For Glory, God, and Gold and the Virginia Company

On April 10, 1606, King James I granted a royal charter to the Virginia Company of London, granting the company permission to start colonizing Virginia and the areas surrounding it. It also explicitly granted permission to dig and mine for precious metals, and demanded that 1/5 of any gold or silver and 1/15 of any copper extracted would automatically be given to the crown.

Company settlers (mostly indentured servants) made landfall near present-day Virginia Beach a little more than a year after the charter was granted, on April 26, 1607. They established Jamestown on May 24 and built a fort there. They were disappointed to find that gold didn’t wash up on the beach and gems didn’t grow on trees, but they set about making a living another way: by growing tobacco and producing goods like pitch and beer that took advantage of the land and the area’s natural resources.

The colony struggled initially due to poor planning, poor management, and frequent assaults by the reasonably annoyed natives. Things improved after Captain John Smith was put in charge, and the colony began to flourish. Unfortunately, an influx of new colonists and the loss of some supply ships set the venture back considerably—the winter of 1609-1610 became known as the “Starving Time”, and when it was all over, only 60 of the original 214 colonists was still alive, and most of the survivors were either ill or dying. The arrival of supply ships in the spring saved the colony, but the dire news those ships brought back to England nearly ruined the company. The Virginia Company organized a massive advertising campaign and managed to attract more settlers to the colony, and John Rolfe’s experiments with tobacco made it a profitable cash crop. These moves helped The Virginia Company totter along until 1624, when James I finally changed Virginia’s status to that of a Royal Colony, administered by a governor appointed by the king.


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