The History and Present State of Virginia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Thus a few Months indiscreet Management brought such an Infamy upon the Country, that to this Day it cannot be wiped away: And the Sicknesses occasion’d by this bad Diet, or rather want of Diet are unjustly remember’d to the Disadvantage of the Country, as a Fault in the Climate.”

Summary Overview

The History and Present State of Virginia was the first work on Virginia history published by a native of the colony. It was published anonymously in London as by “A Native and Inhabitant of that Place,” and the title page identifies the author as “R. B., gentleman.” (Anonymous publication was not uncommon among aristocrats in both Virginia and England, as it avoided what was then the stigma of professional authorship.) The work is divided into four sections: the first on the history of the settlement, the second on natural resources found in Virginia, the third on American Indians (referred to as “Native Indians” throughout the document), and the fourth on the state of the Virginia government and economy at the time of the document’s writing.

Like many colonial accounts written for an English or European audience, it had promotional elements that paint a picture of the prosperity and economic opportunity of the colony in the hope of encouraging investment and immigration to Virginia. The section reproduced here covers the early history of the first settlers of Virginia in the Jamestown region.

Defining Moment

The History and Present State of Virginia was published at a time when the English had little general knowledge of Virginia or America, and no full-length description of the colony had been published in either America or England. However, with the growing prosperity of the colonies and the American involvement in wars with France (beginning with the Nine Years’ War, known as King William’s War in America), English interest in the colonies was growing.

The Virginia planter class had also established a stable economy in the region that was based on tobacco plantations cultivated by slaves. Thus, planters like Beverley, many of whom had been educated in England, were turning from plantation development to institution-building or more intellectual pursuits. (Virginia’s first institution of higher learning, the College of William and Mary, had been founded in 1693.) The American Indians had been defeated and expelled from the coastal Tidewater region, which was also Beverley’s home and the center of Virginia’s economy and polity, and they no longer posed a threat to the English settlers. Although the War of the Spanish Succession had begun in 1701 (and lasted until 1714), Virginia was relatively secure from attack due to its distance from French Canada to the north and Spanish Florida to the south. Furthermore, as the Virginia economy grew more stable and the residents grew more secure, those of the Virginia planter class, the colony’s elite, also began to identify themselves as Virginians rather than as English settlers. This newfound individuality was sometimes expressed in opposition to the government when planters believed England was threatening their liberties, but there was also patriotism and pride exhibited in the celebration of the nature and history of Virginia and in being Virginian.

The History and Present State of Virginia was published in the early Enlightenment period when the secular approach to history and society taken by Beverley was growing more common and when Indians were not viewed as terrifying, diabolical enemies but more often as “noble savages” who were living happy lives away from the corruptions of civilization. Enlightenment writing was also influenced by the humanistic tradition of moral teaching and by the antiquarian tradition of accurate, document-based scholarship. The seventeenth-century religious and political divisions of England, which had also affected its colonies, had grown less polarizing, although they were still a presence in English and American culture.

Author Biography

Robert Beverley (1673–1722) was born in Virginia and educated in England. His father, Major Robert Beverley, was a leading politician of the colony during the late seventeenth century. A member of the planter class, the younger Robert Beverley was briefly married to sixteen-year-old Ursula Byrd of the powerful Byrd family of Westover, Virginia, but she died less than a year after they were married, shortly after giving birth to their son, William. Despite the family connection, Beverley had little regard for his brother-in-law and fellow historian, William Byrd II. Beverley never remarried.

Beverley held various minor political jobs in the colony serving as a volunteer scrivener, or clerk—an excellent position from which to learn the basics of Virginia government and the handling of Virginia documents. His political career culminated in his winning a seat in the House of Burgesses, Virginia’s legislative body, in 1699. Beverley was also a patriotic Virginian who viewed the English government with suspicion as a potential threat to the liberties of the colony. As was common in the Virginia planter class, Beverley engaged in numerous lawsuits. He visited England in 1703 to make an appeal to the Privy Council in a lawsuit over land he had acquired near Elizabeth City. While there, he charged Virginia’s governor, Francis Nicholson, with conspiring against the liberties of Virginia and alleged that English officials were planning to establish a standing army in the colony to repress the people of Virginia. (Beverley also resented Nicholson’s moving the capital of the colony from Jamestown, where Beverley owned property, to Williamsburg.) During this visit, Beverley began work on The History and Present State of Virginia, as an attempt to correct a manuscript account of the history of the colony that was then circulating in London and was possibly authored by Beverley’s brother-in-law, William Byrd II. Beverley had found that the English were poorly informed on the subject of Virginia, and he claimed that some believed the climate of the colony turned everyone who lived there black.

