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Founders of the Virginia Company (act. 1606–1624) were, by a narrow definition, the eight ‘loving and weldisposed subjects’ to whom, on 10 April 1606, James I granted a charter ‘to make habitacion, plantacion and to deduce a colonie … into that parte of America commonly called Virginia’ (Bemiss, 1). While on a strict construction these eight men constituted the founders of the Virginia Company, to confine discussion of the enterprise to their activities alone would be highly misleading. The company was re-formed in 1609 and in 1612, the founding members on both occasions being far more numerous; they included men who ran the company for the eighteen years of its life, and who by their rivalries destroyed it. Equally, the 1606 charter was in no way a beginning but rather marked the continuation of a movement that had begun over fifty years earlier. Joint-stock ventures for long-range exploration and the development of trade had begun in 1553 with Edward VI's licensing of the Russia Company, and an expedition aimed at the colonial development of Virginia had been first financed by Sir Walter Ralegh in 1585. In recognition of the fact that a courtier's private purse was insufficient to undertake the creation of a transatlantic colony, on 7 March 1589 he assigned to ‘divers Gentlemen and Merchants of London’, in consideration of their willingness to ‘adventure divers & sundry sums of money, marchandises, shiping, munition, victual, and other commodities’, such rights as he had received from the crown by his (unrecorded) charter of 1587 (Quinn, 569, 572).

The twenty-nine recipients of Ralegh's grant were for the most part ‘merchants of London’, with whom were (optimistically) joined ten ‘adventurers to Virginia’ styled ‘late of London gentlemen’, most of whom were, it was thought, still at Roanoke, the destination of the 1585 expedition. The merchants were led by Thomas Smythe, the ‘customer’ of London (the collector of its import subsidies) and William Sanderson, a Merchant Adventurer who had married a niece of Ralegh. This effort to maintain the Roanoke colony was thwarted by the needs of the war with Spain.

With the signing of the Anglo-Spanish peace in 1604 the notion of reviving a Virginian colony quickly resurfaced, not only among the London merchants but also among the privateers who in the course of their depredations had come to know well the waters of the Caribbean and the north Atlantic. This latter group, thoroughly hostile to the Spanish, was well aware of the potential value of an English base conveniently close to the homeward route of the annual Spanish treasure fleets, and the London merchants, enriched by their wartime backing of the privateers, were entirely willing to continue the profitable partnership, benefiting from the privateers' knowledge of the sea routes necessary for communication with the prospective colony.

The leader of the London merchants was Smythe's son, Sir Thomas Smythe, who by 1606 was ‘[pre-eminent] in the world of Jacobean finance, … one of James I's most trusted allies in the business world’ (Ashton, 16–17). He was already governor of the East India Company and was to become the first treasurer (that is governor) of the Virginia Company of London.

The eight grantees of the royal charter consisted of two complementary quartets. One, a front for Smythe and the London merchants and responsible for ‘the First Colonie’ (to be situated between 34° N and 41° N), was made up of Richard Hakluyt, the theorist since 1582 of imperial expansion, two veterans of the wars in the Low Countries—Sir Thomas Gates and Edward Maria Wingfield—and an elderly privateer from the west country, Sir George Somers. The other quartet, charged with ‘the Second Colonie’ (between 38° N and 45° N), represented west-country interests and included George Popham and Thomas Hanham, respectively the first cousin and son-in-law of Sir John Popham, the lord chief justice and the power behind this group. Named with Popham and Hanham were Raleigh Gilbert, Ralegh's nephew and the son and heir of Sir John Gilbert, and William Parker, a Plymouth merchant.

The charter of 1606 authorized a controlling London council. Fourteen councillors were appointed, representing various particular and general interests, chief among them being the crown (seven of the fourteen held royal office), great London merchants (Sir Thomas Smythe, Sir William Romney, and John Eldred), and west-country interests (Sir Francis Popham, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, John Dodderidge, and James Bagg). Even before the company's expeditions had reached the New World, however, the council's numbers were all but tripled, making it administratively even more unwieldy, but no doubt reflecting the initial enthusiasm for the venture. Fourteen more names were added on behalf of the first colony, including those of Sir Edwin Sandys and Sir Thomas Roe, and a further ten on behalf of the second colony, including Sir John Gilbert and Matthew Sutcliffe, dean of Exeter, who was as Hispanophobe as he was anti-puritan.

