How bad were things in 1623/24 Virginia?

Dateline: Virginia, 1623/24: This is a letter written by the Governor, Council, and Assembly of Burgesses to King James I, to reply to Capt. Nathaniel Butler’s “Unmasking of Virginia.” Sometimes they could be very optimistic, other times pessimistic.

In the document on the Hardship in the First Twelve Years in the Virginia Colony and its companion Trouble in the First Twelve years of the Virginia Colony, both written in 1619, the colonists depicted their life in Virginia as extreme—extremely difficult.

However, here in this letter, just five years later, when colonists felt the need to defend their progress against a critic, their description is more positive, though not utopian.

The numbered points come from Capt. Butler, summarized by the authors of this letter. Then they reply to each point.

In this post each point from Butler is put in bold font, though it was not that way originally.

Modern transcription begins:

Most gracious Sovereign:

Whereas a copy of an Information presented to Your Majesty by Captain Nathaniel Butler, entitled The Unmasking of Virginia, is come to our hands;

And whereas the same is full of notorious slanders and falsehoods proceeding from the malice of his corrupt heart and abetted by private enmity and public division, which aim at the satisfaction of their particular spleen, although it be to the subversion of this whole Colony:

We, the Governor, Council and Colony of Virginia, in our General Assembly, out of zeal and respect to your Majesty and this our Country, not to suffer [allow] your sacred ears to be profaned with false suggestions, nor your royal thoughts to be diverted from so hopeful a plantation [of Virginia], which may add in time a principal flower to your diadem, do in all humbleness submit this our answer to your Princely survey, annexed to the several untruths of said informer.

  1. I found the Plantation generally seated, etc.

The plantations, for the most part, are high and pleasantly seated and the rest not low, nor infested with marshes, which, we wish, were more frequent.

The creeks are rather useful than noisome [nuisance]; and no bogs have been here by any that have lived twice as many years, as he did in weeks in the Country;

The places which he so miscalls, being the richest parts of the Earth, if we had sufficient force to clear their woods and to give the fresh springs that run through them a free passage.

The soil is generally rich and restores our trust with abundance;

The air is sweet and the climate healthful, all circumstances considered to men of sound bodies and good government.

  1. I found the shores, etc.

In this he traduces one of the goodliest rivers in the habitable world, which runs for many miles together within upright banks, till at length, enlarged with the receipt of others, it beats on a sandy shore and imitates the sea in greatness and majesty.

It is approachable on both sides from half flood in half ebb for boats of good burden;

Neither is there any river in the world of this vastness without cranes or wharfs more commodious [suitable or convenient] for landing.

And it is equally contrary to truth that by wading we get violent surfeits of cold which never leave us till we are brought to our graves.

  1. The new people sent over arriving for the most part, etc.

We affirm that our winter is the only proper time for the arrival of newcomers, whereof the Governor and Council have often by their letters informed the Company;

And the like advice has been given to their correspondents from time to time by private planters for their supply of servants.

As to the houses of entertainment there was a general subscription amounting to an unexpected sum, and workmen actually employed to build a fair inn in James City, and every principal plantation had resolved on the like for the entertainment of their new supplies.

When it pleased God to punish our crimes by the bloody hands of the Indians, which obliged us to divert that care to the housing ourselves, many of having been unfurnished by that disaster.

But buildings of late have everywhere increased exceedingly. Neither have newcomers any reason to complain when every man’s house is without recompense open to the stranger even to the disaccommodating [inconveniencing] ourselves. So that we may with modesty boast that no people in the world do exercise the like hospitality.

And for dying under hedges (whereof there are none in Virginia) or lying unburied in the woods by reason of this defect, it is utterly false. However, if such things should sometimes be seen accidentally here, the like may and often does happen in the most flourishing countries in Europe.

  1. The Colony was this winter in great distress, etc.

The Colony that winter was in no distress of victual as the accuser well knows, for he bought corn himself for eight shillings a bushel, cheaper as we hear than it was sold in England.

It is true a succeeding scarcity was feared. But what less could be expected after such a massacre when near half the Colony were driven from their habitation in time of planting; others frightened in their ground [plot] by receiving them, and all interrupted in their business by supporting sudden war?

English meal sold as he affirms at thirty shillings the bushel was only sold for ten pounds of tobacco, for which in truck we ordinarily receive under twelve pence a pound real value.

And it should not be supposed that any of the great should affect scarcity in order to enrich themselves by trade. For trade has ever been free for us all. Neither have they who have brought in most corn sold it out at an unconscionable rate, but have freely imparted it to the necessity of others without any other advantage than repayment.

We agree that prime-one [sic] who wished that corn might never be under eight shillings a bushel, meaning in tobacco at three shillings a pound. For so there would be some proportion between the profit of making the one and the other, and corn would be thereby be planted in greater abundance.

  1. Their houses are generally the worst, etc.

Our houses for the most part are rather built for use than ornament, yet not a few for both and sit to give entertainment to men of good quality.

