Citie of firsts: From ‘sweete seate’ to Henrico Town
Just weeks after landing at Jamestown in the spring of 1607, a band of settlers set out on an expedition up what is now the James, with instructions from the Virginia Company of London to explore the source of the river.
Led by one-armed veteran Capt. Christopher Newport, the expedition landed on the third day at the village of the Arrohattoc Indians, where the adventurers became the first Englishmen to set foot on what was to become Henrico soil.
Although the settlers soon returned to Jamestown – after planting a flag at the falls and claiming the river for King James I – that visit was only the first of their exploratory trips upstream.
For the next four years, as Jamestown's residents struggled with famine, disease, severe weather and Indian attacks, additional groups made forays toward the falls – until in 1611, Sir Thomas Dale led the voyage that would establish the Citie of Henricus.
Under orders from the Virginia Company to construct a more "healthful" and secure settlement upriver, Dale sought high ground (unlike the marshy land around Jamestown) that could be easily defended from attacks by both Indians and Spaniards. He chose a bluff 80 miles north of Jamestown, "a neck of very high land, three parts thereof environed with the main River . . . a sweete and healthie seate."
Accompanied by 300 settlers from Jamestown, Dale established a new fortification that he named Henrico Town, for Prince Henry, eldest son of King James. Erecting a log fence (known as a pale) across one side of the peninsula to form an island, Dale hoped the “citie” would eventually replace Jamestown as the new principal seat of the county.
Although the town flourished for only a decade – until a 1622 Indian massacre – Henrico Town (a.k.a. Henricus) nevertheless represents the site of nearly a dozen of the nation’s firsts, including the first chartered university, first library, English-speaking America's first hospital, and the first private ownership of land.
As Tuckahoe District supervisor and long-time Henricus Foundation board member Pat O’Bannon likes to point out, the private-ownership distinction endows Henrico County with a unique status: as the birthplace of capitalism in America.
For its significance as the "Citie of Firsts" and as the site on which much of our American way of life began, the establishment of Henrico Town ranks No. 2 on the Henrico Citizen’s list of the most significant moments in Henrico’s 400-year history.
Land ownership: ‘A real innovation’
As Henrico Town grew into a fortified settlement, one of the first buildings to be constructed was the hospital, which served primarily as a retreat or haven where colonists could recover from their long journey.
After an Atlantic voyage lasting two to four months, a stay at the hospital provided settlers a haven in which to recover and become acclimatized or "seasoned" to Virginia's unaccustomed heat and humidity. Patients at Mt. Malady could also seek treatment for ailments such as intestinal worms, typhoid fever, dysentery, and the salt poisoning they contracted from drinking contaminated water.
The men of the town also built frame houses, thatched huts, storehouses, watchtowers, a frame parsonage and a wooden church – the first seat of Henrico Parish. It was at this church, most likely, that Chief Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas became the first Native American to convert to Christianity, under the guidance of Rev. Alexander Whitaker, the parish's first rector. Captured and brought to Henricus during the Anglo-Powhatan War, Pocahontas later married
colonist John Rolfe, who developed the new strain of tobacco that would be instrumental in the colony's success.
In 1614, shortly after the introduction of tobacco as a crop, Sir Thomas Dale and other leaders of the town instituted the experiment that is arguably Henricus' most significant first.
Recognizing that the productivity of indentured settlers had lagged under the communal system of land ownership in Jamestown, Dale gave each man a three-acre plot and allowed him to do with it as he wished. All that was required in return was that each landowner provide two barrels of food a year to the common food store.
“This was a real innovation,” said Dr. Dennis A.J. Morey, a founder of Henricus Historical Park, at a 2004 brown bag lecture about Henricus. "Prior to that no commoner owned land – only the aristocracy. This was really something for citizens to own land . . .the beginning of privatization of land and free enterprise.”
In Jamestown, on the other hand, whatever crops came in under the communal system were put in the common store – and everyone received an equal share regardless of contribution. So it doesn't surprise Pat O'Bannon that efficiency was much improved under the new, private system.
"At Jamestown, you grew squash, someone else grew corn," she explains. "But what if you put nothing in? You still got something! That's what blew it; they just couldn’t make it work.”
