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CW Journal : Winter 2004-05 : Henricus: A New and Improved Jamestown

Henricus: A New and Improved Jamestown

by Mary Miley Theobald

Recreation of the settlement

At Henricus Historical Park, Nathan Hall, left, and Lindsay Gray re-create life inside the settlement Sir Thomas Dale built in 1611 to replace the ailing and vulnerable Jamestown.

A woman cards wool

At Henricus, Jill Pesesky cards wool, demonstrating a step in the craft of spinning. The seventeenth-century settlement lasted a dozen years.

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An interpreter shows his skill with bow and arrow

At Arrahatak, a re-creation of an Indian village at Henricus Historical Park, Pete McKee shows his skill with bow and arrow.

Engraving of Smith's aborted execution

An engraving in a 1626 German book depicts John Smith's imminent but aborted execution in the left background.

Statue of Pocahontas

The statue of Pocahontas at Jamestown. Her protection and plea to her father for mercy kept Smith's brains from being dashed.

The Virginia Company of London's Sir Thomas Dale shipped up the James River in the summer of 1611 searching for a place to plant a new and improved version of Jamestown—the flagging first permanent English settlement in America thirty miles downstream. It would be called the Citie of Henrico or Henricus in honor of Prince Henry, heir to the English throne and a great supporter of the Virginia colony. The town would have a shorter life than its namesake—a dozen years to the prince's eighteen—but its significance was greater than that suggests.

While Dale scouted for a suitable site, laborers in Jamestown were ordered to start cutting "pales, posts and railes to impaile his proposed new Towne." Instructions to Dale and to Governor Thomas Gates from the Virginia Company, which owned and financed the Virginia enterprise, made clear that Henricus would become the colony's new seat, and so required a location that was healthier and easier to defend than Jamestown.

It was not the Indians who worried the English, but the Spanish. Virginia colonists were intruding into what Spain considered its own "Iberian lake," the Atlantic Ocean. The Spanish had claimed ownership of much of the Americas since 1494, when Pope Alexander VI bestowed it upon them. The world's only superpower, Spain could not be expected to ignore such an affront by the upstart English. Spanish ships had explored the Chesapeake Bay, which Spaniards called the Bay of Santa Maria, but their effort to settle Jesuits to Christianize the Powhatan Indians in the late sixteenth century had been disastrous for both sides. The Powhatans murdered the missionaries; the missionaries and their shipmates introduced Old World diseases that caused widespread death that weakened the tribe. The experience with the Spanish prepared the Powhatans to deal more astutely with the English arrivals in 1607.

If the English doubted how the Spanish might react, they had only to recall Spain's brutal extermination of a small French settlement in Florida, Fort Caroline, in 1565 and its slaughter of a band of shipwrecked Huguenots a few days later. The war between England and Spain that began in 1585 and saw the defeat of the Spanish Armada had concluded in 1604, but the peace was uneasy. Spies and statesmen kept their monarchs scrupulously informed about the goings-on in Virginia. The Spanish ambassador to England repeatedly urged his king to wipe out the trespassers before they became entrenched. Don Diego de Molina, a Spanish prisoner at Jamestown, smuggled out a letter in 1613 imploring Phillip III, King of Spain and Portugal, "to stop the progress of a hydra in its infancy" before it became a "gathering-place of all the pirates of Europe."

Virginia's answer to the Spanish threat was Henricus. Removing the colony's principal town farther upriver would make it harder for Spanish warships to attack. The Virginia Company instructed Dale to build Henricus some distance from deep water, beyond the range of enemy ordnance, "where he can never march with horse" or drag cannon through the forest. Whistling in the dark, the English put their faith in the fragility of long supply lines, trusting that if attacked they could hold out until Spanish soldiers became "wearied and starved."