Beverley’s alienation of Nicholson and other Virginia leaders effectively ended his political career. On his return to the colony, he adopted a retired and scholarly life on his estate, dabbling in schemes such as establishing a wine industry there. In addition to The History and Present State of Virginia, Beverley also published An Abridgement of the Publick Laws of Virginia (1722), which was dedicated to Alexander Spottswood, one of the few Virginia governors during Beverley’s adult lifetime that he admired. Beverley also may have been the author of An Essay upon the Government of the English Plantations in the Continent of America (1701), which was attributed to Charles Davenant.

Document Analysis

Beverley’s account is devoted to the events of the period when the government of the Virginia colony changed from a president elected by the settlers to a governor appointed by the financial backers of the colony, the Virginia Company, which was headquartered in London. It was a time when Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in Virginia, was the center of colonization in North America.

Beverley’s account takes the form of an annual, with events recounted on a year-by-year basis, rather than an analytical history, although he freely gives his opinion rather than merely recounting the facts. The early years of settlement in Virginia were difficult, with widespread hunger, internal dissension, and several violent conflicts between the settlers and the Indians. It is Beverley’s goal to show that these difficulties and hardships were not the fault of the country itself, which he praises profusely, but of poor leadership—”a few months indiscreet management”—and bad government, often caused by a refusal to accept legitimate authority. The principal importance of the disasters of this period is not that they meant the Virginia colony was doomed—obviously it was flourishing in Beverley’s day—but that they created an image of Virginia as a place of hardship and disaster, a conception that Beverley believed still dominated English thinking about the colony a century later. The History and Present State of Virginia, printed in England and aimed at an English audience rather than Virginians themselves, had the mission of dispelling these false impressions, which discouraged English and European investment in Virginia and emigration to the colony. In contrast, Beverley presents a positive image of Virginia as a healthful land brimming with natural abundance.

Beverley’s analysis of the early history of Virginia is basically secular. Although the settlers of Virginia were members of the Church of England, they did not usually interpret their history through the providential lens of their contemporaries, the Puritans of New England. (This is one reason why historical writing began in New England several decades before it began in Virginia.) By contrast with the historiography of the early settlement of New England, much of which revolves around ministers and religious disputes, the early history of Virginia barely features ministers or religious questions at all. Even natural disasters, such as the storm that breaks up the fleet and strands the three governors in Bermuda, Beverley does not interpret as providential actions of God, although he does make passing references to “good providence.” He clearly does not see the settlement of Virginia as part of the unfolding of a divine plan, contrasting with his contemporary, Puritan minister Cotton Mather of Boston, whose own history of English settlement in the Americas was titled Magnalia Christi Americana: The Ecclesiastical History of New England (1720). Even when Beverley speaks of the conversion of the Indians to Christianity, he speaks of the peace and prosperity it would have brought to Virginia and to the Indians themselves, not of the spiritual benefits they would have derived. When he recounts the fact that some of the early settlers were driven by desperation to cannibalism, he displays no particular horror and treats it as an extreme to which people were driven, not as a punishment for sin or an abomination meriting the wrath of God. Even his praise of Virginia, however, remains fundamentally secular, and he does not portray the colony as an earthly paradise or new Eden.

Beverley is interested in the political and material life of the colony rather than the spiritual or emotional life, which is exemplified in his framing of the period in terms of a change in administration and his constant recounting of the quantities of different foodstuffs and livestock available to the settlers. One way that Beverley makes his point about the fertility and abundance of Virginia is by contrasting the starving English in the fortresses besieged by the Indians and the plentiful food they could have consumed had they only been able to go out and enjoy Virginia’s natural bounty. (Beverley is careful to catalog the many types of food available, ranging from plants—”the Fruits of the Earth”—to crustaceans and shellfish, fish, birds, and mammals.) He even goes so far as to claim that the original colonists could have supported themselves out of the local produce without planting anything. The only reason they could not support themselves—and even endured a period known as the Starving Time—was their own mistakes and poor management by the Virginia Company, which Beverley blames for the difficulties of the settlers as well as the poor return on investment received by the fledgling colony’s London backers.

