Across the Atlantic
Ulster and Jamestown - the American Perspective
Audrey Horning holds a BA in History and Anthropology from the College of William and Mary (1989), and an MA (1991) and PhD (1995) in Historical Archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania. She was an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA, and has also held teaching and/or research positions at Queen’s University Belfast, University of Ulster, Shenandoah University, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. She has directed major archaeological excavations in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and in the USA, most notably at Jamestown, Virginia. Audrey can be contacted by email at
Exactly one year after the first Scottish settlers made their way to the O’Neill lands granted to James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery in Counties Down and Antrim, 104 men and boys were deposited on the marshy shores of a brackish river inland from the Chesapeake Bay, in the land the English called Virginia. Here this ragtag, all-male group of adventurers, soldiers, and labourers struggled to build the fortified base that would ultimately be remembered as England’s first permanent New World colony, Jamestown. Had the Jamestown organisers paid greater attention to the approach taken by Hamilton and Montgomery in seeking to replicate a socially diverse but stable farming society in Ulster, the early years of the Virginia colony might have gone a bit more smoothly.
From the start, the fortunes of the Virginia colony, the Hamilton-Montgomery settlements, and the Ulster Plantation were inextricably linked. Participants in each venture struggled over the limited financial resources offered by the Crown and jockeyed for political power. Irish Lord Deputy Arthur Chichester, concerned about the future of Ulster, loudly opposed investment in Virginia, insisting in 1605 that "it was absurd folly to run over the world in search of colonies in Virginia or Guiana, whilst Ireland was lying desolate."
On a broader scale, each venture was but an individual episode in the larger drama of early modern British expansion, an unsteady process that saw the British Isles evolve from a backward periphery of the medieval European world to the dominant power in a new Atlantic-based economy and society. Settlement of new territories was central to this process; an effective means of claiming the resources of other lands. On a more intimate scale, the people involved 'on the ground' in these ventures shared similar experiences: they were challenged by unfamiliar environments and compelled to negotiate their relationships with local inhabitants, they held similar hopes for economic advancement, and they sought to re-establish the familiar landscapes of home.
Ireland and the New World in the sixteenth century
Throughout the tumultuous sixteenth century, English efforts to subdue Ireland included a series of projects designed to bring in loyal settlers, an idea that would also influence New World endeavours. In fact, many of the military men who served England’s Queen Elizabeth in Ireland were also involved in efforts to expand English involvement in the New World. Some of these people include Martin Frobisher who led two voyages in search of the northwest passage in the 1570s; Sir Humphrey Gilbert who claimed Newfoundland for the Queen in 1583; and of course Gilbert’s half brother, the courtier, soldier, and later Munster planter Sir Walter Raleigh. In the 1580s, Raleigh organised an exploratory voyage and two colonies on Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks of today’s North Carolina.
The first Roanoke colony, under the leadership of another of Elizabeth’s soldiers in Ireland, Ralph Lane, was abandoned when the soldier-settlers alienated the native people upon whom they were dependent for food and local knowledge. Lane set aside his New World dreams in favour of a return to the north of Ireland, where he remodelled Ringhaddy Castle on the banks of Strangford Lough and tried to attract tenants to settle his lands.
The second Roanoke Colony was led by the Elizabethan artist John White in 1587. White left the colony on a mission to obtain more supplies, but because of the disruptions of the 1588 Spanish Armada, was unable to return until 1590. White found the island unpopulated and the only trace of the colonists (including his daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, Virginia Dare) the name of a local Indian tribe carved on a tree: CROATOAN. Most likely, the colonists were absorbed into the local Native American society. Failing to rescue the colony, White, like Ralph Lane, returned to Ireland. He lived out his days as a tenant on the Munster Plantation lands of Walter Raleigh.
