Virginia Company

England was a relatively poor nation in the late 1500s, with a ruler willing to send privateers against other colonial powers but unwilling to risk public monies on a standing English colony. Queen Elizabeth I gave blessing to Sir Walter Raleigh’s personal funding of the Roanoke colony, but it failed.

The answer was a joint-stock venture, an early version of today’s corporations. Wealthy London gentlemen would buy a share in The Virginia Company, thus giving it the capital monies to start and supply a colony, and they hoped the colony returned a profit to them. King James I granted the Virginia Company a royal charter for the colonial pursuit in 1606. The Company had the power to appoint a Council of leaders in the colony, a Governor, and other officials. It also took the responsibility to continually provide settlers, supplies, and ships for the venture. The Company’s plan was to identify profitable raw materials such as gold and silver in Virginia to repay the investors back in England. The first settlers included artisans, craftsmen, and laborers alongside the gentlemen leaders.

The initial public reaction to the Company was favorable, but as the mortality rate at Jamestown rose and the prospect for profit grew dim, financial support for it waned. The leadership resorted to lotteries and went so far as to attempt silkworm production at Jamestown. As industries failed, the promoters of the Company argued that converting the Virginia Indians to Christianity was a worthy goal for the venture. Tobacco cultivation finally provided a profitable return, but it came too little too late to save the Virginia Company. After the Indian Massacre of 1622 killed hundreds of settlers, the king revoked the Company’s charter in 1624 and made Virginia a royal colony under his control.

Archaeological excavations at James Fort have shown how closely the colony followed the Company’s directives. Instructions in late 1606 from the Virginia Company stressed “above all things” the need to hide the numbers of English sick and deceased to prevent the Virginia Indians from seizing upon the colony’s weakness. Archaeologists uncovered a large English burial ground inside the crowded confines of the fort walls.