The First Virginia

Andrew Harris
Bridgewater State College

Sir Walter Raleigh named Virginia after Queen Elizabeth I, Click to See a Larger Viewthe so-called Virgin Queen (reigned 1558-1603), who granted him a charter in 1583 to explore and plant a colony anywhere in North America north of Florida. The original goal was to create a military outpost for staging raids on Spanish shipping between the New World and the Old, for such shipping seemed to provide Catholic Spain with the economic means to harry Protestants throughout Europe. Raleigh and Hakluyt advocated colonization. In his "Discourse on Western Planting," Richard Hakluyt argued that colonization would disrupt the flow of Spanish silver and provide England with all the natural resources she lacked at home, such as different woods, tar, and medicinally useful plants. Additionally, colonization would drain off England's surplus population.

In 1584, with Raleigh's financial support, colonists set off for the New World, exploring Carolina's Outer Banks and settling there in 1585 at a place they called Roanoke Island. Click to See a Larger ViewThe first group of settlers quickly wore out whatever goodwill existed with the natives and left in June 1586. During that period, two members of the expedition, Thomas Hariot, Raleigh's representative, and the artist John White explored the land and its native inhabitants. A portion of Hariot's notes from the expedition were published as A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia in 1588. In 1590, Theodor de Bry published a folio edition of the Briefe and True Report with his engraved copies of John White's sketches.

Hariot's work gave readers in England a sense of what had gone wrong in this first settlement: failing to find gold or silver as hoped, many colonists "had little or no care of any other thing but to pamper their bellies" (Hariot 6). They were unfit for such labors because they were overly refined from urban living, and they were quarrelsome, two complaints later made in similar fashion by John Smith. The natives were "not to be feared, but . . . they shall have cause both to fear and love us, that shall inhabit with them" (Hariot 24). Though not technologically sophisticated, they were "very ingenious" and showed "excellence of wit," leading Hariot to conclude that they would in time make fine converts to both English culture and the Protestant religion. In short, the natives were friendly, the air "temperate and wholesome, the soil so fertile," and the land given to settlers by Raleigh so generously, that there could be no reason for English men and women not to colonize the area immediately (Hariot 32).

The second settlement of July 1587 did not fare any better than the first, and may have done worse. The colonists prevailed upon John White, now governor, to return to England in August in order to have supplies sent back, but supplies did not arrive until 1590. By then barely a trace of the colony still existed, and its fate—of starvation, disease, native conflict or native assimilation—remains unknown.

Smith's 1624 map of "Old Virginia," probably modeled on Hariot's earlier map, shows the extent to which the English had renamed much of the area in the Click to See a Larger Viewintervening years. Native islands and inland place names had been replaced with English names, such as "Gordons Ile" and "Stuards reach." The pictures of various natives on land and in canoes gracing Hariot's map are no longer there in Smith's. By 1624, at least in Smith's mental cartography, Hariot's ideal of English settlers and natives living peacefully together had given way to a more particularly English landscape.

Suggestions For Further Reading

Andrews, Kenneth. Trade, Plunder, and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire, 1480-1630. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Canny, Nicholas, ed. The Origins of Empire. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Hariot, Thomas. A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588).
The electronic text is available at