Jamestown’s 400th Anniversary

The Virginia Company of London established the first successful English colony in North America at Jamestown in 1607. Only a year later, the first Poles arrived around the beginning of October 1608, making this fall the 400th anniversary of the Polish experience in America. To mark this occasion, Polish American Studies is presenting two articles on the subject. In this first of the two-part presentation, we provide evidence from the English records documenting the Polish presence and, to the extent that it exists, the evidence of their activities in the colony. In the second article, Richard J. Orli explores the question of what role the Poles played in the fledgling colony, focusing on the debate regarding whether it was the Poles or the “Dutchmen,” sometimes identified as “Germans,” who were the glass makers. Since much of the speculation and controversy surrounding the Polish presence in early Jamestown relates to their specific economic role in the colony, Orli’s well-researched and reasoned article will prove to be an important addition to the literature on the subject.

The purpose of this initial article is to present the primary source materials contained in the extant English records from roughly the first fifteen years of the colony’s existence. There can be no doubt that there were Poles in the Jamestown colony, that they arrived only a year after the founding of the colony, and that they were skilled artisans. There are at least fourteen separate specific references to the Poles in the English records from that era, the primary sources upon which historical inquiry and interpretation are based. These include three personal observations by various Jamestown colonists summarized in The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia (1612); two additional reference in John Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia (1625); one reference in John Smith’s The True Travels and Adventures of Captaine John Smith (1819 edition); seven references in the Records of the Virginia Company of London (1619–1622); and one reference in Edward Waterhouse’s A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affaires in Virginia (1622).[1]

So, what do the primary sources tell us? The first references to Poles that have meaning for the Jamestown colony actually appear before the founding of the Virginia venture. It should be remembered that the Virginia Company of London, the parent organization of the Jamestown colony, was a joint stock company in which people invested in hopes of a profit. To make the colony productive, those planning the enterprise provided for the establishment of business enterprises that would make the colony profitable to its investors. In 1586, Richard Hakluyt described the kind of men needed for a colony in North America as “Men skilfull in burning of Sope ashes, and in making of Pitch, and Tarre, and Rozen, to be fetched out of Prussia and Poland, which are thence to be had for small wages, being there in manner of slaves.”[2] Later, John Smith, the Jamestown colony’s “president,” noted that “Muscovy and Polonia doe a yearly receaue many thousands for pitch, tarre, soap ashes, Rosen, Flax, Cordage, Sturgeon, masts, yards, wainscot, Firres, glasse, and such like.”[3] From these comments we know that the colony’s organizers were aware that Poland contained artisans skilled in making important commodities such as pitch, tar, resin, soapashes, and other materials in demand in England, as well as masts and yards in demand by the Royal Navy and English merchant vessles. Thus, they planned to base the colonny’s early productivity, as least in part, on commodities that could be produced by skilled artisans from Poland.

With the establishment of Jamestown, the arrival of the Poles is documented in Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia which notes in Chapter VII that the sailing vessel Mary and Margaret arrived in 1608 with a number of colonists and “8 Dutchmen and Poles.”[4] While the exact names, occupations, or other information relating to the “Dutchmen and Poles” were not stated, later in Chapter VII the Proceedings state: “As for the hiring of the Poles and Dutch, to make pitch and tarre, glasse, milles, and soap ashes was most necessarie and well.”[5] Further, Chapter IX describes how John Smith was attacked by an Indian near the colony and the Poles came to his rescue. It states: “Long they struggled in the water, from whence the king [the Indian elder], perceiving two of the Poles upon the sandes, would haue fled: but the President [John Smith] held him by the haire and throat til the Poles came in.”[6] From these sources we know that eight “Dutchmen” and Poles arrived in 1608, that they were hired as skilled artisans, and that two of them came to Smith’s aid when he was attacked by an Indian. Although the extant sources are not specific on how many of the eight people were actually Poles, it appears from other descriptions in the English sources that there were between four and five “Dutchmen”; thus, there must have been either three or four Poles. Richard J. Orli discusses this historical numbers problem in his essay appearing next in this issue of Polish American Studies.

The English primary sources also provide us with John Smith’s evaluation of the Poles as workers. In The Generall Historie of Virginia he explains: “All this time we had but one Carpenter in the Countrey, and three others that could doe little, but desisted to be learners; two Blacksmiths; two saylers; and those we write laborers were for the most part footmen, and such as they could perswade to goe with them, that neuer did know what dayes worke was: except the Dutch men and Poles and some dozen other.”[7] Clearly, Smith was unhappy with the work ethic of the colonists, except for “the Dutch men and Poles and some dozen other[s]” whom he exempted from the condemnation. We know from this that Smith was pleased with the Poles’ work.