Beverley acknowledges that many of the English have a negative impression of Virginia, and he claims this was based on the many problems of the early years of the colony, particularly Starving Time. The horrors of this period led to an exaggeration of the challenges the land posed to settlement and an underrating of its virtues, including its fertility and healthfulness. (In the absence of the germ theory of disease, the idea that “Climate” was to blame for illness was widespread, while Beverley believed that the sicknesses of the early settlers were actually caused by a temporary bad diet situation.) To persuade the English that Virginia was a viable colony, Beverley explains how the problems of the early colony were caused by bad management, not a hostile environment, and had been remedied with better, wiser policies. Beverley leaned heavily on Captain John Smith’s The General History of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624) in his account of early Virginia history. Smith is the focus of the earlier portion of Beverley’s narrative. Smith’s actions are portrayed as saving the colony from what Beverley describes as being doomed by the quarrelsomeness, laziness, and foolishness of others. The colony runs well in Smith’s presence and poorly in his absence. Other authority figures, such as Lord de la Warr (who saved the colony from disappearing when the remaining population was ready to return to England), Sir Thomas Dale, and Sir Thomas Gates are also portrayed favorably. After rescuing the colony, Lord de la Warr became its governor. When he became ill and was forced to return to England, the colony relapsed, only to be saved again by Dale.

In line with the hierarchical nature of Virginia society, Beverley portrays disasters as resulting from the refusal to recognize existing authority. When the “Passengers” arrive without the “Governours,” for example, their rejection of the colonial government’s authority leads to their massacre by the Indians. Beverley therefore endorses a conservative English lifestyle in which societies that obey a wise leader, such as Smith, are successful, while poorly led or more democratic societies are doomed to failure. He identifies the nameless rebels who so damaged the early colony as “those who assumed the power of Governing”—in other words, those who had no legitimate right to govern but who took power unto themselves. The fact that the original colonists were from a mix of social classes and that early Virginia was a mass of socially dislocated people that had not developed a stable landowning class like Beverley’s inspired his condemnation, even as he often opposed the government of his own day.

Unlike the Puritans of New England, who were closely aligned with the revolutionary Roundhead forces who had temporarily “assumed the power of governing” during the mid-seventeenth-century English Civil War, the planters of Virginia were aligned with, and often descended from, the royalist Cavaliers, who endorsed a hierarchical and authoritarian— “patriarchal” in the seventeenth-century sense—theory of social order. Although these issues were no longer as divisive in English and American society as they had been in the seventeenth century, they were still a prominent feature of the intellectual landscape. (Beverley strongly condemns Oliver Cromwell and other Roundheads when his narrative reaches the period of the Civil War.) The Church of England, the dominant religious force in colonial Virginia, strongly supported the patriarchal theory of authority. Beverley’s father had been a conspicuous opponent of the popular rebellion led by the frontier planter Nathaniel Bacon in 1676 and was a defender of the royal governor, Sir William Berkeley. However, Beverley was much more likely to ascribe virtue to the earliest rulers of the colony, like Smith, the leader of the colony before the coming of the governors, and de la Warr, than to subsequent governors in his own time.

Unlike New England writers, whose communities were perpetually under judgment and always at least potentially threatened by God’s wrath, Beverley believed that the difficulties of the early days were caused by secular forces and had been permanently surmounted. He endorses an Enlightenment narrative of “progress” from an uncivilized to a civilized state.

Although Beverley does not conceal the numerous conflicts between English settlers and American Indians during the colonization of Virginia, his attitude toward the Indians is less hostile than that of many other American writers. (In the preface to the book, he identifies himself as an “Indian,” claiming to appear in plain dress rather than the ornate clothing of a European—an early example of the appropriation of the “Native” image by settlers and their descendants.) One possible reason for Beverley’s positive attitude towards the Indians is that he was writing at a time when they no longer represented a threat to Tidewater Virginia settlers. Hatred toward Indians was increasingly associated with frontier settlers who were in direct contact with Indian societies. In the case of Virginia, hostility toward the Indians was also associated with Bacon’s Rebellion, which began as an assault on Governor Berkeley for being too tolerant of Indian attacks. As a patriotic American who rhapsodizes over the products of American nature, Beverley also includes Indians in his praises. He reflects a positive attitude to the Indians that was characteristic of the early Enlightenment. To Beverley, the Indians were living according to nature, away from the corruption of civilization. His account includes the classic story of Pocahontas who married an English settler, John Rolfe, and eventually journeyed to England where she died of unknown causes. He uses the first part of the story to praise Pocahontas as “excellent” and to depict her father, Powhatan, according to the standards of the affectionate family that were becoming increasingly popular in eighteenth-century England and America. He also refers to Powhatan as a “Prince,” making him the highest-ranking person appearing in the narrative and showing him the respect due to royalty from a social and political conservative like Beverley. As a monarchical society, the Indians were worthy of respect from Beverley’s point of view. He is careful to establish that Rolfe, unlike many of the early settlers, was a “gentleman,” and therefore socially suited to marry an Indian princess.

