In late March 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued strict directives for the Commonwealth of Virginia to protect the health and well-being of its citizens. These are in place until at least mid-June. What will be the “state” of Virginia come June 2020? Considering the present conditions, it’s obviously too early to tell. We can learn about the “state” of the Virginia colony 400 years earlier, in June 1620, by studying the document, “A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affaires in Virginia . . .” and some related letters, written by officials of the Virginia Company. This publication, in the collection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, is on display in the Virginia Company room at Jamestown Settlement.
Two years before the document’s publication, new leadership in the Virginia Company under Sir Edwin Sandys issued a set of directives, called the Great Charter, aimed at the revitalization of the colony. Several of the groundbreaking events the following year, 1619, included the meeting of the first General Assembly that gave settlers a say in their government, and the systematic recruitment of well-bred women to become wives for settlers in hopes of creating families and stabilizing the colony.
Under the 1618 directives, the Company would grant land to those who had supported the colony. These so-called “adventurers of purse and person”—who either ventured their finances or their own selves by traveling to Virginia—soon began to establish new plantations along both sides of the James River, primarily upriver west of Jamestown, the healthiest region for settlement. But Sandys realized that, in order to accomplish his grand plans for development and expansion, additional laborers, what he called “the publick,” were needed. These Company tenants would work on Company-owned land to produce the new commodities he proposed.
Sandys also pushed for the diversification of industries to reduce the colony’s dependence upon tobacco production. This move could place Virginia in a better situation in English commerce, reducing England’s reliance on foreign countries for certain items. Under directives from Company leadership, the members of the first General Assembly in 1619 passed laws requiring settlers to plant diverse crops—hemp, flax, vineyards for wine, mulberry trees to raise silkworms. Sandys further encouraged iron foundries, cordage manufacture from native silk grass, wood byproducts like pitch, tar and potash, timber cut into masts and boards, and salt. In this newest document, the 1620 “Declaration,” the council of the Company planned to recruit and send more than 30 different types of tradesmen—sawyers, joiners, shipwrights, millwrights, coopers, weavers, tanners, potters, fishermen, leather dressers, ironworkers. Thus the Company began the large-scale recruiting and shipping of a variety of new colonists to Virginia.
So, what was happening in Virginia in June 1620 when the “Declaration” was published? The authors bragged that “after many disasters . . . it hath . . . growne to double that height, strength, plenty and prosperity, which it had in former times attained.” The population had increased after more than 1,200 persons had gone or were preparing to go, many of them to newly founded private plantations either as owners or indentured servants. By 1620 the Company had issued eleven patents for these new settlements. The Company would soon recruit and send 800 more to support Company projects on the public lands. The first group of 90 women recruited for wives arrived in early 1620, and the Company writers noted that they intended to recruit 100 more to join those 90.
Now in June 1620, another Virginia governor, Sir George Yeardley, reacted with great concern at the reality this influx of new settlers brought him—how to house them, feed them and ensure their health and safety. Large numbers of new settlers continued to die soon after arrival. Yeardley wrote back to Sandys about the “great burthen” placed upon him with “this great number of people also arriving” and how it “hath not a littell pusseled me to provide for the lodging of them. . . [since lodging was] necessity for theire healths.” He complained that the Company had only shipped grain for them to eat since “nothing but meale is very harsh for them,” being newcomers. He related how he supplemented it with peas, oatmeal and biscuit which he charged to the Company, and added local “Indian-corne.” Yeardley chastised the Company in England for sending people in the wrong seasons, spring and summer, “most unfit for people to arrive here” because of heat and summer sickness. Further, settlers were not sent with enough clothing. Finally, he begged the Company to listen to him and not act “in speedy and hasty sending so many people over hether and undertaking so great works, before you have acquainted me and have trewly bin enformed by me of the state of the Plantation and what may be done here.”
Curiously, only a month earlier, in May 1620 the “Treasuror, Councell and Company for Virginia” directed that each of the primary settlements should establish a “guest house” for the “lodging and entertaining of fifty persons in each, upon their first arrival.” This was in reaction to a “mortality . . . wrought upon the People” the previous year. They continued, “seeing [that] in the health of the People, consisteth the very life, strength, increase, and prosperity of the whole generall Colony.” These were to be built in “wholesome places” and were to be 16 feet wide by 180 feet long with windows for fresh air.
What would the rest of 1620 and subsequent years bring for Sandys’s ambitious programs? He never had full support of members of the Virginia Company leadership and he couldn’t get enough funds to supply the large numbers of colonists he shipped to Virginia for his public projects. New colonists for the Company lands were sent with little consideration of how they would be fed, sheltered and clothed. And as was later revealed, only one guest house was ever built to house new settlers their first year. Basically, Yeardley faulted Sandys for his “hasty and speedy erecting this good worke. . . what I can and am able to do . . . I will from time to time inform you . . . but both you and I must give leave to time.”
What will be the “state” of the state of Virginia in June 2020? Let us hope that with Governor Northam’s concerns for our health and well-being, we will be able to report more positive news than that described by Governor Yeardley in June 1620.
Nancy Egloff is a historian at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
Susan Myra Kingsbury, The Records of the Virginia Company of London, volume 3. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1933.
Wesley Frank Craven, Dissolution of the Virginia Company: The Failure of a Colonial Experiment. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1964.