Lessons from the Roanoke experience helped to shape the successful settlements of the seventeenth century. The failure of the Lane colony was attributed in part to the fact that it was organised along military lines, and included only men. Recognising that a successful colony required family investment and the contributions of women as well as men, the second effort under the leadership of John White consciously included families intent upon beginning a new life. This model was followed by the Scottish settlements under Hamilton and Montgomery, and contributed to the early stability of their society by contrast to that of early Jamestown.
Not until 1604, when the sixteen-year-long Anglo-Spanish war ended, did England again ponder the promise of the Americas. This time, the effort to colonize Virginia would rely upon the collective wealth of a group of investors rather than upon one man’s fortune. These men, forming a joint stock company, petitioned King James I (VI) in 1605. He granted a charter the following year to the Virginia Company of London for the planting of a settlement in Virginia – the same year he signed onto the Hamilton-Montgomery plan. The fortunes of both settlements were connected from the start.
The Jamestown adventure
The Virginia Company’s colonial venture began in December of 1606, when three ships were dispatched across the Atlantic under the command of Captain Christopher Newport.
In May of 1607, following a five-month sea journey and two weeks of exploration, 104 men and boys emerged from the confines of three ships; the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery, and claimed a small piece of land for their king. On the face of it, their choice of a landing spot was an odd one: a low, marshy, overgrown island inhabited by poisonous snakes and biting insects that lacked any reliable source of fresh water.
Approximately 30 miles upriver from the mighty Chesapeake, the island did fulfil a number of other important conditions. It possessed a harbour deep enough to shelter the English ships, and its position within the two mile wide James River made it readily defensible from Spanish attacks. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the island was uninhabited. Elsewhere, all the best spots up and down the rivers that drain into the Chesapeake Bay had already been taken up by the extensive towns of the native people, organised in a complex political body known to scholars as the Powhatan Chiefdom.
Indians and the English
Under the overall leadership of a supreme chief (or Mamanatowick in the Algonquian language) named Wahunsenacawh, thirty-two individual tribes controlled territory throughout Virginia’s coastal plain. The Powhatan tribes practiced a settled farming lifestyle, growing maize, beans, squash, sunflowers, tobacco and a range of root crops, augmented by wild foods including plants, fish and shellfish, and mammals such as deer and bear. Their society was organised in a hierarchical fashion that would not have been unfamiliar to Europeans. Leadership positions were inherited, and spiritual leaders influenced political policy.
In the past, the native leaders had always maintained the upper hand in their dealings with the Europeans whom they had begun encountering at least 50 years before the arrival of the Jamestown colonists. Spanish ships had long plied the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, which they called the Bahia de Santa Maria, and in the 1570s, Spanish Jesuits had planted a mission on the York River, less than 15 miles from Jamestown Island. The mission was destroyed by a native attack within two years of its establishment, following a series of cultural misunderstandings. Encounters with the English before Jamestown were limited to the exploratory ventures of the Roanoke colonists, and word of mouth from other native peoples.
The English who arrived at Jamestown in 1607 did not suffer the same fate as the Spanish Jesuits. In fact, the English settlers rapidly became dependent upon their Powhatan neighbours. From the native perspective, the English served a potentially useful role as allies against Powhatan enemies, thus the Powhatan chief made a calculated decision to tolerate this latest group of Europeans. English weapons and metals were particularly desirable, and could be obtained in exchange for gifts of food. To the detriment of the colony, the English settlers did not recognise the Powhatan strategy. Convinced of their own superiority in spite of their precarious situation, colonists began to take food and supplies from the Indians by force, resulting in almost daily assaults on James Fort.
Unlike the Scots who made their way to east Ulster, the Jamestown colonists could not rely on the regular arrival of ships bearing the tools, seeds, and livestock necessary for producing their own foods. Nor were they in a position to develop a stable gender-balanced society nor division of labour, as the Company had opted to follow a military rather than family-based structure for the colony. The all-male society, with a significant number of soldiers and gentlemen rather than labourers or craftspersons, was ill-prepared for looking after themselves, let alone engaging in long-term, patient diplomacy with the local inhabitants.
