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'Many Wilde & Vast Projects': Economic Alternatives in Tenuous Times

tobacco at Jamestown Settlement

Shall we all go plant tobacco? As the coronavirus pandemic still spreads in our country, economists, politicians, and business owners continue to seek ways to stimulate our devastated economy. The Virginia Company faced economic difficulties 400 years ago and moved to diversify the products coming from Virginia to stimulate and assist England’s economy. They sought alternative options to tobacco cultivation, an idea encouraged by King James I who hated the terribly unhealthy “stinking weed.” Ultimately, however, after trying a number of alternatives, the “golden weed” would triumph.

In 1618 a change in leadership in the Virginia Company placed Sir Edwin Sandys at the helm. Sandys hoped to halt Virginians’ “excessive planting of tobacco” and England’s reliance solely upon the plant for profits. He wanted to stimulate colonization by granting private land ownership and introducing “divers staple commodities” for which there was a steady market in England, but for which England paid dearly to import — masts, boards, pitch, tar, potashes, hemp and flax from Scandinavia, Poland and Germany; wine and salt from France and Spain; iron from Spain and Sweden; silk from Italy and Persia; furs and cordage from Russia. If England’s own colony could produce these it could reduce Englanders’ reliance on foreign imports. In July 1619 when the first General Assembly met in Jamestown, Company leaders pushed through a series of laws to jump-start the manufacture of some of these products.

“PLANTING” SAILS, CORDAGE, SILK & WINE

One new law required every land-owning man or woman to grow 100 native flax (“silk grass”) plants and make a “tryal” of English flax and hemp. The English used flax fibers for linen clothing and ships’ sails, while they made cordage from the coarser hemp fibers, particularly for the maritime industry. These fibrous plants never produced profits for the Company, but the Virginia General Assembly continued to legislate their planting throughout the 17th century.

In 1619 the first General Assembly enacted laws for the planting of vineyards and mulberry trees to support fledgling wine and silk industries in the colony.

The new laws also ordered settlers to grow and maintain at least six mulberry trees over a seven-year period. In special structures, workers fed the leaves to silkworms that spun cocoons of raw silk thread, a project that keenly interested King James I. In fact, James sent silkworms in 1619 and 1620 but they died en route to Virginia. In 1621 the Company sent additional supplies from France, Italy and Spain as well as French silk experts but in 1622 the Powhatan Indians, angry at the growing number of settlements, attacked colonists and interrupted these efforts for awhile.

Finally, every “householder” was to yearly plant and maintain ten vines, and learn “the arte and experience of dressing a Vineyard, either by their owne industry or by the Instruction of some Vignernon.” The Company sent several French vine-men in 1621 from Languedoc in southeast France to teach colonists vineyard cultivation and winemaking. However, some of the European vines proved deficient in Virginia soil and often the wine processed in Virginia spoiled on the voyage to England. By 1623 the Company concluded: “Wee hope for little of that Commoditie from Virginia in manie Yeares.” No profits came from silk and wine at that time.

IRON FROM “WOOD, WATER, MINES & STONE”

Englanders required constant supplies of iron but their iron industry suffered from the country’s deforestation and depletion of its wood supply. The industry needed hardwood to produce the charcoal necessary to run smelting furnaces. Since Virginia had vast forests, the Company indicated a strong interest in iron manufacturing as early as 1609 and planned to start an industry, which finally ensued in 1618/19 when Edwin Sandys and other leaders promoted extensive ironworks. The Company ambitiously planned to send 150 skilled workers to establish three furnaces up the James River. In 1620 they shipped Captain Benjamin Bluett with about 80 men, but some of his skilled men apparently died at sea. By the end of 1620 most of the officers and others had died, probably from illness, including Bluett.

Bog iron ore could be treated in a small furnace called a bloomery. The resulting mass, called a “bloom,” would result in wrought iron.

In 1621 the Company replaced Bluett with John Berkeley, a gentleman who was ordered to supervise one furnace along Falling Creek, south of today’s Richmond. Workers would place this operation, ultimately the only complex built, on 100 acres in a place with all the right ingredients — bog iron ore (which occurs in swamps, marshes and stream banks), water (with a current swift enough to drive a waterwheel to power a blast furnace bellows and the forge hammer), hardwood (to make the charcoal) and stone needed to construct the furnaces. As further support, Sir Edwin Sandys would send his brother George to oversee this and other new projects.

Berkeley arrived with his son Maurice, several servants and 20 workers, including eight skilled men for the furnace and 12 to work the forge. They planned for extensive operations that would encompass all facets of the iron smelting process — running the furnace; tapping the molten iron into molds creating “pigs”; and hammering and refining the iron. Berkeley thought the Falling Creek site to be ideal for “wood, water, mines and stone” and expected to be producing “a plentiful Provision of Iron” by late spring 1622. But his hopes were dashed during the Powhatan Indian attack in March 1622, and 27 died at Falling Creek, including John Berkeley.

Virginia Company officials still couldn’t drop the idea of a furnace and in 1623 reemphasized their desire for a colonial iron making industry. They wrote to the governor and Council in Virginia, “We canot thinke any thing more beneficiall, or necessarie for the Colony then [sic] the making of Iron.” That same year, detractors criticized the Company for spending over 5000 pounds between 1619 and 1623, with nothing more to show for it than “a fire shovell and tonges and a little barre of Iron made by a Bloomery.” Virginians would not try iron making again until the later 17th century.

UNHAPPY ITALIAN GLASSMAKERS

The Virginia Company tried a first glasshouse with Germans in 1608 and made a second attempt in 1621 with Italian workers.