Land ownership became a prime incentive for newcomers – especially indentured settlers and later-born sons -- to travel from England, where the traditional hierarchy limited advancement.
"If you were in England," O'Bannon says, "there was no way to go up. You were stuck with what you were born with."
Yet a draw was needed, says O'Bannon, because word had filtered back to England about the dangers of life in the New World – assuming, that is, that a person actually survived the long voyage and managed to make it here.
"It was a huge risk just to get on that ship," O'Bannon points out. "Then consider that you are leaving comfy England to go to this wild land where Indians might shoot arrows at you and you have to deal with the elements. How do you get them here?"
That so many Englishmen overcame their fear of the unknown and made the trip to the new land, says O'Bannon, "is part of why we are the type of country we are." Only the most motivated made the trip.
"Everyone knew they had to pitch in and work, to pull their weight and produce something – even the gentlemen," she says. "Everyone had the desire to be successful. . . and make a profit. But you had to earn it.
"That spirit is what really made us great," O'Bannon sums up. "I think that's the [beginning of] the American way."
The American dream
Although making money for the Virginia Company stakeholders was the primary objective of the settlement, the company had other goals. In 1619, it set aside a 10,000-acre parcel of land and stipulated that it was to become the Colledge of Henricus, a place of higher learning for both the settlers and Native American youth.
The college was chartered and plans were made for a trade school that would educate Native American youth and convert them to Christianity. This first university in the New World also was to feature the first library – donated by an unknown Englishman – and to bestow the first scholarship on a Native American teenager so that he could attend.
But the college never materialized; like the rest of the Henricus settlement, it fell victim to a 1622 Indian uprising led by Chief Opechancanough, Powhatan's younger brother and successor. Although some survivors managed to flee to Jamestown, and nearby settlements such as Bermuda Hundred and the Falling Creek Ironworks remained, the
abandoned settlement at Henricus was never repopulated again.
For close to 400 years, the site slumbered away in obscurity on the James River opposite Varina. But in 1985, with the establishment of The Henricus Foundation, the “Citie of Firsts” began the mighty stretch that marked its emergence from that slumber.
Though today the riverfront park lies almost entirely in Chesterfield County (carved from Henrico in the 18th century), Henrico and Chesterfield have joined together in the restoration effort, which began when physicians from Henrico Doctors’ Hospital started a campaign to rebuild Mt. Malady. The recreated hospital was constructed with the help of a hefty contribution from Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), and the gardens and tobacco plots have been built with the help of volunteers and funds from Altria (formerly Philip Morris USA).
Often lauded as a model of regional cooperation and public-private partnerships, the 40-acre park also features a re-creation of the palisade, watchtower, militia buildings and a parade field, a tobacco barn and husbandry buildings, trade buildings, the Rocke Hall parsonage, and Indian longhouses. Distinguished guests from the United Kingdom helped dedicate the education center in 2006, as well as attending this past September to help celebrate Henricus' 400th anniversary.
For a “citie” that existed only a decade, Henrico Town left an indelible mark on our history. As Morey argued in his lecture, "It was these people [at Henricus] who really established our country."
With all due respect to the founding fathers, said Morey, "If it hadn’t been for Dale, Rolfe, Pocahontas and people like that, [the founders] would have never had any place to come.
“It was right here,” Morey concluded, “that the American dream began.”
Reynolds Community College will host Richmond sculptor Paul DiPasquale Sept. 28 as he shares his presentation “Art Talk, Why Art Matters” from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Conference Center Gallery of the Workforce Development and Conference Center on the Parham Road Campus, located at 1651 E. Parham Road in Richmond. This event is free and open to the public. > Read more.
The Children's Clothing Closet at Highland Springs United Methodist Church will be open Saturday, Aug. 27 and Tuesday, Aug. 30 to provide free new or nearly new children's clothing for families in need, prior to the start of the school year. The Clothing Closet will be open from 10 a.m. to noon both days. The church is located at 22 North Holly Avenue. > Read more.
For our Top 10 calendar events this weekend, click here! > Read more.
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CalendarHenrico County will offer a free home maintenance workshop from 9 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. at the former Dumbarton Library at 6800 Staples Mill Rd. The topic will be “Weatherization… Full text