Dale selected a peninsula that matched the company directive. "I have surveyed a convenient strong, healthie and sweete seate to plant a new Towne in," he wrote. London promoter Robert Johnson's 1612 pamphlet reported:

The Colonie is removed up the river fourscore miles further beyond James towne to a place of higher ground, strong and defencible by nature, a good aire, wholesome and cleere (unlike the marish seate at James towne) with fresh and plentie of water springs, much faire and open grounds freed from woods, and wood enough at hand.

Dale took a ship to the Henricus site, but most of the three hundred men in his command walked. The Indians harassed them along the way and after their arrival. But Dale was the real bane of their existence. He drove his men mercilessly. Accused of horrendous cruelties and heartily despised, he built the town in record time. In ten days the settlers completed a vertical log palisade securing seven acres of land, then built corner watchtowers, a church, and storehouses. Only then, according to a history written by long-gone Captain John Smith, did Dale "thinke upon convenient houses for himself and men."

Descriptions of Henricus conflict. De Molina had ringing contempt for English construction, saying that a mere five hundred Spaniards could easily destroy the colony because "the forts which they have are of boards and so weak that a kick would break them down." He was prisoner in one near Old Point Comfort near the mouth of the bay, built by 1609. Captain Ralph Hamor, in a 1614 account repeated almost verbatim by later authors, wrote:

There is in this towne, 3 streets of well framed howses, a handsom Church, and the foundation of a more stately one laid, of Brick, in length, an hundred foote, and fifty foot wide, beside Store houses, watch houses, and such like: there are also, as ornaments belonging to this Town, upon the verge of this River, five faire Block houses.

The minister at Henricus, Alexander Whitaker, wrote in a 1612 pamphlet promoting donations for the salvation of Indian souls that the weather at Henricus was idyllic and assured readers in England that there were not more than three sick people in the settlement: "Many have died with us heretofore thorough their owne filthinesse and want of bodilie comforts for sicke men; but now very few are sicke among us."

A Virginia Company pamphlet describes cheerful workers building fine brick homes.

Being thus invited here, they pitch, the spade men fell to digging, the brick men burnt their bricks, the company cut down wood, the Carpenters fell to squaring out, the Sawyers to sawing, the Souldier to fortifying, and every man to somewhat. And to answer the first objection for holesome lodging, here they have built competent and decent houses, the first storie all of bricks, that every man may have his lodging and dwelling place apart by himselfe.
Most historians believe the upbeat tracts were propaganda intended to persuade Englishmen to send more of their money and their sons to the colony. Archaeologist Nick Luccketti, who has excavated the area around Henricus, says, "The buildings they describe are far grander than the sort built in Virginia in the 1610s and 1620s."

Across the river, Dale began additional fortifications, creating a suburb of sorts. Here the colonists were reported to have erected palisades and five tiny fortified dwellings across a narrow peninsula. Inside the pale they constructed "a retreat, or guest house for sick people," called Mount Malady, the first English hospital in America. Areas inside the palisade were given optimistic names—Coxendale, and Hope in Faith, for example—and nearby Whitaker built "a faire framed parsonage house" called Rock Hall. It was to Rock Hall that young Pocahontas came after she was kidnapped by the English, and where she lived while Whitaker instructed her in the Christian faith and baptized her.

Christianizing Virginia's Indians was a priority with the Virginia Company and King James. They planned to build a college at Henricus to teach Indian children trades useful to the English, and to train them as missionaries to their own people. One hundred English tenants were sent to work ten thousand acres of college land to provide income for the school's support, and more than A32,000 sterling was raised in churches throughout England to get the institution off the ground.

But it was not to be. The Indians proved "very loathe upon any tearmes to part with theire children," Governor George Yeardley said, and the Powhatan uprising of 1622, in which about 350 English died, sent colonists looking for revenge instead of converts. When the College of William and Mary was established seven decades later, it did include an Indian school, the Brafferton, but it was built in Williamsburg, not Henricus.