Around 1621 the Virginia Company attempted a glassworks using Virginia’s forests and other raw materials. They sent Germans to build one in 1608 to make windows and glassware but it failed in its first year. In 1621 the Company introduced Italians to make glass beads for the Indian trade and established a special “magazine” or fund to solicit revenue for this project. Captain William Norton, who initiated and supported the venture, hired four Italian glassmakers who would share the profits with the Virginia Company and Norton.

Norton, the glassmakers and their families arrived in Virginia in 1621 and built a glasshouse but soon after construction, a damaging windstorm blew off the roof. The following March 1622, the Powhatan Indian attack ended efforts, and that summer, Norton died. George Sandys then supervised the Italians but they accomplished little and constantly complained. Unhappy and sick, they wanted to return to Europe; one seriously damaged the furnace when he “crackt it with a crow of iron.” By 1623 the Company abandoned the works and the Governor and Council wrote to the King, “Iron and glass works were in great forwardness [before the Indian war] but are now interrupted, and the people are forced to follow the contemptible weed, tobacco, to enable them to sustain their continual wars with the Indians and to support themselves.”

GERMAN SAWYERS DEMAND BEER

Sawmills and wood processing could support the construction of buildings and ships in the colony.

Another Company enterprise would directly utilize Virginia’s vast forests. Early attempts at processing and transporting bulky wood to England did not profit Company supporters due to high shipping costs, but processed wood could support projects in the colony. It could also ease some of England’s costly reliance on Germany, Poland, and the Baltic countries for certain wood products. Company officials hoped to place sawmills at the falls of Virginia’s major rivers.

In 1621 they sent four German millwrights from “Hamborough” (Hamburg), “skillful for the erectinge of Sawinge Mills,” to produce “Masts, Plancks, and Boords, for provisions of shipping, and sundry other Materials of much use and benefit . . . and helpe in setting up their Buildings.” However, soon after they found a suitable place for a mill, they became angry at their “unkind enterteynement [treatment] in Virginia.” Local officials would not supply the additional labor or provisions the Germans requested: “for such other necessaries as the Dutchmen [Germans] want, especially beere which cannot now be shipped for want of time and Tunnage [accommodations for shipping it].” Then they suddenly became “greiviouslie sicke.” One or two died and at least one returned to England. Colonists did not make any major attempts at constructing sawmills again until later in the century.

SALT, PITCH, TAR, POTASH & FURS

Under Edwin Sandys’s leadership, colonists put effort into a few more projects. Because they needed salt to preserve meat products, they originally established a salt works in 1614 on Smith’s Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The operation lapsed by 1620, so in 1621 ironworker John Berkley’s son Maurice went to revitalize the works. By 1623 however, “there had beene soe little done that the Collonie buyes all theire salt for theire necessarye use.”

Animal furs, especially beaver, and deer hides were in demand in England for articles of clothing.

In 1608 the Company had shipped Polish specialists to make pitch, tar, potash and soap ash from pinewood, with little resulting from the effort. Around 1619 Edwin Sandys sent additional Poles to reinvigorate the production of these commodities and teach English settlers. These industrial pursuits failed again because the cost of production in Virginia ultimately outweighed the cost of merely purchasing these goods from Poland.

As early as 1610/11 Sir Thomas Dale hoped to establish a fur trade with the Indians focusing on beaver, primarily in the region of the “northern rivers,” particularly those flowing into Chesapeake Bay. Europeans demanded furs and deer hides for hats, gloves, breeches, horse harness and bookbindings. In 1621 the Company set up a fund for investment in “a most certaine and benificiall trade of furrs to be had with the Indians in Virginia.” Although the Virginia Company never realized profits from the fur and hide trade, it endured through the 17th and 18th centuries led by private traders.

“NO COMMODITIE BUT TOBACCOE”

Edwin Sandys continually met funding problems and resistance from colonial leaders as he tried to ambitiously finance economic projects on the colony’s public lands, or persuade landowners to grow certain plants. In 1623, realistic Virginia Company members complained: “The many wilde & vast projects set on foot all at one time, viz 3 Iron works, saw mills, planting of silkgrass, vines, mulbury trees, potashes, pitch, tarr and salt &c all which were enjoyned to be effected in the space of 2 years, by a handful of men that were not able to build houses, plant corne to lodge & feed themselves & so came to nothing.” The angry diatribes continued: “They say at the begynninge of the 4 last years there were no Commodities but Tobacco & Sassafras. Wee goe further and say (and that more truelie) that at the end of theis 4 Yeares there is noe commoditie but Tobaccoe, soe little hath beene done . . . towards the advancement of staple Commodities.” Englanders still desired furs, wood products and sassafras (a medicinal), but most of Sandys’s other diversification projects ultimately failed when they did not produce profits matching those of tobacco. The Virginia Company collapsed in 1624 and the “golden weed” triumphed as the colony’s economic savior.

Nancy Egloff
Historian, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation


Selected Sources

Philip Alexander Bruce, Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century. New York: Peter Smith, 1935.

Wesley Frank Craven, Dissolution of the Virginia Company: The Failure of a Colonial Experiment. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1964.

Christopher Geist, “The Works at Falling Creek.” Colonial Williamsburg: The Journal of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Autumn, 2007.

Susan Myra Kingsbury, The Records of the Virginia Company of London, volumes 1, 3 & 4. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1906, 1933, 1935.

John Pory. Proceedings of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1619. Jamestown, VA: Jamestown Foundation, 1969.69.


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