Ulster and Jamestown – the American Perspective
by Richard MacMaster
Richard MacMaster is co-editor of The Journal of Scotch-Irish Studies. He is affiliated with the Center for Scotch-Irish Studies and the Department of History at the University of Florida. Richard has a Ph.D. in American history from Georgetown University; he taught U.S. history, specializing in Colonial America. He lives in Gainesville, Florida.
The settlement of Virginia and the plantation of Ulster developed side by side, each drawing primarily on the Livery Companies of London for financial support.
The Virginia Company of London Founds Jamestown
In 1605 Sir Thomas Gates, Sir George Somers, Richard Hakluyt and Edward Maria Wingfield, all of London, requested a charter for the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth. The two Virginia Companies received royal charters in April 1606. The London Company was authorised to establish settlements in what is now the State of Virginia, while a stretch of the New England coastline was assigned to the Plymouth Company for their settlements. This was a commercial enterprise. Under the charter, the London Company enjoyed a trading monopoly for 21 years. Its agents had the right to search for mines and coin money and to seek a passage to the South Sea (the Pacific Ocean). Anticipating a flow of silver and gold from the rich mines they would discover in Virginia, the directors took an unrealistic view of their American plantation from the first.
On December 20, 1606, three small ships, the Susan Constant, Goodspeed and Discovery, dropped down the Thames on the first stage of the voyage to Virginia. The little fleet carried 144 men as passengers, of whom only 108 survived to land in Virginia, among them 37 qualified as Gentlemen, with only a dozen listed as labourers. Captain Christopher Newport commanded the expedition. Four months later they came in sight of the Virginia Capes and entered Chesapeake Bay, pausing to go ashore and erect a cross at Cape Henry.
They spent another month onboard searching for the right location for their settlement, one that would be secure from a possible Spanish attack. They chose a site on the north bank of James River, a broad tidal estuary likely to lead to the Pacific, and named it Jamestown. On May 13, 1607, as Captain George Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland, recorded:
"The thirteenth day, we came to our seating place in Paspihas Countrey, some eight miles from the point of Land, which I made mention before: where our shippes doe lie so neere the shoare that they are moored to the Trees in six fathom water."
Their first concern was to throw up defences against the native people. Percy wrote:
"The fourteenth day, we landed all our men, which were set to worke about the fortification, and others some to watch and ward as it was convenient." The settlers were initially content to pile up tree branches as a barrier, but after skirmishing with a party of Indians, they set to work hewing trees and constructing a log palisade. Within a month the settlement was secure from attack.
"The fifteenth of June we had built and finished our Fort, which was triangle wise, having three Bulwarkes, at every corner, like a halfe Moone, and foure or five pieces of Artillerie mounted in them." Percy believed "We had made our selves sufficiently strong for these Savages." Within the fort they eventually built huts and a church.
Sickness and Death Were Everywhere
Relations with their Indian neighbours remained tense, but the settlers were their own worst enemies. Quarrelsome, unwilling or unable to work at supplying their own needs, they soon exhausted the provisions brought from England and depended on what the Indians would barter. Sickness and death were everywhere in Jamestown in 1607. Only 38 men were alive to greet the supply ships that arrived January 4, 1608. Still believing that Jamestown would rival the riches of Mexico and Peru, the London Company sent 29 Gentlemen, several gold refiners, a jeweler and a perfumer to Virginia on this voyage.
By the time the second supply ships reached Jamestown in October 1608, authority there was firmly in the hands of Captain John Smith, who was chosen as president of the council in September. This fleet brought more settlers, once more an oversupply of 28 Gentlemen, one Gentlewoman, Mistress Forrest and her maid, 14 tradesmen, 11 labourers, and two boys as well as 8 "Dutchmen and Poles" skilled in glass making. The Company planned to manufacture glass, pitch, tar and potash.
The London Company Reorganizes For a New Effort
During the winter of 1608–1609 the London Company reorganized. Sir Edwin Sandys wrote a new charter for them as a joint stock company. Shareholders included 56 of the London Livery Companies and 659 individuals, mainly London merchants.
The London Company directors believed that one large-scale effort would finally establish the Virginia plantation and justify the continued expenditure of funds on it. By raising an additional £10,000 to subsidise a new beginning for Jamestown with at least 500 fresh recruits, shareholders would begin to get a return on their investment. On May 15, 1609 six ships sailed together from London for Virginia. Three more vessels joined them at Plymouth. The fleet carried "800 people of all sorts," including families with husbands, wives and children, livestock, and ample supplies of every kind. Sir Thomas Gates went out as deputy governor of Virginia to serve until Lord De La Warr should arrive as governor. The ships ran into the tail end of a West Indian hurricane and separated in the storm. The ship with Gates and other dignitaries was wrecked on one of the Bermuda islands without loss of life. The other ships reached Jamestown safely in August 1609.