The difficulties experienced by the colonists in the first few years at Jamestown are well-known. Disease, unrest, spoiled provisions, fire, and simple unfamiliarity with the local environment devastated the small colony. Widespread famine in the winter of 1609-1610 killed hundreds of settlers, and can be partly attributed to the withdrawal of promised funds from the London Companies, who had instead been directed by the king to invest in the Londonderry Plantation. Over half the colonists, including soldiers who had served in Ireland, died. Those few who did not succumb to starvation reportedly subsisted upon “those Hogges, Dogges, and horses that were then in the colony, together with rats, mice, snakes or what vermin or carrion soever we could light on” according to one survivor.
In June of 1610 the remaining settlers thankfully boarded a recently arrived vessel captained by Sir Thomas Gates. Appalled by the condition of the people and the ramshackle fort, Gates determined to abandon the colony. He gathered up the survivors and turned his ship around, only to meet three more ships arriving under the leadership of Governor Lord De La Warr. All four ships returned to Jamestown Island, salvaging the colony for England but no doubt disappointing the homesick colonists!
When Sir Thomas Dale arrived the following year, the fortunes of the tiny colonial settlement began to turn for the better. Dale, De La Warr’s second-in-command, instituted martial law over the settlers. By 1614, the colony was finally producing much of its own food supply, had begun trading with the Dutch, and welcomed the first women settlers. The growing strength of the colony, combined with the marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, daughter of Wahunsenacawh, eased some of the tensions between the English and the Powhatan Indians. Under a newly ratified charter, the Virginia Company accorded the settlers a representative government, while martial law was abandoned in favour of an English-style judicial system. They also re-adjusted the rules to allow for individual ownership of land, with profits going to the land owner, rather than to the Company or the colony as a whole. From the perspective of the colony’s investors, the most important development was the emergence of tobacco as a profitable export commodity.
Building a new society in Virginia and Ulster
Despite the hardships that plagued the earliest years of the Virginia colony, settlers began construction of a town as early as 1618. Like their counterparts in Ulster, they recognised the importance of a centralised location to perform the tasks associated with socio-political and economic administration. In Antrim and Down, former ecclesiastical centres such as Newtownards and Bangor were developed as towns, while older urban settlements such as Carrickfergus and Newry were expanded. Plans for the Ulster Plantation included the construction of 25 new towns, although only 14 were actually begun. In Virginia, the new town—Jamestown-- was laid out along a rough grid plan to the east of the wooden James Fort. Jamestown served as the capital of the Virginia colony for ninety-two years.
Seventeenth-century Ulster ultimately became characterised by its network of towns and villages, even if not every planned community survived. By contrast, Jamestown remained the only significant settlement in Virginia until the end of the seventeenth century. Because tobacco was such a land hungry crop, settlement was dispersed up and down the many rivers of the Chesapeake region. Many of the cleared fields associated with the hundreds of Indian towns were taken over by the settlers and converted into tobacco plantations. The rivers remained the principle means of transportation in Virginia, while Ulster developed a passable network of roads in the early seventeenth century.
Unlike east Ulster, where a steady stream of immigrants took up tenancies under Hamilton and Montgomery, Virginia was not attracting large numbers of willing immigrants. Stories of danger and disease had travelled far, and extra incentives were needed to convince individuals and families to gamble on a future in Virginia. Under the "head right" system, fifty acres of land in the new Virginia colony was granted to any immigrant who paid his or her passage and lived in Virginia for at least three years. Entrepreneurs who paid for another person’s passage would also receive fifty acres for each indentured servant that they funded. This arrangement provided investors with both land and the labour needed to work it, while the promise of becoming a landholder rather than a mere tenant attracted the first real wave of settlers. The headright system and the land demands of tobacco, however, discouraged the development of towns. Despite the desires of colonial planners, the early Virginia colony would never succeed in physically resembling the landscape of colonial Ulster, with its small farms, villages, and towns.
