Virginia Company

views updated May 21 2018

Virginia Company

The Virginia Company was formed in 1606 to restart English colonial ambitions in North America after the failure of the Roanoke colony in the 1580s. Its aims were broadly similar to those that had motivated the first settlement attempts at Roanoke a generation earlier. Among those aims were the discovery of a short route to Asia (the Northwest Passage); to ease English dependence on imported goods from Europe by growing and shipping produce from America; to provide raw materials such as timber or precious metals that were valued in England; to provide an outlet for a surplus population in England; to reestablish the English claim to North America in the face of French and Dutch interest in settlement; and to prove that the Americas were not a Spanish or Catholic monopoly.

The Virginia Company was a joint-stock company, with investors sharing the risks and the potential profits of colonization, and was closely modeled on the East India Company that had been founded just six years earlier. Although many of those investing in the Virginia Company were merchants with a strong commercial drive for profits, leading politicians and nobles eager to promote English imperial ambitions were also shareholders. The initial charter granted to the Virginia Company in 1606 actually distinguished between two groups of investors, one based in London and the other in Plymouth. Each was given a distinct geographic area to settle in: The London Company was allocated the land between 34 and 41 degrees North, whereas the Plymouth Company was allocated land between 38 and 45 degrees North. Although the Plymouth Company made a short-lived attempt to colonize in what later became New England in 1607–1908, the main colonization effort made by the Virginia Company was that of the London Company in Chesapeake Bay.

The Virginia Company of London was led by men such as Sir George Somers (1554–1610), who had experience fighting the Spanish in the Caribbean; Richard Hakluyt (1552–1616), whose Principal Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries of the English Nation had raised the profile of colonization among the English elite; Sir Thomas Smith (1558–1625), also involved in the East India Company; and Captain Edward Maria Wingfield (1560–1613), a soldier with experience fighting the Spanish in the Netherlands. These men had powerful connections with merchants and politicians in London, which ensured that money and supplies were far more forthcoming than had been the case with the Roanoke Colony.

As a joint-stock company, the Virginia Company received no royal finance, but that did not mean the monarchy was completely sidelined from the project. Joint control of the Virginia Company was entrusted to two councils of thirteen individuals, one based in London and appointed by King James I (1566–1625), the other residing in Virginia and appointed by the company. The latter also was permitted to elect the colony's governor.

It was under these conditions that the company successfully recruited 144 men to journey to Virginia in the spring of 1607, but the earliest years of the colony were plagued by poor leadership in Virginia and high mortality rates among settlers. The second charter issued in 1609 altered the political structures of the Virginia Company significantly. James surrendered his role in the company's affairs, in part to allow him to disavow the Virginia Company if they overantagonized Spain, and the Governor became an appointee of the company in London. The changes led to a successful share issue among London's merchants and trade guilds, and the company rapidly equipped a new fleet led by Sir Thomas Gates (1585–1621), with another to follow led by Lord Delaware (1577–1618) in 1610.

The terrible conditions of the "Starving Time" during the winter of 1609–1610 nearly led to the colony being abandoned, and serious doubts were raised in London about the long-term viability and profitability of the colony despite the publication of a number of promotional tracts designed to encourage migration. Lord Delaware had to return to England because of his failing health, which led to a financial low point for the Virginia Company in 1613. The third and final charter of the Virginia Company, issued in 1612, permitted the establishment of a lottery that eventually became the company's main source of income, since few new investors were forthcoming given the dismal prospects of Virginia.

Experiments with tobacco provided the first hints that the colony might have a profitable future, and by 1614 the first shipments of tobacco from Virginia arrived in London. The crop would be the saving of the colony, since the fabulous profits to be made attracted new migrants. While recognizing the benefits of a cash crop to the viability of the colony, the Virginia Company also tried to prevent overproduction and to promote economic diversity. Unfortunately, oversupply eventually led to a collapse in the price of tobacco in the early 1620s and economic instability throughout the colony.

In 1616 the company paid a dividend to its share-holders of 50 acres of land in Virginia per share. A year later the company extended its use of free land in an attempt to restart colonization by instituting the head-right of 50 acres to go to whomever bore the costs of passage to the New World. This policy encouraged the growth of the system of indentured labor, with the wealthy paying for the passage of workers in return for seven years of free labor. Moreover, in response to the negative publicity that was generated by those returning from Virginia, the company permitted the election of a House of Burgesses in 1619, giving settlers a direct voice in their government.

