The English in America
Written by Mark Summers
Part One: Jamestown, Virginia, The Beginnings of English America
If the story of the English in America were to begin like the Bible, then the chapter of Genesis would start with “in the beginning there was Virginia”. The year 2007 will mark the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia. Although American historians often use this phrase few of them focus on the word permanent. This English settlement, an unprofitable, disease-ridden toehold along the swampy banks of the River James, a settlement that just barely survived, was the cornerstone from which the modern United States of America began. This English colony was the foundation for Americans’ language, literature, government, law, and countless other customs which survive today.
The basis for the English claim to North America began in 1497. Just five years after Christopher Columbus sailed to a “New World” in the employment of Spain, another Italian, Giovanni Caboto, also known as John Cabot, set sail upon the Matthew and landed in present day Canada, at Newfoundland. After planting the Cross of St. George, Cabot claimed the whole of the North American continent for England. It was a bold move, for at the time England was unable to compete with the colonisation schemes of its rivals Portugal and Spain. The Western European quest to colonise America was in many ways similar to the “Space Race” between the USA and USSR in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Throughout the 16th century, while Spain was laying stake to the Caribbean and gaining riches in Mexican gold, the English dream of colonization was simply that, a dream held by a few West Country sailors and London adventurers. Transatlantic crossings were expensive undertakings in the 16th century. Voyages were dangerous and profits could be snuffed out in an Atlantic storm or taken by pirates. Any settlement would be contended by the Spanish crown and thus difficult to maintain. Several brief attempts at New World colonisation in the mid 16th century failed miserably. The accounts of an American “paradise” were now tales of death and destruction at the hands of disease, Indians and Spaniards. In short America was suffering from “bad press”.
Enter one Walter Raleigh. Raleigh was the half-brother of English adventurer Sir Humphrey Gilbert. This Devon man had been making a name for himself (a good and a bad name) at the court of Queen Elizabeth. The queen was enamoured with Raleigh, granting him estates and pensions and increasing his once meager fortune exponentially. Raleigh’s rapid rise through the court gave him the funds and the influence to fund his dream project of an English colony in North America.
By 1584 Raleigh was able to finance a colonial expedition. The site chosen was Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks of today’s North Carolina. The land was to be called “Virginia” in honour of Elizabeth, the “Virgin Queen”. This mission succeeded in establishing colonists in North America and gained useful information about the continent. However, poor relations with the native inhabitants, a lack of supplies, and an intervening crisis with the Spanish Armada only doomed the mission. By 1590 the Roanoke Colony was abandoned. Only the mysterious word “CROATAN” found carved on a tree gave any clue to where the colonists went. Raleigh’s settlers were never found. Despite several theories, historians have yet to positively conclude what exactly happened to these English settlers.
Albion would have to wait two decades before another attempt at American colonization began. By 1603 Elizabeth was dead succeeded by a Scot, the Stuart King James I. Unlike ”Good Queen Bess”, the new monarch was far from interested in planting English colonists in America. A lack of interest and a lack of funds from the new king meant that any new attempt at America would have to be generated by wealthy investors. A group of London merchants formed the “Virginia Company” for this very purpose. The group was a joint-stock company that would have to rely on investors to finance the high costs of transport, food, and other supplies that a fledgling colony would need to survive in an American wilderness. It was hoped that this American project would generate profits from the discoveries of gold and silver, discover the famed “northwest passage” to Asia, or at the very least create a base from which to raid Spanish gold shipments. In December 1606, three ships: the Discovery, the Godspeed, and the Susan Constant, set sail for the Chesapeake Bay.
Christopher Newport captained the colonists as they sailed across the Atlantic. Newport’s boats landed at Cape Henry, now the present day city of Virginia Beach, Virginia, in April 1607. The colonists then sailed down a river they named James and landed on a marshy peninsula to establish their fort. The site was to be called Jamestown.
Like the other colonial projects, Jamestown suffered from, disease, starvation, and poor relations with the native tribes. By August more than half the original 107 colonists were dead from malaria, brackish water, or killed by Indians. Many of the “gentlemen” members of the group refused to perform the basic tasks of planting, tilling, and soldiering that were necessary for survival. Only the leadership of Captain John Smith, the timely help of Powhatan Indian princess Pocahontas, and resupply of the colony from English ship captains, allowed this colony to hold on. Despite some successes, the constant warfare, threat of starvation, and lack of leadership (Smith later returned to England) almost caused Jamestown’s abandonment in 1610. On top of all these things, the colony was rapidly losing money. Virginia’s London investors saw no gold, no silver, and no news of a shortcut to Asia returning to England.
During the next decade as Jamestown held on, another John, John Rolfe, achieved two things that ultimately saved the colony. The first was the planting of a Spanish strain of tobacco in Virginia. The native Virginia weed was too bitter for the cosmopolitan tastes of the London elite. Rolfe’s Spanish blend was sweeter and very popular in England. As the crop grew well, the colony found a commodity from which Jamestown could prosper. Rolfe’s subsequent marriage to the now Christianized Pocahontas, brought a respite from war between the Powhatans and English. Thousands of Englishmen by 1619 began sailing to Virginia in 1619 to make a new way of life. Jamestown would survive.
The Virginia colony began expanding along coastal Virginia. Plantations and small farms were turning the American wilderness into another England. Towns and cities began taking their names from the port cities from which the settlers came (ie: Portsmouth, Virginia). As the colony became permanent other features of England were brought across the Atlantic. In 1619 the Virginia colony elected representatives to the “General Assembly” which met at Jamestown. The Virginia General Assembly, which after a brief break has met continuously in Virginia since 1624 is still the oldest continuous legislative body in North America. This legislature, and a new royal charter in 1624 would be the beginning of an American democratic tradition. This tradition was born and fostered in 16th and 17th century England, but would take a different and more radical turn in America 150 years later. Yet the language, law and government of the first English colony would thrive on the American continent from 1607 through to the present day.
As Virginia prospered and continued to grow, another English colony was planted in America. The Pilgrims, a radical offshoot of the Puritan faith, founded this colony, called Plymouth, in present day Massachusetts. Unlike the Anglican, profit-seeking Virginians, these Plymouth colonists found in America a place for religious freedom. These first two colonies, Jamestown, and Plymouth had two widely different views on what it meant to be English in America. These first two colonies would take different sides in England’s Civil War. Centuries later, they would once again take different sides in another Civil War.
The English in America Part 2.....