Colonizing the Commonwealth

John Rolfe, “A true relation of the state of Virginia … in May last 1616.”  Acquired 1972 (MSS 9202)

John Rolfe first reached Virginia in 1610 after being shipwrecked and stranded on Bermuda for months. He soon became a colony mainstay: establishing Virginia’s tobacco trade, marrying Pocahontas, and serving as colony secretary. Rolfe took Pocahontas to England in 1616, where they were received with great acclaim. This is one of three known copies of a report Rolfe circulated privately to spark interest in the struggling colony. Putting the best face on things, Rolfe counted 351 colonists in six settlements and, on the page shown here, tallied their livestock. The manuscript is in a secretary’s hand, with Rolfe’s signature at end.

Good newes from Virginia. Sent from Iames his Towne this present Moneth of March, 1623 by a Gentleman in that Country. London: For John Trundle, [1624].  Acquired 1972 (A 1624 .G66)

A surprise Indian attack on March 22, 1622, nearly wiped out the Virginia colony. Casualties numbered 347 killed—a quarter of the English population. The colonists counterattacked and soon strengthened their position. The “Good newes” made its way back to England in many forms, including this broadside ballad, which was printed and sold in London. Good newes celebrated Virginians’ military exploits, a wave of new immigration, and the colony’s bright prospects; it would have been sung to the tune of “All those that be good fellowes,” believed to be similar to the 18th-century marching song, “The British Grenadiers.”

Edward Williams, Virgo triumphans or, Virginia richly and truly valued London: Thomas Harper, for John Stephenson, 1650.  Original McGregor Library (A 1650 .W55)

Williams addressed this promotional tract to Englishmen anticipating an end to a decade of civil war. Now is the time, he argued, to reap the benefits from increased settlement in Virginia and lands to the south. Williams’s message resonated with Royalists, who agreed that “such men removing their discontents with their persons [to Virginia], will have a brave and ample theater to make their merits and abilities emergent.” The Old Dominion’s transplanted Royalists would long support the English monarchy. Here Williams compares Virginia favorably to the great empires of Persia and China, situated at the same latitude.

Charles II, By the King. A proclamation for the suppressing a rebellion lately raised within the plantation of Virginia. London: Assigns of John Bill and Christopher Barker, 1676.  Acquired 1951 (Broadside 1676 .G744 S63)

Displeased with Governor William Berkeley’s rule, hundreds of Virginians took up arms in 1676 and rallied around a new leader, Nathaniel Bacon. Bacon’s forces attacked Indian settlements, bullied the government, and eventually burned Jamestown to the ground. Through this October 27, 1676, proclamation, King Charles II attempted to restore order where Berkeley had failed: Bacon was to be captured and tried for high treason; his followers would be pardoned if they swore allegiance to the crown; and the Virginia Assembly’s newly enacted reforms were declared null and void. Ironically, Bacon had died of illness the day before.

Aphra Behn, The Widdow Ranter or, The history of Bacon in Virginia. London: Printed for James Knapton, 1690.  Acquired 1946 (A 1690 .B44)

Poet, novelist, and England’s first female professional playwright, Aphra Behn chose Bacon’s Rebellion as the theme of her final play—the earliest to be set in the American Colonies. The plot bears only modest relation to the dramatic events of 1676. Behn invents a doomed romance between Bacon and an Indian queen; bumbling colonial officials provide comic relief; and the smoking, swearing, hard-drinking, and wealthy widow Ranter cross-dresses to snag Dareing, Bacon’s lieutenant, as her new husband.

Daniel MacKercher, A memorial relating to the tobacco-trade. Williamsburg: William Parks, 1737.  Gift of Philip Morris & Co., 1952 (A 1737 .M335)

Scottish adventurer Daniel MacKercher was a friend of novelist Tobias Smollett, who inserted MacKercher’s life story into Peregrine Pickle (1751). In 1737 MacKercher arrived in Williamsburg as an agent for the French tobacco monopoly, which was a key customer of Virginia tobacco. In this rare pamphlet directed at Virginia and Maryland tobacco planters, MacKercher details the onerous fees levied on tobacco by London middlemen. He then proposes a scheme to eliminate most such fees, enhance the planters’ profits, and not least, lock in a favorable price for French tobacco merchants. Although well received by planters, MacKercher’s plan ultimately failed.

Virginia Gazette daybook, 1764-1766.  Acquired 1950 (MSS 467 v. 2)

This ledger records business transactions at the Williamsburg office of the Virginia Gazette, at that time Virginia’s only newspaper. Like most colonial printers, the Gazette’s Joseph Royle also printed books and pamphlets, sold imported books and stationery, and ran a bindery. Among the shop’s customers were many leading Virginians, including Thomas Jefferson, a recent College of William & Mary graduate who was reading law with George Wythe. Jefferson spent heavily on books (in multiple languages) and bookbinding. Some Jefferson entries are marked “self” (he personally visited the shop), while others are marked “Jupiter” (his African-American slave made the transaction).