With these changes and a new man in charge of the Virginia Company, Sir Edwin Sandys (1561–1629), 3,500 people left England for Virginia between 1619 and 1622. However, internal divisions among company officials, and an inadequate response to the 1622 massacre of colonists by local Native Americans, showed how weak the Virginia Company actually was. In 1623 the Privy Council ordered an inquiry into the company's affairs and on May 24, 1624, the charter was recalled and the Virginia Company was officially disbanded.

see also Colonization and Companies; Company of New France; Conquests and Colonization; Massachusetts Bay Company; Tobacco Cultivation and Trade.


Craven, Wesley Frank. The Virginia Company of London, 1606–1624. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1957.

Morgan, Edmund. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton, 1975.

Virginia Company of London

views updated May 09 2018


VIRGINIA COMPANY OF LONDON was a commercial enterprise established on 10 April 1606 that governed the colony of Virginia from 1609 to 1624. The Society of Adventurers, or investors, was patented to Sir Thomas Gates, Sir George Somers, and their associates. The company, headquartered in London, was a body of stockholders who acquired interest in the company by paying money, rendering service, or settling on land in Virginia. Investors had to raise funds, furnish supplies, and send out expeditions. The company was presided over by a treasurer and conducted all of its business through its regularly elected officers or through special committees. The governing council in England was subordinate to the king regarding affairs in Virginia. Each colony was to be governed by a council in London and in day-to-day matters by a local council. The Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth were patented to settle between 34 and 45 degrees north latitude. The London Company was allowed to settle between 34 and 41 degrees north latitude and the Plymouth Company, between 38 and 45 degrees north latitude. Settlements could not be within 100 miles of each other in the overlapping area of 38 to 41 degrees.

From 1606 to 1609, the private investors had little influence on affairs or commercial matters in Virginia. Business management was left to a joint-stock company, and the storehouse was controlled by a treasurer and two clerks elected by the president and council in the colony. In 1609, a second charter was granted to the company, converting it to a corporation and permitting public sale of stock. The entrepreneurs, with Sir Thomas Smith as treasurer, retained commercial responsibilities, assumed governmental functions, and reduced royal supervision. This new charter allowed the company to appoint a governor for the colony and the council in Virginia became an advisory body. The council of the company in London was chosen by the investors to act as a standing committee.

Another charter in 1612 strengthened the authority of the company, making it overlord of a proprietary province. Major decisions of the company were to be prepared at the quarter courts, which were stockholder meetings held four times per year. Extending over a period of seven years, a system for the joint management of land and exemption from English customs duties promised dividends to the investors and support for the planters. There was also enacted a running lottery that collected auxiliary money for the settlement and jurisdiction over newly discovered Bermuda. By 1617, many indentured servants fulfilled their obligations to the Virginia Company. Those settlers who had arrived before 1616 got one hundred acres fee simple.

In 1619 the Virginia Company adopted its Orders and Constitutions that were intended to ensure the legality of action and were read at one quarter court each year. The company allowed private landholding in order to encourage settlement. An investor might also obtain stock within three years by paying the passage for settlers and peopling his land. Emigration to Virginia by laborers, artisans, and apprentices was encouraged to attain production of grain, silk, and industries other than tobacco. A representative assembly was also enacted to offer settlers a voice in policy.

Between 1619 and 1622, factions developed within the company as a result of the administration of Samuel Argall, deputy governor of the colony. He exploited the lands and the trade of the company for private benefit. This led to the formation of an administration under Lord Cavendish, John Ferrar, Nicholas Ferrar, Sir Edwin Sandys, and the earl of Southampton with unconstructive changes. The Sandys-Southampton party supported the parliamentary opposition in England, and thus the king and Sandys became bitter political rivals. An Indian massacre in 1622 added to the colony's problems.

