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400 years ago

Planning for a commonwealth

400 years ago

Seal of the Virginia Company (Bettmann/Getty Images)

This summer brings important 400th anniversaries. On July 30, 1619, the Virginia General Assembly, the first representative governing body in British America, met in a Jamestown church. Late in August a ship brought against their will 20 or so Africans, the first of their race in British America. The lack of a precise date or number suggests that already these captives were not being treated as individual human beings made in God’s image.

Virginia started out as not just a colony and became not just a state: It was and is (along with Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky) a “commonwealth.” James Horn’s book 1619 (Basic, 2018) shows how a key leader of the colony-planting Virginia Company, Edwin Sandys (1561-1629), was a Calvin-leaning Anglican who hoped to create a Christian biracial society with converted members of the Powhatan tribe having equal rights.

It was hard going. Jamestown at first was socialistic: Settlers were to work under the authority of officials and share in the food thus produced. That failed utterly: Starving settlers during the winter of 1609-1610 ate horses, dogs, cats, rice, mice, and boot leather. Leader George Percy reported that some did “things which seem incredible, as to dig up dead corpses out of graves and to eat them.” Virginia moved to a private property system that emphasized Christian stewardship and charitable help to widows and orphans.

The number of Christians among both settlers and natives grew. Virginia’s original legal code, “Laws Divine, Moral, and Martial,” required settlers to attend church services and abstain from blasphemy. London pastors urged emigration to the Virginia mission field, where settlers would “spread the kingdom of God, and the knowledge of the truth, among so many millions of men and women, Savage and blind, that never yet saw the true light shine before their eyes.” 

The Virginia Company encouraged production of corn, hemp, flax, and vines and discouraged gambling, drunkenness, swearing, and whoredom.

That’s why the conversion of Pocahontas, the Powhatan chief’s daughter, and her marriage to John Rolfe in 1614, was so thrilling. Enthusiasts expected about 15,000 Powhatan people to follow in her steps. Rolfe said “knowledge and true worship of Jesus Christ [would save] 1000s of poor, wretched, and misbelieving people on whose faces a good Christian cannot look without sorrow, pity, and commiseration.”

The Virginia Company sent Italian glassworkers to Jamestown to produce beads “for trade in the Country with the Natives.” It recruited French wine experts and Rhineland Germans to produce excellent vintages, Germans from Hamburg to build lumber mills and ships, and Poles skilled in industrial production. It encouraged production of corn, hemp, flax, and vines and discouraged gambling, drunkenness, swearing, and whoredom.

In 1616 the commonwealth’s yeomen farmers received 100 acres each, and newcomers who paid their own passage could receive 50 acres and pay no taxes “forever.” The plan was for settlers “brought up in the true knowledge and service of Almighty God [to] frame their lives and conversations [and] by their good example, to allure the Heathen people to … join with them in the true Christian profession.” 

Small clouds on the horizon indicated possible trouble. Londoners demanded more tobacco, and Virginians exported 1,250 pounds in 1616, 9,000 in 1617, and 25,000 pounds in 1618, by which time Deputy Gov. Samuel Argall saw Jamestown streets “and all other spare places planted with Tobacco.” Slavery, though, did not catch on initially. A census in 1625 showed only 23 Africans, less than 2 percent of the growing population.

While tobacco was a good cash crop, the Virginia Company pushed settlers to plant and cultivate mulberry and fig trees, pomegranates, potatoes, sugarcane, and other crops. On July 30, 1619, much was going well, and Jamestown Pastor Richard Bucke opened the first General Assembly meeting with prayer, noting that “men’s affairs do little prosper where God’s service is neglected.”

From 1619 to 1621, nearly 4,000 settlers arrived at Jamestown in 42 ships. The Virginia Company clothed and paid travel costs for 150 “young, handsome, and honestly educated Maids” who arrived in Virginia ready for “Marriage to the most honest and industrious Planters.” The company declared a “Plantation can never flourish until families be planted,” as “Wives and Children fix the people on the Soil.” 

Then came Virginia’s 9/11, on March 22, 1622. To be continued in our next issue.