Jamestown was just then experiencing its "starving time." The
Company, however, was bent on persevering and sent a new batch of ships
and colonists in 1611. Over the next five years, Sir Thomas Gates and then
Sir Thomas Dale governed the colony with iron fists via the "Lawes
Devine, Morall, and Martiall."
The harsh regimes of the Virginia
governors were not especially attractive to potential colonists. What was
more, the colonists who did go to Virginia often did not have the skills
and knowledge to help the colony prosper. The colonists not only found
little of value, they were remarkably unable even to feed themselves. As a
result, huge numbers of colonists perished from disease (many of which
they brought with them), unsanitary conditions, and malnutrition.
Between 1614 and 1618 or so, potential colonists were much more attracted to
the West Indies and Bermuda than they were Virginia.
By 1618, the Virginia Company was forced to change course
again. The Company had not solved the problem of
profitability, nor that of settlers' morale. Sir Edwin Sandys became Company
Treasurer and embarked on a series of reforms. He believed that the
manufacturing enterprises the Company had begun were failing due to want of
manpower. He embarked on a policy of
granting sub-patents to land, which encouraged groups and wealthier
individuals to go to Virginia. He sought to reward investors and so
distributed 100 acres of land to each adventurer. He also
distributed 50 acres to each person who paid his or her own way and 50 acres
more for each additional person they brought along. This was known as the
Virginia headright system.
thought it essential to reform the colony's governing structure. He hit upon
the idea of convening an assembly in the colony, whose representatives would be elected by inhabitants.
The assembly would have full power to enact
laws on all matters relating to the colony. Of course, these laws could be
vetoed by either the governor or the Company in London.
It may be said that some things improved, while others
did not. With the experiments of John Rolfe, the colony finally discovered a
staple product--tobacco. The colonists wanted to plant tobacco because it
was a cash crop, even though the King opposed the use of the weed. But the
Company constantly discouraged the cultivation of tobacco because its
production seduced the colonists away from planting corn.
The colony also continued to face the problem of lack of laborers and inability to feed itself. The ultimate answer to the labor
problem was ominously foreshadowed in a little-noticed event that Rolfe described to Sandys in 1619: the arrival of a Dutch man-of-war carrying a group of captive Africans, for by the end of the century, African slave labor would become the colony's economic and social foundation. Indian relations, which seemed quiet for a time, finally spelled the end to the Virginia Company.
Indians rose up and massacred a large number of Virginia colonists. This led
to an inquiry into Company affairs and finally the revocation of its
documents related to this topic, we would suggest focusing on the collection in
most pertinent to the evolution of early Virginia, the Records of the Virginia Company (in the
Thomas Jefferson Papers).
Captain John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia and the four
volumes edited by Peter Force in the mid-19th century are also essential resources. Both of these
sources are full-text searchable via
The Capitol and the Bay.
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