striking absence from John
Smith's map of Virginia, first published in 1612, is any reference
to the Virginia Companywhich 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.
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.
John Smith went out in the London Company's first adventure and was
on the sealed
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 shipwreckwhich many scholars think
was in Shakespeare's mind as he wrote the first scene of The
Tempestcaused 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 devicewhich
was added to later editions of the map.
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.
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.
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.
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 conflict,
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 casheither through
'voluntary' loans and donations or by means of taxes on tobacco.
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.
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, and
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.
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 centerand
topped by an imperial crownstated 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
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,