Two expeditions reached North America in 1607. The Plymouth men established Fort St George at Sagadahoc on the coast of what is now Maine, but the lack of trading commodities, the extreme winter weather, and the death of George Popham, the settlers' president—leaving the colony's admiral, Raleigh Gilbert, in command—combined to discourage the settlers. When Gilbert learned of the deaths in England of the lord chief justice and his own father, to whom he was heir, he decided to return to England, and the rest of the colony chose to follow him. Thus ended, despite the healthiness of the site, the Virginia Company's interest in northern Virginia.

Meanwhile the Londoners had chartered three vessels to carry to the Chesapeake a hundred and more settlers, all male and many of them veterans of the wars in the Low Countries. Reproducing the Spaniards' initial and unsuccessful pattern of a ‘factory’ system intended to exploit native mineral resources and labour, the settlers within the first year at Jamestown included goldsmiths and refiners. Captain John Smith in 1612 termed Bartholomew Gosnold ‘the first mover of this plantation, having many years solicited many of his friends but found small assistants’ (Complete Works, 1.203). Much has been made of this assertion since the discovery at Jamestown in 2003 of a skeleton that just may be that of Gosnold. It is, however, unlikely that a not especially successful privateer from a younger branch of the Suffolk gentry, who was still in his teens when Ralegh made his grant to Smith, Sanderson, and others in 1589, could truly be ‘the first mover of this plantation’. It is more likely that Gosnold, commanding the Godspeed, was instrumental in recruiting the captains of the other two ships. Christopher Newport, who commanded the Susan Constant, and John Ratcliffe (alias Sicklemore), in command of the Discovery, were, like Gosnold, East Anglian seamen; Newport was from Harwich, and Ratcliffe, like Gosnold, from the hinterland of Ipswich.

In Virginia the initial arrangements for government were as flawed as the arrangements in London. A council of seven was named, with the right to choose (and dismiss) its president. The three ships' captains—Wingfield, John Martin, and George Kendall—were appointed, along with John Smith, who was already under arrest by the time the orders were opened on arrival in the Chesapeake. These orders bade the council choose ‘the Strongest most Fertile and wholesome place’ for the settlement and also recommended that it be well away from the coast to offer maximum protection from a possible Spanish attack (Jamestown Voyages, 1.50). Unfortunately the council paid more attention to the latter suggestion than to the former, the choice of Jamestown being based on ultimately irrelevant geopolitical considerations rather than on those of health or commerce.

Despite the sometimes discouraging reports of the situation at Jamestown, where the intermittent hostility of the neighbouring Indians exacerbated the hardships of the colonists, a major effort was made in 1609 to boost the colony. Robert Cecil, first earl of Salisbury and since 1608 the lord treasurer, openly lent his name. Clergy were enlisted on a campaign of promotion; Robert Johnson, the author of Nova Britannia: offering most excellent fruites by planting in Virginia, exciting all such as be well affected to further the same (1609), was not, it seems, the London alderman but rather the archdeacon of Leicester. In addition, a pool of desirable emigrants was newly available; since 1606 hostilities in the Low Countries between Spain and the United Provinces had waned, and the signature of the twelve years' truce on 9 April 1609 released not only the English regiments serving the United Provinces but more particularly Sir Thomas Gates, who was to lead the expedition of 1609. Above all, the company's directorate had come to recognize that the administrative arrangements, both in London and Jamestown, were inadequate. The necessary changes required a new charter.

This second charter was issued on 23 May 1609. The company was greatly enlarged: the charter named 619 individuals—nobles, gentry, clergy, merchants, and no fewer than 52 ‘Captains’, a few of them ships' captains but most of them regimental officers—and 54 of the London livery companies. But its powers were concentrated in a single London council, empowered to appoint the company's officers. The west-country element in this new council was gone. In theory the council numbered 52, composed of 14 nobles—an entirely new element—and 38 others, almost half of whom were holdovers from the enlarged council of 1607. Newcomers included Sir Francis Bacon, now the solicitor-general, and four former commanders in the Low Countries: Sir Edward Cecil, Sir Edward Conway, Sir Thomas Gates, and Sir Horace Vere; but in reality the active council consisted of a far smaller group. When Thomas West, Lord De La Warr, was appointed governor and captain-general of the colony on 28 February 1610 and instructions were issued to him shortly thereafter, twelve members signed his commission, and eleven of those twelve were among the fourteen who issued his instructions. A year later a letter to the English ambassador at The Hague was signed by a mere six members, five of whom had participated in the commissioning and instruction of Lord De La Warr: Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton, William Herbert, third earl of Pembroke, Philip Herbert, first earl of Montgomery, Sir Robert Mansell, and Sir Thomas Smythe. The sixth signatory was Sir Edwin Sandys.