If we may credit to those who are accounted the most faithful relaters [story tellers] of the West Indies, many cities of great rumor there after threescore years progress are not to be compared in their buildings to ours.

And so far are they from the meanest [basest] cottages in England that many towns there have hardly one house in them which exceeds ours in convenience and structure.

The greatest disparagement that some of them received proceeded from his riots and lascivious filthiness with lewd women, purchased with rials of eight and wedges of gold, the spoils of distressed Spaniards in Bermudas, which as we are informed by a gentleman of good credit who casually surveyed his inventory did, with other treasure, amount to divers [various] thousands.

As for the interposition of creeks, which men are most desirous to seat upon, where we cannot go by land, we have boats and cranes for our sudden transport on any occasion.

  1. I found not the least piece of fortification, etc.

We have as yet no fortifications against a foreign enemy, although it has been endeavored by the Company with a success unanswerable to their care and expense, as also lately by ourselves. But the work, being interrupted to the scarcity of last summer, shall proceed again, God willing, with all convenient expedition. And almost all our houses are fortified against the Indians with strong palisades.

His envy would not let him number truly the ordinance at James City: four hundred demi-culverins being mounted and all serviceable.

At Flower-dew-Hundred he makes but one of six; neither was he ever there, but according to his custom reports the news and those two at Elizabeth City.

Two great pieces there are at Charles Hundred and seven at Henrico.

Besides which several private planters have since furnished themselves with ordinance.

So that it were a desperate enterprise and unlikely to be attempted by a man of his spirit to beat down our houses about our ears with a bark of that burden.

  1. Expecting according to their printed books, etc.

The time that this informer came over was in the winter after the massacre when those wounds were green and the Earth deprived of her beauty. His ears were open to nothing but distraction, and he only inquired after the factious, of whom there were none among us and how he might gather accusations against those in the government, being as it should seem, sent over for that purpose.

Otherwise, he could not but hear of our Proclamations for the advancement of staple commodities and with what alacrity and success they proceeded: Vines and Mulberry trees [for silk] being planted throughout the whole Country; the ironworks in great forwardness and shortly to receive perfection; and the glassworks laboured after with all possible care till the slaughter by the Indians; and the succeeding mortality gave a ruin to some and interruption to all.

So that he has nothing by our misfortune to accuse and upbraid us with, which have obliged us still to follow that contemptible weed [tobacco] as well to sustain the war as to enable us again to erect those works.

As for deriding the books that were sent over by the Company, it was done by himself and no other that we know of.

  1. I found the ancient Plantations of Henrico, etc.

Still he abuses your Majesty with these words I found in places where he never was by some score miles, having never been higher up the river than the territories of James City.

Henrico was quitted in Sir Thomas Smith’s time, only the Church and one house remaining. Charles City, so much spoken of, never had but six houses. The soil of both is barren, worn out, and not fit for culture.

The loss of our stocks the informer has less reason to urge. For he joined with the Indians in killing our cattle and carried the beef aboard his ship, which would have cost him his life if had had his deserts.

  1. Whereas according to his Majesty’s gracious, etc.

The Governor and Council, whom it only concerned, replied to this that they had followed the laws and customs of England to their utmost skill; neither could he or any other produce any particular where in they had failed.

As to their ignorance, they held him to be no competent judge of those who so far transcended him in point of learning and ability. For he had never been bred to the law (as was not known to some of them) nor yet in any other of the liberal sciences.

But this principal spleen in this Article appeared to proceed from his not being admitted to the Council, which they could by no means consistently with their instructions do.

  1. There having been as it is thought ten thousand, etc.

His computation of ten thousand souls falls short of four thousand and those were in great part wasted by the more Egyptian slavery and Scythian cruelty which was exercised on us, your poor and miserable subjects, by laws written in blood and executed with all sorts of tyranny in the time of Sir Thomas Smith’s government, whereof we send your Majesty the true and tragical relation [narration] from which it will plainly appear that the pretended confusions and private ends [purposes or goals] will strongly reflect upon him and his instructors.

And how unfit such men are to restore that Plantation which suffered so much under their government, we humbly refer to your princely consideration, invoking with him that divine and supreme hand to protect us from such Governors and their Ministers, who have poured our blood on the Earth like water and have fatted themselves with our famine.

And we beseech your Majesty to support us in this just and gentle authority which we cherished us of late by more worthy magistrates.

And we, our wives, and poor children, as is our duty, shall ever pray to God to give you in this world all increase of happiness and to crown you in the world to come with immortal glory.

Transcription ends.

The authors of the letter refer to the massacre of 1622 that slowed down their progress, but they kept moving forward. So it seems some aspects of the Colony were healthy and positive, and others in need of improvement. Regardless, these men and women were brave.

RELATED

State of the Virginia Colony in 1623

The Virginia Colonists Make Request of Privy Council

Virginia Colonists Petition James I for His Tender Care

Hardship in the First Twelve Years in the Virginia Colony

Trouble in the First Twelve years of the Virginia Colony,

SOURCE

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

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