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The Virginia Company

Emily Rose
Princeton University

The most striking absence from John Smith's map of Virginia, first published in 1612, is any reference to the Virginia Company—which was, after all, the legal proprietor of the land under English law until the company was dissolved in 1624. This absence is emblematic of Smith's fraught relations with the company managers and directors. Though the names of John Smith and the Virginia Company are inextricably linked, Smith worked for the company shareholders for only a few years; he worked against them for even longer. Smith's version of the early days of settlement has long influenced our histories.

The Virginia Company governed the land according to a series of royal charters. The first was granted in 1606 by King James I, and it created two companies, one operating out of Plymouth with the aim of establishing a more northern colony and one operating out of London with the aim of establishing a more southern colony. The Plymouth Company established Sagadahoc Colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River in what is now Maine. But by the end of 1608, the colonists of the Plymouth Company had all packed their bags and returned to England. The London Company (also known as the Virginia Company) planted itself on the Powhatan River (renamed the James) and established Jamestown in 1607.

Captain John Smith went out in the London Company's first adventure and was on the Click to See a Larger Viewsealed list of councillors that was opened on board the ship heading to Virginia. In the fall of 1608 (by when the other leaders had died or left Virginia), Smith became president of the young colony's council. The original organization of the company proved unworkable, however, and in 1609, the London Company received a new charter when it was reorganized as a joint-stock company in an attempt to make it more responsive and effective. A new fleet of ships was sent to supply Jamestown and to reform the government by martial law under the direction of Sir George Somers and Sir Thomas Gates. However, the lead ship of the fleet, the Sea Venture, crashed on the reefs surrounding Bermuda before it could reach Virginia. The famous shipwreck—which many scholars think was in Shakespeare's mind as he wrote the first scene of The Tempest—caused Somers's delay and allowed Smith to retain control for many months in Virginia: the papers authorizing the change of control remained in Bermuda with the new governor.

A new royal charter in 1612 extended the geographic boundaries of the London Company's grant to include Bermuda, which looked more promising than Virginia. Bermuda was spun off in 1613 to a smaller group of investors, most of whom were shareholders in Virginia. In the early maps of Bermuda, the seal of the Bermuda Company is displayed along with that of the Virginia Company. One would expect, then, to see the seal of the Virginia Company on Smith's map rather than his own personal heraldic device—which was added to later editions of the map.

Supplanted as council president and injured by gunpowder, Smith returned to England in 1609 after the first corporate restructuring. Alexander Brown noted a century ago that Smith "not only failed to give satisfaction to his employers but he gave great dissatisfaction and was never employed by the Council of Virginia again" (Brown 1008). Though he made two subsequent voyages to New England (sometimes called Northern Virginia) beginning in 1614, he never again found employment with colonial entrepreneurs.

Smith published his treatise A Map of Virginia (which included the first state of the map on which this website is based) in 1612 without the approval of the company. Scholars suspect that this is one reason he had it printed in Oxford instead of London. Smith's later petition to the Virginia Company seeking a reward for past services was denied; in 1622 he proposed writing a history of Virginia, a proposal which was never endorsed by the company. The following month, it should be noted, Smith's friend, the prolific Samuel Purchas, was given shares in the company as were other corporate promoters such as the poet John Donne. The absence, therefore, of any reference to the Virginia Company and the enhancement of Smith's own emblem on the map itself should be seen as visual and graphic counterparts to his written attempts to enhance his own role and diminish that of the investors and managers who hired him and sent him to Virginia.

Smith was an important player in the propaganda war which preceded the dissolution of the Virginia Company in 1624. Smith positioned himself as an expert on Virginia, but in fact he had not been there for a decade and a half when he answered the questions put forth by the Royal Commission on Virginia. He had little information that could not be gained from others returning to England with more up-to-date news on the vast changes which had taken place in the colony. Nevertheless, Smith's participation suggests that his views were well known and that he could be relied upon to oppose the current management.

At the time, the company was deeply divided into factions, groups of investors with different objectives and different ideas about how the colony should be run, who should run it, and how it should make money. Smith appears to have sided with the party of the Earl of Warwick (a leading investor in pirate ships), and the great merchant Sir Thomas Smythe (a former governor of the London Company). They were seeking to wrest control of the Virginia Company of London from Sir Edwin Sandys (the parliamentary leader), and the Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare's patron). In this conflicClick to See a Larger Viewt, an aging King James sided with the Earl of Warwick: he had long hated Sir Edwin Sandys and twice had tried to remove Sandys from the office of governor of the company. The King was always looking for money and saw the Virginia Company as a good source of cash—either through 'voluntary' loans and donations or by means of taxes on tobacco.

The endgame over the company's charter began in April 1623. At the instigation of Smythe's son-in-law, the Privy Council began an investigation into the operations of the Virginia Company. That investigation was directly tied to failed negotiations over a contract to import tobacco from Virginia to England, which had dragged on for a year. It was the tobacco contract and not the 1622 Indian massacre (as many American historians assume) that raised red flags in London. From April 1623 to May 1624, control of the company was fought for in the Privy Council, in the royal courts, in Parliament, and in the court of public opinion. It was during this period that John Smith compiled his Generall Historie of Virginia.

Close scrutiny of Smith's role suggests that he was not a disinterested observer simply promoting colonization but a partisan player. He had been trying to get himself hired by the management of the company but the Sandys-Southampton leadership had expressed no interest. In April 1624, the company was declared void in the courts, and government of the colony was taken into the crown hands. In June, the King appointed a new commission for Virginia, and in July, Smith's Generall Historie was published. Within the year, Smith's arms were recorded at the College of Arms. The timing is curious since the arms were awarded for services provided in Turkey more than two decades earlier, andClick to See a Larger View they were based on a rather vague document. One is tempted to see in the recognition of Smith's arms (and the right to call himself a gentleman) a reward for services recently rendered to the King of England. In contrast to the famous map, the 1624 title page of Smith's Generall Historie bore not only regal portraits of Elizabeth, James, and Charles, but also three corporate seals as well as Smith's heraldic achievements. The prominent display of the seals of Virginia, Bermuda, and New England was meant to suggest a corporate endorsement which John Smith never received.

In May 1625, Virginia and Bermuda were formally proclaimed part of the royal empire ruled by Charles I. Captain John Smith's map of Virginia, with his own arms prominently displayed and the royal seal front and center—and topped by an imperial crown—stated ownership of the land in no uncertain terms. The Virginia Company was erased from history, just as it was erased from Smith's map. In its stead, Captain Smith and the royal family took pride of place.

Suggestions For Further Reading

Brown, Alexander. The Genesis of the United States, 2 vols. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., 1890.

Craven, W. F. Dissolution of the Virginia Company. New York: Oxford University Press, 1932.

Kingsbury, Susan Myra. Records of the Virginia Company, 3 vols. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1906.

Rabb, Theodore K. Jacobean Gentleman, Sir Edwin Sandys, 1561-1629. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Ransome, David. Sir Thomas Smith's Mismanagement of the Virginia Company. Cambridge: Roxburghe Club, 1990.

Scott, William Robert. Joint-Stock Companies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1910.