Yet, Smith was not entirely happy with the situation. In his True Travels he complained that “As for hyring of the Poles and Dutchmen, to make Pitch, Tar, Glasse, Milles and Soap ashes, when the country is replenished with people and necessaries, would haue done well, but to send them and seuentie more without victuals to worke, was not so well aduised nor considered of, as it should haue been.”[8] While this passage serves as further confirmation that the Poles were present in Jamestown as skilled artisans, it also reveals Smith’s frustration that the planning for this venture by the Virginia Company of London was not as thorough as it might have been.

We also know from the various accounts that the Poles were involved in defending the colony from the hostility of the local indigenous population, suffering loss in the process. In The Generall Historie of Virginia, Smith describes the capture of two Indian “elders,” one of whom was apprehended by “Robert, a Polonian.”[9] Finally, the Virginia Company records include a first-hand account of Edward Waterhouse who identified “Mathew, a Polander” as one of the victims of an Indian attack on the colony in 1622.[10] Taken together, these references provide further evidence from original sources testifying to the presence and activity of Poles in the early Jamestown colony, and testifying to their activities.

The substantial records of the Virginia Company provide additional information on the Poles in Jamestown. In the court records there is a notation for July 21, 1619, reading:

“Upon some dispute of the Polonians resident in Virginia, it was now agreed (notwthstanding any former order to the contrary) that they shalbe enfranchized, and made as free as any inhabitant there whatsoever: And because their skill in making pitch & tarr and sope-ashees shall not dye wth them, it is agreed that some young men, shalbe put unto them to learne their skill & knowledge therein for the benefitt of the Country hereafter.”[11]

What this appears to describe is a “dispute” over enfranchisement, and possibly freedom, the latter most likely in the sense of civil liberties rather than literal freedom, as a result of which it was agreed that the Poles would be enfranchised and “made as free as any inhabitant there whatsoever.” The latter probably means that they would be granted the same civil and political rights as English citizens. Apparently in return, the Poles would teach their skills to some young men for the greater benefit of the colony.

Further light may be shed on this occurrence by a subsequent entry in the same court records which read: “Pitch and tar: potashes and soap ashes, for the making whereof the Polackers are returned to their work.”[12] Apparently the Poles left work and then returned. While not absolutely conclusive, when taken together the two entries appear to refer to the basic outlines of what we would today call a “strike.” There was a dispute over enfranchisement and freedom; the Poles stopped working; there was an agreement that the Poles would be enfranchised and given the same freedoms as any other resident; the Poles agreed to teach their skills to others in the colony; the Poles went back to work.

Under the same date, but recorded in a different volume of the Virginia Company records, there appeared another entry verifying that the return of the Poles to their work was linked also with the training of apprentices:

For pitch and tar, we advise and require that the Polackers be returned in part to these their works, with such other assistance as shall be necessary. The like we shall desire for Pot-ashes and Soap-ashes, when there shall be fit store of hand to assist them: Requiring in the meane time, the care be generally taken, that Seruants and Apprentices be so trained up in these works, as that the skill doe not perish together with the Masters.[12]

The “Masters,” of course, were the Polish artisans. Apparently not wishing to rely entirely on the training of apprentices as a source for further skilled artisans, an entry in the Company records a little over a month later refers to another venture designed to meet this need: “For hemp and flax, potashes and soapashes, pitch and tar, there is a Treaty already on foot, for procuring of men skillful in those trades from the Eastern part: besides the Polackers yet remaining in Virginia.”[13] It is clear from these entries that the manufacture of the commodities for which the Polish artisans were responsible were regarded as important aspects of Jamestown’s economic life. Equally clear is that the Poles objected to what was probably inequitable political treatment and that it was agreed that they would be considered free and enfranchised and that the Poles would teach their skills to others among the colony, whereupon the Poles returned to work.

Finally, there is the saga of “Molasco the Polander.” In 1623 he lodged a claim against the Virginia Company of London. As described in the court records:

Molasco the Polander earnestly besought that his petition might be read alledginge that he had attended about a Quarter of a yeare and the Earl of Northampton said that if his case were as he were informed he had suffered much wronge. Mr. Deputy said that he was not altogether ignorant of the matter but knewe that there was so fowle oppression that had bin used to the poore man, and likewise upon diuers others in the like cases as he was afraide, both the Companies and Plantations did to the waight of their owne sins suffered Gods punishment for these former offenses: Wherefore he thought it most necessarie to endeavor the rightinge of him, but that was to be donn accordinge to the form prescribed by the Quarter Courte; In this Court it could not be donne his case beinge verie longe and somewhat intricate: Whereupon the Earl of Southampton willed mr. Deputy with all convenient speed that might be to call the Committee to whome that matter was referred, that so the Court might doe him justice: Which mr. Deputy promised.[14]
From this we may conclude that Molasco filed a claim against the Virginia Company which court officials believe to have merit. This initial reference in the court records was followed a year later with another entry, apparently about the same claim:

Molasco the Polander – Peticioninge for such money hee said his Majesties Commissioners found due unto him from the Company was answered that the Company had made itt appeare by their answere that ye said Commissioners that hee was not to be satisfied from them butt from such as have received great allowances from the Company for satisfaction of him and the rest of Polanders as appeared upon the Companies Accompts, And namely from mr. Woodall whom the Commissioner promised to examine upon Oath touching the said moneys, unto whome the Petitioner was to repayre to know what they had done therein.[15]

From this entry it appears that Molasco’s claim was investigated and he was awarded a judgment. However, there was a dispute about whether the funds to meet Molasco’s claim were to come from the Company or from people the Company had already paid to satisfy its debts. The other important information contained in this entry is that there were other Poles who were to be satisfied as well. From these entries we know that one of the Poles filed a claim against the company, apparently on behalf of himself and other Poles, that royal commissioners agreed with the claim, and that the Poles had difficulty collecting.

A final entry in the Company records referring to Molasco indicates that he was among those who voted to surrender the charter of the Company to the government in 1623.[16] From this, it would appear that the Company did honor the agreement to enfranchise the Poles, for Molasco, as a free man, was exercising his right to vote.

To summarize, then, the English records provide clear proof of the Polish presence in early Jamestown. We know leaders of the Virginia Company of London, including John Smith, were aware that Poland contained artisans skilled in making important commodities much in demand in England, and for which there were abundant raw materials in the New World. We know that between two and four Poles arrived in 1608, that they were hired as skilled artisans, and that John Smith valued their work. We know that two of the Poles came to Smith’s aid when he was attacked by Indians, that one later captured an Indian “elder” during a skirmish with the local inhabitants, and that a Pole was among those killed in the Indian attack on Jamestown in 1622. We know that the Poles objected to what was probably inequitable political treatment and that it was agreed that they would be considered free and enfranchised and that in return the Poles would teach their skills to others among the colony. We know that Poles remained in the colony at least into the 1620s, and that one filed a claim against the Company on behalf of them, that royal commissioners agreed with the claim, and that the Poles had difficulty collecting.

All of the information above is verified in the extant English records. At present, this is what we know of the early Polish presence in Jamestown. Notwithstanding the claims of ethnic journalists and others, until additional verified sources are found, this is all that we know with certainty. It is this proven record that ought to be remembered and commemorated as part of our national experience.

1� Sources referenced here that specifically refer to the Polish presence in Jamestown include: The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia Since Their First Beginning from England in the Yeare of Our Lord 1606, Till This Present 1612, With All Their Accidents That Befell Them in Their Iournies and Discoveries (Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1612), Chapter VII; John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Iles with the Names of Adventurers, Planters and Governours from their First Beginning An: 1548 to the Present 1624 (Oxford, 1625) [it was also published in a London edition of 1629 that was reprinted in Richmond by Franklin Press in 1819]; John Smith, The True Travels and Adventures of Captaine John Smith (Richmond: 1819), I, 193; Susan Myra Kingsbury, ed., Records of the Virginia Company of London (Washington: 1906–1936, 4 vols.), Court Book, July 21, 1619 (Vol. I, 353), May 17, 1620 (Vol. I, 353), May 17, 1620 (Vol. III, 278), and June 22, 1620 (Vol. III, 304); Edward Waterhouse, A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affaires in Virginia (1622).

2� See E. G. R. Raylor, ed., The Original Writings & Correspondence of the Two Richard Hakluyts (London: Hakluyt Society Publications Series 2, LXXVI–LXXVII, 1935). The Richard referred to here is the lawyer. In this and subsequent quotations, the original spelling has been maintained.

3� John Smith, A Map of Virginia. With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion (Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1612), 360.

4� Smith, Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia, Chapter VII.

5� Smith, Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia, Chapter VII.

6� Smith, Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia, Chapter IX.

7� Edward Arber, ed., Travels and Works of Captain Smith (Birmingham, England: 1884), I, 434.

8� Smith, True Travels, I, 193.

9� Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia. This engagement, which took place in 1616, was attested to by the following witnesses: Captain Nathaniel Powell, William Cantrill, Sergeant Booth, and Edward Gurganey.

10� Edward Waterhouse, A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affaires in Virginia (1622).

11� Susan M. Kingsbury, ed., Records of the Virginia Company of London (Washington: 1906–1936), Court Book (July 21, 1619), Vol. I, 251–52.

12� Kingsbury, Records of the Virginia Company, May 17, 1620, Vol. I, 353.

12� Kingsbury, Records of the Virginia Company, May 17, 1620, Vol. III, 278.

13� Kingsbury, Records of the Virginia Company, July 22, 1620, Vol. III, 304.

14� Kingsbury, Records of the Virginia Company, February 19, 1623, Vol. II, 279.

15� Kingsbury, Records of the Virginia Company, February 2, 1624, Vol. II, 510.

16� Kingsbury, Records of the Virginia Company, November 1623, Vol. II.

 

BY: James S. Pula