Beverley uses the marriage of Pocahontas to Rolfe as a springboard to discuss what he sees as a lost opportunity—the large-scale intermarriage of American Indians and English. Beverley blames the English, claiming that the Indians had always supported the idea and seen it as essential in building a friendship with the English. The marriage of Pocahontas and Rolfe had ended the feud between the English and Powhatan’s people, and Beverley believed that large-scale intermarriage would have prevented, or greatly reduced, the bloodshed between Indians and English that characterized the early history of Virginia and contributed to the colony’s bad reputation in England. With an increase in immigration and investment, the colony would have grown faster with fewer losses in war and more children, particularly in the early days when it was difficult to induce English women to emigrate. (Although Beverley does not refer to it, England’s colonial rival France had encouraged intermarriage between French settlers and Indians, a policy that led to closer cooperation than existed between Indians and the English in any English colony.) However, Beverley does not advocate intermarriage to enhance English dominance or assimilate American Indians to English religion and customs. Rather, he sees a cooperative relationship as a way to preserve the Indian nations, a goal he believes is desirable not only for the Indians themselves but for the colony as well. Beverley writes of the death or disappearance of Indians from Virginia with a tone of regret. A blended, Christian civilization would have ensured a more populous and prosperous Virginia.

Although this particular passage does not deal with the economic basis of the early Virginia colony—tobacco farming, much of the unwillingness of the settlers to grow food and provide for themselves was caused by the dreams of getting rich quick on tobacco. The problem Beverley identifies as the unwillingness of settlers to work he claims was solved by the intervention of authority. Of course, the problem of labor in the new colony was not ultimately solved by colonial authorities putting English settlers—or the Indians—to work, but by the large-scale adoption of African slavery. Although he himself benefitted from the slave economy, Beverley does not discuss slavery in this section of his history because the part of the Virginia story he is recounting here precedes the arrival of the first Africans at Jamestown in 1621.

Essential Themes

The History and Present State of Virginia was republished in 1722 with many of Beverley’s witty jibes and sharp criticisms of individuals omitted. Some of the praises of the American Indians are also toned down in the second edition. There was a French edition of the 1705 work, a literal translation published in 1707 and republished several times and as a pirated edition with slight editing to spare French sensibilities. (Beverley’s original text referred to a frog “big enough to feed six Frenchmen,” which the pirated edition altered to “six people.”) Like many Americans, Beverley viewed the persecuted French Protestant Huguenots as a major target of emigrant recruitment, so republication in French would enhance the value of his book.

Beverley’s way of telling the story of early Virginia, with its secularity and focus on material interests, would dominate the subsequent historiography of the Virginia colony. Although he did not acknowledge it, the English compiler John Oldmixon drew heavily on Beverley in his The British Empire in America (1708), and Beverley then included four pages pointing out Oldmixon’s errors in the 1722 edition of The History and Present State of Virginia. Beverley’s rival and brother-in-law William Byrd II, in his History of the Dividing Line: Run in the Year 1728, would also argue for intermarriage as a means to establish lasting peace between Indian tribes and English settlers. Like Beverley, he would view the lack of intermarriage as a lost opportunity, rather than as a policy that could be still put into effect. Additionally, the Pocahontas story would have a long history in American popular culture, as would the heroic legend of John Smith.

Beverley’s work was important in the establishment of a Virginian cultural identity distinct from that of England. His conception of an American identity was not political in nature and did not extend to solidarity with other people in distant colonies, however. Beverley would be among the first in a long line of Virginia planters to write about the history and institutions of their community, culminating in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). In fact, Jefferson refers to Beverley as one of the standard writers on Virginia history, noting his extreme brevity with some displeasure.

Bibliography
  • Beverley, Robert. The History and Present State of Virginia. Ed. Louis B. Wright. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1947. Print.
  • Davenant, Charles. An Essay upon the Government of the English Plantations on the Continent of America. New York: Arno, 1972. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Billings, Warren M., John E. Selbym, and Thad W. Tate. Colonial Virginia: A History. White Plains: KTO, 1986. Print.
  • Davis, Richard Beale. Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1583–1763. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1978. Print.
  • Evans, Emory G. A “Topping People”: The Rise and Decline of Virginia’s Old Political Elite, 1680–1790. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2009.
  • Landsman, Ned C. From Colonials to Provincials: American Thought and Culture 1680–1760. New York: Twayne, 1997. Print.
  • Parrish, Susan Scott. American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2006. Print.
  • Rogers, Pat. “An Early Colonial Historian: John Oldmixon and The British Empire in America.Journal of American Studies 7.2 (1973): 113–23. Print.

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