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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History The Virginia Companyhomesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 1:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript One:
The Virginia Company and Colony

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Okay. The fifth. Of course they haven't forgotten that there's gold and silver over here somewhere. They've been looking at the Spanish very enviously. They figure, maybe there is some in Virginia. Now, but you'll notice of these five items, they're not all profit in a material sense: to convert Indians, to take care of these people, to rid England of its excess population. In some ways, these have a different agenda. It won't translate into the bottom line, which might help us explain why some people on that charter of 1609 are interested in investing in this company. Why? Why the gentry? Why the haberdashers? Why the grocers? Certainly they want profits, but they have another, larger vision of claiming the New World for Protestantism and for England, of doing something which is of national good. And that certainly will help, but in the end, if there is no profits, this enterprise isn't going to make it.

Okay. Now turn again to the early history. I'd like to divide it into certain periods. The history of Virginia from, say, 1606 to 1618 is a very troubled time. 1606, December, 144 men and boys set out with instructions for the company. Those instructions are one of the more interesting documents in your packet. You can see this company trying to learn from past experience. Notice where they tell the company to make its first settlement upriver: Don't be right on the coast. You might notice here the suspicion of the "Naturals," or the Indians. And the government that's set up, it's under a very weak governor and council.

What happened? Well, the people died in droves. You had that in George Percy's account. "Our men were destroyed with cruel diseases." And he lists many of these—bloody flux, et cetera—but for the most part, they died of near famine. By January 1608, only 38 of the original 144 are left. Supplies were insufficient, and clearly they couldn't help themselves. Here I refer to another of your documents by John Smith. "Though there be fish in the sea and fowls in the water and beasts in the woods, they are perfectly safe, because we can't trouble them." They didn't know how to fish. They didn't know how to hunt. There is another place in your documents that makes it quite clear that later on in their history they are buying from the Indians wild game. They are not hunters. They'd assumed that they could just buy this from the local people. And they don't work! Look at the list of people who are going there, the large lists of gentlemen. Gentlemen aren't used to working. You see a few laborers at the end, but you know who those laborers are? Sources tell us they were footmen, servants of the gentlemen. You have a little difficulty here with work, and, of course, they are not feeling too well, anyway.

Okay. This is a period of total disaster. It gets better 1608 to 1609 when John Smith takes charge. And we know him for the great line, "Those who don't work won't eat." Smith is one of the more colorful figures of this period. I mean, he has a wonderful sense of ironic detachment, doesn't he? He thought how idiotic the orders of Captain Newport were. He is supposed to find a clump of gold or a passage to the Northwest Passage to China or some remnant of Raleigh's colony. He goes, "Ah, what a waste of time. What a waste of time." He knows what they should be doing. They should be laying in food; they should be learning to defend themselves against the Indians. "We're wasting time": That's what he says.

There is a bit of the tall tale in John Smith, Captain John Smith. He's a bit of a braggart, but he's a very good observer. He watches the Indians; he has explored; he knows the area; he has a good sense of what needs to be done to get this colony going. Much of what he says checks out by looking at other documents. One thing he did was to get the settlers in his period out of the James Estuary, which was a deadly place. You have a description of the water they were drinking. You know, all the waste went in, full of filth and slime. Think typhoid. Think late summer, lots of deaths. Exactly what happened. He followed the Indians, got them out of there. Up around the falls where the rivers come out of the mountains, plenty of game there, plenty of fish, and much better water. He cut down the death like—death rate enormously. A hundred and thirty when he came in, and the next winter they lost only 21 people, and it seems 11 of them drowned. You know, if you're down to a position where some swimming lessons might reduce your death rate, you've really made a big advance.

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