The Citie of Henricus, like its predecessor, Jamestown, did not thrive. The seat of government did not move upriver. In 1616 Henricus's population stood at about sixty. During their 1622 uprising, the Powhatans burned part of the town—or perhaps all of it—and killed an unknown number of colonists. One year later, a visitor, Captain Nathaniel Butler, reported that he

found the Antient Plantations of Henrico and Charles Citty wholly quitted and lefte to the spoile of the Indians, who not onely burned the houses saide to be once the best of all others, but fell upon the Poultry, Hoggs, Cowes, Goates and Horses whereof they killed great numbers to the greate griefe as well as ruine of the Olde Inhabitants.
But local planters said Henricus lingered and that seven large guns were still there in 1624.

Remnants of the town and a great ditch Dale had dug along the palisade were visible more than a century later. William Stith, rector of Henrico parish and one of the governors of the College of William and Mary, wrote in 1747 that "the ruins of this Town are still plainly traced and distinguished, upon the Land of the late Col. William Randolph, of Tuckahoe." As late as the Civil War, a historian wrote that Dale's breastworks "and vestiges of the town are indicated by scattered bricks showing the positions of the houses."

As it turned out, the Spanish never attacked. The Powhatans did. Why didn't the Spanish act? A small fleet could have wiped out the pathetic English colony easily during its early years, and advisors to Phillip III recommended just that. The king agreed to the plan they proposed. But the "all devouring Spaniard" so feared by Jamestown's leaders never laid his ravenous hands upon Virginia.

Both kings wanted to maintain the fragile peace between their countries. Long years of war and piracy had depleted their treasuries. The Spanish military had to concentrate on suppressing a Dutch rebellion. The peace treaty with England guaranteed that the English would stop helping Dutch Protestants in their fight for independence, and that they would stop privateers from preying on Spanish vessels. Besides, reasoned Phillip, the Jamestown colony was unlikely to survive—reports from his spies about starvation, disease, and Indian troubles must have had him chuckling—and Virginia had no gold or silver. Why not sit back and enjoy watching James I get sucked into the Virginia money pit? If the price of English pacification was one miserable colony in Virginia, Phillip was prepared to pay.

Like Wolstenholme Towne, seven miles below Jamestown, and other settlements destroyed by the Indians in 1622, Henricus would not be rebuilt. There was scant need for towns in the early plantation economy, so in a sense, Henricus was a victim of Virginia economic success. As self-contained tobacco plantations prospered, the larger ones became miniature villages themselves with storehouses, docks, essential trades, and sometimes a church. The only reason for a town to exist was the business of government, and one was enough. Jamestown, and later Williamsburg, was the colonial capital, the place where the governor resided, the courts convened, and the legislature met.

The exact site of Henricus is lost. The general area has been disrupted during the past three centuries, from the Civil War, when Union forces cut a canal to straighten out the river, to more recent gravel mining and the construction of a Dominion Virginia Power electric power station. Three serious archaeological attempts since the 1970s have turned up a few nails and some lead shot but no other evidence of the settlement.

The town, however, is represented by Henricus Historical Park, peopled by costumed interpreters in reconstructed buildings. By the fall of 2005 three more reconstructions are to join Arrahatak, a representation of an Indian village, the fortified Citie, and the John Rolfe Farm. These include Mount Malady, a tavern, and Rock Hall, the home of Rev. Whitaker and, for a time, Pocahontas. Henricus is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

More than eight hundred acres surrounding the historical site form the Dutch Gap Conservation Area, home to blue herons, eagles, and other rare birds. The Audubon Society lists Henricus-Dutch Gap as one of the top sites for birding in Virginia. Trails are open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Archaeologist Luccketti speculates that the town was slightly behind the reconstruction of the village, on what was once a broad, high clearing a short distance from the river. If so, it was destroyed by gravel mining. Today the Dutch Gap Conservation Area and a Dominion Virginia Power plant co-exist where once stood the Citie of Henricus.