The loss of the company's two earliest minute books makes it impossible either to plot exactly the development of company policy before 1619 or to assign to individual councillors responsibility for that development. No doubt the second revision of the company's charter was in large part a reaction to the woes suffered by the colony in 1609–11—the shipwreck on the Bermudas of the leaders of the 1609 expedition, the starving time that led to the intended abandonment of the colony in 1610, the ill health and return to England of the governor in 1611, and the consequent reluctance of investors at home to pay their promised subscriptions—but the form of the charter's revision must have been decided in council in London.

The third charter, granted on 12 March 1612, trebled the company's area of competence at sea to include all islands within 300 leagues of the Virginian coast, thus including the Bermudas; excused the company for seven years from paying ‘anie subsidie, custome or imposicion’; authorized the company not only to sue recalcitrant subscribers who failed to honour their pledges, but also to arrest and discipline absconding colonists, especially those defaming the company; permitted ‘during our will and pleasure onely’ lotteries for the company's financial support; and, most importantly, required at least a weekly meeting of the council, and quarterly meetings of ‘Great and Generall Courts’ to make appointments and decide all important matters (Bemiss, 88, 92, 86).

It is hard not to see the influence of Sir Edwin Sandys in these arrangements. He may well have been behind the enlistment of clerical support in 1609, for he was to continue such a course later. The move from a royal council in 1606, via a London oligarchy in 1609, to control of the company by quarterly courts which all adventurers were entitled to attend, is of a piece with his thinking, exemplified in the parliament of 1604–10 and later in the arrangements made under his leadership for the comfort of the colonists. And certainly he was closely involved in establishing the lottery that propped up the company's finances for the better part of a decade. A paper entirely in his hand sets out the prizes to be awarded by the lottery.

Between 1612 and the change in the company leadership in 1619 there are few accounts of the unfolding of company policy, the most coherent being an unpublished polemic of 1624 written when recriminations within the company were at their height. In the colony the suspension of hostilities with the neighbouring Indians and the successful cultivation of tobacco allowed the colony to flourish after 1614 but investors at home did not share in the prosperity. The colony's leaders looked after their own interests rather than those of the company and were little more caring of the other colonists, who were almost all bound by indentures to years of company service.

In 1615 the Virginia Company shed the Bermudas. The Somer Islands Company acquired a separate legal life, but in fact Sir Thomas Smythe headed both colonies and, with few exceptions, investors in one company were also investors in the other. The instigator of the separation may well have been Sir Robert Rich (from March 1619 second earl of Warwick). He had first invested in the Virginia Company in 1612, was much involved, with his father, in privateering, and took little interest in the mainland colony. His influence may not have promoted Captain (later Sir) Samuel Argall's appointment as governor of Virginia in 1617, but Argall's successor had no doubt in July 1619 that Argall and Warwick were ‘ffriends’ (Kingsbury, 3.152), and in May 1623 Argall was termed ‘an assured follower and favorite’ of the earl (ibid., 2.401).

In these years Smythe was taking less and less interest in Virginia, leaving decisions to his servants and failing to keep satisfactory accounts. In his defence his age can be adduced, as well as his simultaneous leadership of no fewer than six of London's trading companies. Dissatisfaction with his performance led to the appointment in late 1617 or early 1618 of an assistant, in effect an heir in waiting, none other than Sir Edwin Sandys. His appointment was rendered all the more necessary when in mid-1618 Smythe was appointed to the navy commission.

There is no indication that Sandys's appointment as Smythe's assistant was challenged by Rich. Rich may indeed have been glad to see Smythe superseded, for they may have fallen out either over the depredation of one of Rich's privateers in the Indian Ocean or when in 1617–18 Smythe's appointee as governor of the Bermudas hauled a Rich kinsman into court there. Certainly there was no contention when in May 1619 Smythe resigned as treasurer of the Virginia Company, receiving a golden handshake of twenty ‘great shares’ proposed by his incoming successor, Sandys, with whom John Ferrar was linked as his deputy.

In fact Sandys had not waited until then to initiate major changes in Virginia: unoccupied lands were assigned as glebe, for the support of education, and the maintenance of the company's officers in the colony; a headright system awarded 50 acres for each entry to Virginia; private plantations were permitted; and a general assembly was authorized. And facts were to be gathered: there began a series of annual censuses, not all of which have survived. Accounts were conscientiously presented to the quarter courts; migration was encouraged; wives were sent over; and industrial enterprises were promoted. In short, Sandys envisioned Virginia not as a parasite living off the natives and their resources but as an ultimately self-sustaining colony.

