Trouble in the First Twelve Years of the Virginia Colony

Dateline: 1623/4, Virginia: 29 Virginians signed this document. The earliest settlers on the American shores suffered greatly in the first twelve years. What follows is their entire firsthand account of their deadly ordeal.

This is the short version.

Sir Thomas Smythe (spelled Smith in the colonists’ account) was governor from 1609 to 1620. His administration angered the colonists, and Alderman Johnson and the signatories, below, wanted the King and Privy Council and Parliament to know about it.

The transcription of the entire account has been slightly modernized:

The answer of the General Assembly in Virginia to a Declaration of the State of the Colony in the 12 years of Sir Thomas Smith’s government, exhibited by Alderman Johnson and others.

Holding it a sin against God and our own feelings to suffer the world to be abused with untrue reports and to give unto vice the reward of virtue, we in the name of the whole colony of Virginia in our General Assembly, many of us having been eyewitnesses and patients of those times, have framed out of our duty to this country and love of truth his unmasking of those praised which are contained in the aforesaid Declarations.

In those 12 years of Sir Thomas Smith’s government, we aver that the colony for the most part remained in great want and misery under most severe and cruel laws sent over in print and contrary to the express letter of the king in his most gracious Charter and as mercifully executed oftentimes without trial or judgment. The allowance in those times for a man was only eight ounces of meal and a half a pint of peas for a day, the one and the other moldy, rotten, full of cobwebs and maggots loathsome to a man and not fit for beast, which forced many to flee for relief to the savage enemy, who being taken again were put to sundry deaths as by hanging, shooting and breaking upon the wheel; and others were forced by famine to filch for their bellies of whom one for steeling 2 or 3 pints of oatmeal had a bodkin thrust through his tongue and was tied with a chain to a tree until starved; if a man through his sickness had not been able to work, he had no allowance at all, and so consequently perished many through these extremities, being weary of life, dug holes in the earth and hid themselves till they famished.

We cannot for this scarcity blame our commanders here, in respect that our sustenance was to come from England, for had they at that time given us no better allowance we had perished in general, so lamentable was our scarcity that we were constrained to eat dogs, cats, rats, snakes, toadstools, horse hides and what not; one man out of the misery he endured, killing his wife, powdered her up to eat her, for which he was burned. Many besides fed on the corpse of dead men, and one who had gotten unfatiguable out of custom to that food, could not be restrained until such time as he was executed for it. And indeed so miserable was our estate that the happiest day that ever some of them hoped to see was when the Indians had killed a mare, they wishing whilst she was boiling that Sir Thomas Smith was upon her back in the kettle.

And whereas it is affirmed that there were very few of his Majesty’s subjects left in those days and those of the meanest rank, we answer that for one that now dies, there then perished five, many being ancient Houses and born to estate of 1000£ by the year, some more, some less, who likewise perished by famine. Those who survived who had both adventured their estates and persons were constrained to serve the colony as if they had been slaves, 7 or 8 years for their freedom, who underwent as hard and servile labor as the basest fellow that was brought out of Newgate.

And for discovery we say that none was discovered in those 12 years and in these 4 or 5 last years much more than formerly.

For our houses and churches in those time they were so mean and poor by reason of those calamities that they could not stand above one or two years, the people never going to work but out of bitterness of their spirits, threatening execrable curses upon Sir Thomas Smith, neither could a blessing from God be hoped for in those buildings which were founded upon the blood of many Christians.

The towns were only James City, Henrico, Charles Hundred, West and Sherley Hundred, Kiccoughton, all which in those times were ruined also, unless some 10 or 12 houses in Corporations of James City at this present time are four forever one that were there, and forty times exceeding in goodness; fortifications there were none at all against the foreign enemy; and those that were against the domestic very few and contemptible; bridges there was only one which also decayed in that time; if through the foresaid calamities many had not perished we doubt not but there might have been many more than 1000 people in the land when Sir Thomas Smith left government.

But we conceive that when Sir George Yardley arrived, governor found not above 400 most of those in want of corn, nearly destitute of cattle, swine, poultry and other necessary provision to nourish them. Ministers to instruct the people were some whose sufficiency and ability we will not tax, yet divers [various] of them had no orders.

We know not any time that we exceeded in arms, powder, munitions, but that in quality almost altogether useless. We acknowledge in those times there was trial made of divers [various]  staple commodities, the colony as then not having means to proceed therein; we hope in time there may be some better progressions be made, and had it not been for the massacre, may by this had been brought to perfection. As for boats in the time of that government there was only one left that was serviceable in the colony, for which one besides 4 or 5 ships and pinnaces, there are now not so few as 40, the barques and barges that then were built in number few, so unwilling and weakly by the people effected that in the same time they also fished [perished]. We never perceived that the natives of the country did voluntarily yield themselves subjects to our gracious sovereign, neither that they took any pride in that title, nor pride at any time in contribution of corn for sustenance of the colony, nor could we at any time keep them in such good respect of correspondency [agreement] as we became mutually helpful each to the other, but contrarily what at any [time] was done proceeded from fear and not love, and their corn procured by trade or the sword.

To what growth of perfection the colony has attained at the end of those 12 years, we conceive may easily be judged by what we have formerly said. And rather to be reduced to live under the like government we desire his Majesty that commissioners may be sent over with the authority to hang us.

Alderman Johnson, one of the authors of this declaration, has reasoned to commend this to be true, whereof all of the most part were eyewitnesses or resident in that country when every particular within written were effected.

Wm Tucker, Wm Pierce, Rawley Croshaw, Samuel Matthews, Jabez Whitaker, John Wilcox, Nicholas Marten, Edward Blaney, Isaac Madison, Clement Dilke, Luke Boyce, John Utey, John Chew, Richard Staples, Gabriel Holland, Francis Wyatt, George Sandis, John Pott, John Powntis, Roger Smith, Raphe (Ralph) Hamor, John Southern, Samuel Sharp, Henry Watkins, Nathaniel Causey, Richard Bigg, Richard Kingswell, John Pollington, Robert Adams, Thomas Marriott

Transcription ends.

The colonists barely surviving, they built deplorable and dilapidated houses and churches in five towns or incorporations. In these conditions, there should have been 1000 inhabitants, but the new governor, George Yeardley, found only 400. Ministers were insufficient, too.

So they underwent starvation, leading some to commit cannibalism, Native attacks, rotten provisions, and not enough support from the home country.

Related

Hardships in the First Twelve Years of the Virginia Colony (long version)

Gateway Ancestors of Virginia

Journal of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1619-1658/9, ed. by H. R. McIlwaine, Classic Reprint Series (orig. Richmond: 1915), pp. 21-22.

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