On 17 April 1623, a committee headed by Lord Cavendish was summoned before the Privy Council to defend the company against grievances. On 9 May 1623, the Privy Council announced that a commission would be appointed to inquire into the state of Virginia and Somers Island plantation. The commission found the colony had been in a state of disorder since the massacre by the Indians; there was quarreling among the factions of the company and masses of unprepared and unprovisioned settlers that Sir Edwin Sandys had sent to the new land. The king also wanted to maximize his revenues from customs duties on tobacco, even though he despised the commodity. On 24 May 1624, the company was dissolved, terminating in bankruptcy, and on 15 July, a commission was appointed to replace the Virginia Company of London and establish the first royal colony in America. The king sought the advice of the company on questions affecting the government of the colony, but Sandys was unsuccessful in his attempt to secure a new patent. Its function as a trading organization ceased.


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

Billings, Warren M., Thad W. Tate, and John E. Selby. Colonial Virginia: A History. White Plains, N.Y.: KTO Press, 1986.

Craven, Wesley Frank. Dissolution of the Virginia Company: The Failure of a Colonial Experiment. Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1964.

———. The Virginia Company of London, 1606–1624. Williamsburg: Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebration Corporation, 1957.

Morton, Richard Lee. Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960.

Neill, Edward D. History of the Virginia Company of London, with Letters to and from the First Colony Never Before Printed. New York: B. Franklin, 1968.

Rabb, Theodore K. Enterprise & Empire: Merchant and Gentry Investment in the Expansion of England, 1575–1630. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Michelle M.Mormul

See alsoColonial Charters ; Plymouth, Virginia Company of ; Proprietary Colonies ; Royal Colonies ; Trading Companies .

Plymouth, Virginia Company of

views updated May 08 2018


PLYMOUTH, VIRGINIA COMPANY OF (1606–1620), one of two companies incorporated in the first Virginia charter in 1606. In 1605 a group of men representing the City of London and the outports of Bristol, Plymouth, and Exeter petitioned for a charter to plant colonies in America. Although the petitioners were men

bound by the ties of relationship, friendship, or common interest, the rivalry between London and the outports was such that the leaders wished to proceed with the project under separate companies. The charter of 1606 therefore created two companies, the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth. The London Company had permission to establish a colony in southern Virginia between thirty-four and forty-one degrees north latitude (i.e., from present-day South Carolina to New York), to be called the First Colony of Virginia. The Plymouth Company would establish the Second Colony of Virginia, to be located farther north, between thirty-eight and forty-five degrees north latitude (i.e., from Chesapeake Bay to what is now northernmost Maine). The overlapping area was to be a neutral zone in which the settlements could not come within one hundred miles of each other.

The Plymouth Company, like the London Company, was to be under the jurisdiction of the royal council for Virginia, but it had its own resident council of thirteen to govern its projected plantation. To what extent the company could control the trade of its colony was not made clear in the charter. The leaders of the Plymouth Company were Sir John Popham and Sir Ferdinando Gorges.

The Plymouth Company sent its first expedition in the summer of 1606 to seek a desirable site for a plantation. The vessel was captured en route by the Spanish near Puerto Rico, where it had been driven by adverse winds, and the men were carried off as prisoners to Spain. Only a few made their way back to Plymouth.

A second vessel, dispatched in the autumn of 1606, reached the coast of Maine in safety. It returned with such glowing accounts that in May 1607 the company sent out two ships carrying settlers, the Gift of God and the Mary and John. They began a plantation near the mouth of the Sagadahoc (now Kennebec) River and built Fort St. George, but the colony did not prosper. Gorges ascribed its failure to lack of food and to "childish factions." The cold winter, the loss of the storehouse and many dwellings to fire, and the consequent shortage of supplies weakened the planters' interest. The death of some of the men whom Gorges had left in charge of the settlement—including the governor, George Popham, a nephew of Sir John—discouraged the company in England from pushing the enterprise further. However, some of the company's members continued their interest in the fisheries and sent out several expeditions to fish and trade with the Indians. Profits from these activities were sufficient to convince men like Gorges of the region's potential and thus to pave the way for reorganizing the project in 1620 under a new company, the Council for New England.


Greene, Jack P. Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Viola F.Barnes/a. r.

See alsoColonial Charters ; Land Patents ; Trading Companies .

About this article

Virginia Company

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic


Virginia Company