But then things began to go wrong. Smythe, who had the king's ear, resented being hounded to present his accounts; Warwick was unhappy when his privateering was disowned by the company; thereafter Smythe and Warwick joined forces against Sandys. When in 1620 the king objected to Sandys's continuation as treasurer, the general court chose the earl of Southampton rather than any one of the king's nominees to succeed Sandys. Sandys however continued to control company policy behind the scenes. In March 1621 the king suspended the lottery that funded the company's activities. The massacre of March 1622 decimated the colonists; and the failure in April 1623 to agree a new tobacco contract with the crown was not only a defeat for Sandys but incidentally revealed that he and Ferrar were not above profiting largely from the project. Sandys's one success in these years was to replace Smythe with Southampton in 1621 as the governor of the Somer Islands Company, but even this success did not give Southampton or his successors, William Cavendish, Lord Cavendish (later second earl of Devonshire) and Sir Edward Sackville (from 1624 fourth earl of Dorset) undisturbed control of the company, and by the end of 1623 Smythe was again governor of the Somer Islands Company.

At much the same moment, in October 1623, the Virginia Company was called upon to surrender its charter. It refused, a writ of quo warranto was issued on 4 November, and on 24 May 1624 the company was dissolved. The defeated party, which blamed the lord treasurer (Lionel Cranfield, earl of Middlesex) for the collapse of the tobacco contract and the consequent destruction of the company, had taken its revenge in parliament a month earlier, when Sandys, Nicholas Ferrar (by then the company's deputy), Sir John Danvers, and Lord Cavendish led the successful attack on Cranfield.

On 15 July 1624 a royal commission, fifty-six strong, was appointed to govern the colony. It held its first meeting the following day at Sir Thomas Smythe's house. Virginia was back under Smythe's control. He was dead, however, by the end of the year. The alderman Robert Johnson, sometime his deputy and perhaps his son-in-law, died soon after. Cavendish died in 1628 and Sir Edwin Sandys a year later. The removal of these former opponents made it easier, though ultimately fruitless, for the surviving members of the opposing factions to come together in the abortive Virginia commission of 1631. The last survivors among the founders of the Virginia Company were Edward Sackville, earl of Dorset (d. 1652), Sir John Danvers (d. 1655), and John Ferrar, who died in 1657, after a decade in which he still strenuously sought to promote migration to Virginia.

David R. Ransome


D. B. Quinn, A. M. Quinn, and S. Hillier, eds., New American world: a documentary history of North America to 1612, 5 vols. (1979) · S. M. Kingsbury, ed., The records of the Virginia Company of London, 4 vols. (1906–35) · S. M. Bemiss, ed., The three charters of the Virginia Company of London (1957) · D. B. Quinn, ed., The Roanoke voyages, 1584–1590: documents to illustrate the English voyages to North America under the patent granted to Walter Raleigh in 1584, 2 vols., Hakluyt Society, 2nd ser., 104–5 (1955) · P. L. Barbour, ed., The Jamestown voyages under the first charter, 1606–1609, 2 vols., Hakluyt Society, 2nd ser., 136–7 (1969) · The Ferrar papers, 1590–1790, ed. D. R. Ransome (1992) · N. Ferrar, Sir Thomas Smith's misgovernment of the Virginia Company, ed. D. R. Ransome, Roxburghe Club (1990) · J. H. Lefroy, ed., Memorials of the discovery and early settlement of the Bermudas or Somers Islands, 1515–1685 (1878–9); repr. (1981) · A. Brown, The genesis of the United States (1891) · W. F. Craven, Dissolution of the Virginia Company (1932); repr. (1964) · C. M. Andrews, The colonial period in American history, 1 (1934) · R. Ashton, The city and the court, 1603–1643 (1979) · H. C. Wilkinson, The adventurers of Bermuda: a history of the island from its discovery until the dissolution of the Somers Island Company in 1684, 2nd edn (1958) · K. Deagan and J. M. Cruxent, Archaeology at La Isabela: America's first European town (2002) · K. Deagan and J. M. Cruxent, Columbus's outpost among the Tainos: Spain and America at La Isabela, 1493–1498 (2002) · J. Horn, A land as God made it: Jamestown and the birth of America (2005) · The complete works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631), ed. P. L. Barbour, 3 vols. (1986)