In the absence of the new governor and deputy governor, the president and council in Jamestown continued in office for another year. Captain John Smith reluctantly handed over his authority as president to George Percy and returned to England when the supply ships sailed home in September.
The Plantation of Ulster
Meanwhile plans for the Plantation of Ulster were moving forward. In April 1609 Sir Thomas Phillips, who had a grant of land around Limavady, visited London to persuade the Livery Companies to invest in Ulster. He found only limited interest in the project among London businessmen, possibly because they were already investing in the Virginia plantation, but they agreed to send a delegation to Ulster on a fact-finding mission. When they returned and made their report, the Livery Companies entered wholeheartedly into the Plantation of Ulster scheme after it was made public in April 1610.
Dejected Settlers Ordered Back to Jamestown
After a year's delay, Lord De La Warr left England in April 1610 to take up his duties as governor of Virginia. While his three ships were still at sea, Sir Thomas Gates, Sir George Somers and other leaders who had been cast away in Bermuda arrived at Jamestown on May 23, 1610. They found no more than 60 men, women, and children alive of the hundreds who left England the previous summer and the surviving earlier settlers. The winter of 1609–1610 had been "the starving time" with famine and disease leaving barely one in ten alive. After burying their cannon and loading anything of value on Gates' ship, the dejected settlers prepared to abandon Jamestown and try to reach the English fisheries off Newfoundland. As the refugees sailed down James River, they met the first of Lord De La Warr’s fleet and were ordered back to Jamestown.
The situation was little better a year later. When Lord De La Warr left Virginia for England in March 1611, there were only some 150 people in the colony, but the new governor Sir Thomas Dale arrived in May with 300 new settlers and livestock, horses, cows and goats. Sir Thomas Gates brought out 200 men and 20 women, including his own wife and daughters, in August 1611.
Land Ownership and Tobacco Growing Introduced
Dale and Gates ruled with an iron hand through 1618, introducing harsh laws to curb the indolence and quarrelsomeness that characterized the first Virginia settlers. Sir Thomas Dale began a new settlement at Henrico fifty miles up the James in a healthier location and thereafter clusters of farms spread upriver. The London Company encouraged private ownership of cropland and introduced the headright system, granting 50 acres for every person brought into Virginia. John Rolfe, one of the Bermuda castaways, experimented with sweet-scented tobacco as early as 1612 and made it a valuable export by 1614.
Despite signs of growing prosperity, Virginia was still a graveyard for English settlers. There were only 324 men, women and children in all Virginia in 1616 and two years later barely 600, although new settlers from England came each year. The London Company recruited 300 farmers as tenants for its own lands and persuaded the City of London to ship 100 poor children to Virginia in 1618 and again in 1619. That year the Company sent 100 servants and 100 "young and uncorrupt maids to make wives to the inhabitants and by that means to make the men more settled and less moveable". They also encouraged the shipment of convicts as servants. The death rate remained so high that there were fewer Virginians a year later than before these newcomers landed. Between March 1620 and March 1621 another 1,051 emigrants crossed the ocean, but only 843 people remained alive in Virginia.
The First Representative Legislature in North America
In 1619 the Company authorized the first representative legislature in North America, which continues to meet as the Virginia General Assembly. Delegates from four settlements on James River, Elizabeth City (now Hampton), James City (Jamestown), Charles City and Henrico were chosen by the freemen. The same year a Dutch ship brought African slaves for sale. They were treated like English servants and became free landowners after a few years. It was only later, when fewer servants came from England and demand for labor was high, that chattel slavery was recognized in Virginia law.
Virginia Becomes a Royal Colony
It became more and more difficult for the London Company to raise the money they needed to carry on their enterprise. A full-blown Indian War in 1622 that took the lives of more than 400 Virginia colonists and devastated the outlying settlements proved the last straw. The Company surrendered its charter in 1624 and Virginia became the first royal colony, known as the Old Dominion for that reason.
Slow But Steady Growth
With the restoration of peace, Virginia began a period of slow but steady growth. Pioneer tobacco growers cleared farms on all the rivers leading into the Chesapeake and the frontier moved gradually upriver. Settlement of the Eastern Shore, across the Bay from the Virginia mainland, began in 1621, although there were only 51 persons there in 1624. Ten years later, when the General Assembly divided Virginia into counties, the county or shire of Accawmack counted 396 settlers and by 1643 Virginia’s Eastern Shore county had over a thousand white inhabitants.
A continuing flow of emigrants, many of them indentured servants, allowed an increase in population, although life expectancy was short and disease claimed many each year. With land grants based on the number of people the grantee brought into the colony, large planters obtained more land by claiming land for servants they imported.
It took another generation or two, until about 1680, for Virginia to settle down as a plantation colony, characterized by large tobacco plantations worked by indentured servants from the British Isles, but increasingly by African slaves, with a stable population, an established planter class who controlled the institutions of local and provincial government, and a prosperous economy based on tobacco exports.