The Plymouth Company, who were to control North Virginia, were first in the field of adventure. Circumstances seemed to be favorable. England was then burdened with two classes of men who would be willing to engage in any enterprise which might promise improvement in their condition. These were restless soldiers unemployed since war with France ceased, and who might soon become dangerous to the state; and impoverished spend-thrifts, idle and often vicious, who had wasted their estates in riotous living. Such men stood ready to brave ocean perils and the uncertainties of life in a distant hemisphere; and when the corporators asked for emigrants, there was no lack of candidates.
The charter of each company was the same. The defined boundaries of each domain was as follows: that of the London Company, between the thirty-fourth and thirty-eighth degrees of north latitude, and that of the Plymouth Company, between the forty-first and forty-fifth degrees, leaving three degrees of space between North and South Virginia, on a breadth of one hundred miles of which, in the centre, neither party should be allowed to make settlements.
The mind of the king was visible in the grant. The idea of the royal prerogative was everywhere conspicuous. He gave to the colonists nothing but the bare territory and the privilege of peopling and defending it. Absolute legislative authority was reserved to the monarch, and he had control over all appointments. Supreme jurisdiction, under the monarch, was given to a small body of men residing in England, known as "The Council of Virginia," and local administration was entrusted to a council in the colony appointed by the one at home, the term of office of the members of both councils depending upon the caprice of the king. The only political privilege accorded to the emigrants was that of perpetual English citizenship for themselves and their children. Homage and rent were the prime conditions of the charter,-rent in the form of one-fifth of the net produce of the precious metals. The charter had not the slightest feature of a free government; for to the emigrants not a single elective franchise, or a right to self-government, was conceded. They were subject to the ordinances of a commercial corporation of which they were not allowed to be members; and even in matters of religion, they had no choice. The doctrine and rituals of the Church of England were to be the established theology and mode of worship in the American colonies, and no dissent was allowed.
The principal members of the Plymouth Company were Sir John Popham (then Lord Chief-Justice of England, who had condemned Raleigh to death), his brother George, Sir Fernando Gorges, Sir John and Raleigh Gilbert, sons of Sir Humphrey Gilbert who perished in the Squirrel, William Parker and Thomas Hanham. In 1606 they sent an agent in a small vessel to inspect the American domain. The Spaniards seized her. Popham fitted out another at his own expense, made the navigator Martin Pring her commander, and sent her to America on the same errand. Pring explored the New England coasts, and confirmed all that Gosnold and others had said about the beauty of the country and the fertility of the soil. This report stimulated Popham (who was the chief manager of the Plymouth Company) to energetic efforts towards founding a settlement, and at the beginning of the summer of 1607, a hundred emigrants sailed for America in three small vessels, with George Popham as their governor. They landed on a rather sterile spot on the coast of Maine, near the mouth of the Kennebec River, late in August, where they dug a well and built a store-house, a few log huts and a stockade fort. It was too late in the season to raise food from the soil. There was small promise of receiving any from the Indians, who, angered by the kidnapping by Weymouth, were sullen and hostile. With this prospect before them, all but forty-five of the emigrants returned home in the ships.
The ensuing winter was a fearful one in New England Colonies. Frost closed the rivers against fishermen, and deep snows blocked the forests against hunters. The settlers had nothing to depend upon excepting the stores brought from England. At one time their huts were nearly buried in the snow-drifts. Of two of them only the chimneys were seen above the snow for a month, out of which rolled the blue smoke along the surface of the white drifts. It was difficult to get fuel to feed the hut fires, and they were about to make the store-house their general home, when, at midnight in January, it took fire and was consumed, with a part of their provisions, which they could not save. That fire produced a wild, weird scene, its red glare spreading a crimson glow far over the snow and through the dark forests. Distress followed. Confinement, hardship and scarcity gendered disease, and when the spring of 1608 opened, Governor Popham was dead.
The settlers were on the verge of despair when a ship came with supplies and brought the sad intelligence that the chief-justice and Sir John Gilbert were dead. These men were the stronger props of the enterprise. This news, with the terrible scenes of the past winter fresh in their memories, discouraged the emigrants, and they abandoned the country and returned home, taking with them a little vessel which they had built, and some furs and other products of the country. They were not fit men to found a state. They were compulsory emigrants sent hither by their personal necessities, and had left their country for their country's good. Happily for New England they were not allowed to be the founders of a commonwealth on its soil. They gave such discouraging accounts of the country that no one seemed willing to follow their example; and for a number of years afterward the Plymouth Company only kept up a little traffic with the natives of their domain, and fished in the neighboring waters.
Return to Our Country, Vol. I