Virginia colonial leaders were well aware of the processes of settlement and plantation in Ireland. For example, in 1619 Virginia’s Governor John Pory boasted that he was “persuaded … that the Governors place here may be as profittable as the lord Deputies of Irland.” In 1624, when the Company’s charter was revoked and Virginia became a royal colony, an Ulster model was employed. Arthur Chichester, once so opposed to settlement in Virginia, drafted the colony’s new royal government along with two other former Irish Lord Deputies; Sir Oliver St. John (Viscount Grandison) and Sir George Carew. Leaders and entrepreneurs in both lands worked to develop their new societies as economically profitable and self-sufficient, efforts that would prove to be far more successful in Ulster than in Virginia. The mixed agriculture and linen production of the north of Ireland contrasted sharply with the tobacco-dependent eastern parts of Virginia throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By contrast, the landscape of the eighteenth-century Virginia backcountry, replete with small towns and family farms, owes much to the emigration of significant numbers of Ulster Scots to Virginia.
Old stories, new understandings
One of the main challenges in understanding the pivotal events of 400 years ago, be it the colonisation of Virginia, the Hamilton and Montgomery settlements, or the Ulster Plantation, is to go beyond the political legacies of those events to try to understand the everyday experiences of all the people caught up in the wider process of British expansion. In Virginia, traditional understandings of the colonists as having swiftly conquered the native people have yielded to the recognition that the colonists were heavily dependent upon their Powhatan neighbours. This dependency is materially marked by the presence of Indian pots, tools, and foodstuffs unearthed by archaeologists at the site of the 1607 James Fort. In fact, despite the impact of European diseases, warfare, and displacement, the Virginia native people never disappeared. Currently, there are eight state recognised tribal groups and a host of other tribal associations. The 2007 anniversary of the Jamestown settlement has provided an opportunity for some of these groups to raise public awareness of their history, continued presence, and contributions to American society.
As we ponder the achievements and history of the Hamilton and Montgomery settlers, there is much yet to learn about the ways in which they accommodated and were accommodated by their Gaelic Irish neighbours. Unlike North America, where the Indians and the English were very unfamiliar with one another, relations between the north of Ireland and Scotland were always close, if complex. Given the extent of movement across the Irish Sea throughout the medieval period, the inhabitants of Scotland and of the north of Ireland were hardly strangers to one another. However devastated the landscape may have been in the aftermath of the wars of the sixteenth century, Cos. Antrim and Down were not wholly depopulated before the Scottish settlements. The stability of the new communities must have encouraged, as well as relied upon, local cooperation.
Despite legislation to the contrary, it is clear that in the Ulster Plantation, natives and newcomers were not only living in close proximity, but had developed mutual dependencies. Native Irish tenants participated in the agricultural transformation of the landscape and the building of the urban network, as local knowledge and labour were essential. The best evidence for the character of relationships between settlers and locals may come from the archaeological record. Artefacts found in the Mercers Company village of Movanagher, part of the Londonderry Plantation, include a range of locally-made Irish ceramics along with imported English pottery. Some of these objects were found in association with the traces of a house that is rooted in Irish tradition and likely constructed by an Irish builder. This house appears on a 1622 map of Movanagher drawn by Thomas Raven, which also shows the timber-framed dwellings referred to at the time as ‘English houses.’ Raven’s 1625 Clandeboye maps also show timber-framed structures as well as Irish-style houses on the Hamilton lands of Co. Down, and similarly hint at the complexity and character of human relations in early seventeenth-century Ulster.
Seeking to understand rather than judge the ways in which natives and newcomers related to one another takes us much closer to appreciating the achievements of all those who participated in the creation of the new societies of the seventeenth-century Atlantic World. The human stories rooted in the Ulster Scots settlement and in the Jamestown colony serve as a reminder not only of the closely linked histories of the two ventures, but remain compelling today because of what they tell us about the past, their resonance in the present, and their promise for the future.
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