Staple Crops for the British North American Colonies

Douglass North and Robert Paul Thomas in their compilation of historical documents on the American economy, The Growth of the American Economy to 1860, comment on the selection of a staple crop for the Virginia Colony:

Despite the repeated disasters of the first years in Virginia, persistent struggles within the company, and conflicts between the company and the king, the colony managed to survive to become the first permanent English settlement in the New World. In the process much valuable information was gained about how-and especially how not-to proceed to colonize North America. Because of the company's insistence, attempts were made to produce wine, iron, silk, glass, and other commodities which England at the time was forced to purchase from foreign nations. Each of these attempts turned out less profitably than the growing of tobacco, which had been introduced by John Rolfe in 1612. Thereafter most of the colony's efforts were devoted to the production of that product. Throughout the colonial period, the economic expansion of Virginia was closely linked to the fortunes of the tobacco industry.

If much was learned in the process of establishing the first English colony, the lesson was not without its price. It has been estimated that between 1606 and 1623 some 5,500 persons had migrated to the colonies, but in 1623 only 1,200 persons were still living there. Since only 300 had returned to England from the colony, approximately 4,000 must have lost their lives in establishing Virginia. [p. 35]

The Virginia Company, "Defence of the Virginia Charter" (1623), Abstract of the Proceedings of the Virginia Company of London (Virginia Historical Society, Collections [8 vols.; Richmond, Va., 1889]), 11, 148-51.

A Declaration of the present State of Virginia humbly presented to the King's most Excellent Majesty by the Virginia Company.

May it please-Your Majesty:

In the end of December, in the year 1618, being the 12th year after the beginning of this plantation, and after the expense of four score thousand pounds of the publick stock and upwards, besides other sums of voluntary planters, there were remaining there in the colony about six hundred persons-men, women, and children-and cattle about three hundred at the most, and the Company was then left in debt about five thousand pounds.

At this time (through God's blessing), notwithstanding the great mortalities which, in some of these four latter years, have generally seized upon all those parts of America, and besides the late massacre of three hundred and fifty persons, and a great mortality thereby occasioned by being driven from their habitation and provisions, there are remaining, as we compute, above five and twenty hundred persons, sent with the expense only of thirty thousand pounds of the public stock besides the charges of particular societies and planters. And the cattle, what by new supplies and what by increase of the former provision, are multiplied to above one thousand of beasts, and of swine an infinite number; and the old debt of the Company bath been discharged.

At the beginning of these four last years the only commodities of price, and upon which only a valuation was set to maintain the trade, were tobacco and sassafras, for in the two last years before there was no course taken up for the setting up of any others through the poverty of the Company.

During these 4 last years there hath been expended in setting up of iron works (the oar whereof is there in great plenty and excellent) about five thousand pounds, which work being brought in a manner to perfection was greatly interrupted by the late massacre, but ordered to be restored again with all possible diligence.

For the making of wine, it is to be known that the soil there doth of itself produce vines in great abundance and some of a very good sort, besides divers plantations been sent thither of the better bands of Christendom.

There bath also been sent thither eight vigneroons procured from Languedock, and careful order bath been taken for setting up of that commodity, which we doubt not in a short time will show itself in great plenty, and bad not the business been interrupted by the massacre e'er this effect had been seen, there being divers vineyards planted in the country whereof some contained ten thousand plants.

For silk the country is full of mulberry trees of the best kind, and general order taken for the planting of them abundantly in all places inhabited. True it is that the silkworm seed bath, till this last year, miscarried, to the great grief of the Company, having had large supplies thereof from your Majesty's store; but in September last we sent near 80 ounces with extraordinary care and provision that we doubt not but that it will prosper and yield a plentiful return, there being sent also men skilful to instruct the planters for all things belonging to bring the silk to perfection, and we have notice that the seed hath been received safe and order given for the disposing and nourishing them through the whole plantation.

There have been sent also, at the great charge of the Company, skilful men from Germany for setting up of sawing mills, and divers shipwrights from hence for making boats and ships, and others for salt works and others for other commodities, the good effect whereof we doubt not will shortly appear.

We will not here enlarge in declaring the great and assidual care which the Council and Company, with their principal officers, have from time to time taken, as well from reclaiming the colony from overmuch following tobacco (every man being now stinted to a certain proportion), as also in setting forward the other staple and rich commodities, as well by the charges and provisions aforesaid as likewise by setting upon them a competent valuat ion, not doubting but that whosoever will be pleased to take the pains to peruse their frequent letters, instructions and charters to that effect, together w sundry printed books made purposely and published for their help and direction (the full view whereof is prohibited to no man), will be far from censuring them for any omission. Neither may we forbear to do that justice to the Governor and Commission and other principal officers now residing in Virginia as not to testify their solicitous care and industry in putting in execution our desires and instructions, as appeareth by their proclamation and other orders to be seen.

Touching the government, it bath in these four latter years been so reformed according to your Majesty's original directions, that the people who in former times were discontent and mutinous by reason of their inassurance of all things, through want of order and justice, live now amongst themselves in great peace and tranquility,each knowing his own and what be is mutually to receive and perform.

And to the end that worthy perso places of council and government, and all occasion of rapine and extortion be removed, the Council and Company have now, at their very great charge, caused to be set up a competent annual provision and revenue for maintenance of the Governor, with other magistrates and officers, and particularly the ministry, according to the degree and quality of each place.

Neither have these our cares and courses been ineffectual, but as they have settled the colony there in a great quiet and content, so have they raised here at home so great a fame of Virginia, that not only men of meaner estates, as at the first by necessity, but many persons of good sort, out of choice and good liking, have removed themselves thither, and are dayly in providing to remove.

There have been in these four last years granted forty-four patents for land to persons, who have undertaken to transport each of them at least one hundred men, whereas in the former twelve years there was not above six.

There have come in ten times more adventurers in these four last years than in almost twice that time before, so that whereas in former times there were sometimes hardly got twenty to keep the quarter-court, there are now seldom less than two hundred, and sometimes many more.

There have been employed in these four last years forty-two sail of ships of great burthen, whereas in four years before there were not above twelve.

We may not here omit one extraordinary blessing, which it bath pleased God Almighty in the four last years so as to excite the heart of well-minded people to extend their aid towards the forwarding of this glorious work that there bath been contributed towards in presents, to the value of fifteen hundred pounds by zealous and devout persons, most of them refusing to be named, of which fruit the preceding years were altogether barren.

And if your Majesty, being the first founder and great supporter of this action (which will remain a constant monument of your worthy persons may be allured to these glorious name forever), will be pleased that the four hundred young and able men desired by the Company and not denied but respited, may now at length be levied, as was petitioned, and sent to Virginia for the rooting out of those treacherous and barbarous murderers, as also for the supply of the plantation in parts yet defective, we doubt not but in a short time to yield unto your Majesty so good and real account of the fruits of our cares, endeavours, and labours as may be answerable to our duty and your princely expectation.