Sunday, April 27, 2008

Journal of Southern History, April Lee Hatfield

Spanish colonization literature, Powhatan geographies, and English perceptions of Tsenacommacah/Virginia.

IN 1612 VIRGINIA COLONIST WILLIAM STRACHEY EXPLAINED THAT HIS Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania depicted in greatest detail that part of the Virginia Company's claims where the English had concentrated their colonizing activities. This area, as Strachey described it, was roughly contiguous with the "severall territoryes and provinces which are in chief commaunded by their great king Powhatan, ... comprehended under the denomynation of Tsenacommacoh, of which we may the more by experyence speak being the place wherein our abode and habitation hath now well neere sixe yeares consisted." Ten years later Englishman John Martin wrote, "That parte of Virginia wthin wch wee are seated and fitt to be settled on for many hundred yeares: Is wthin the Territories of [Powhatan's successor] Opichakano, ... whoe Comaundeth from the Southermost parte of the first [the James] River to the Southermost parte of the fourth River called Patomeck.... In longitude it extendeth to [the] Monakins Countrie ... west and west and by North...." The two writers used very similar boundaries to demarcate the English colony: the James River, the Atlantic Ocean, the fall line, and (in Martin's case) the Potomac River. (1)

Neither the official extent of the Virginia Company's claims nor the actual reach of English settlement, however, explains Martin's and Strachey's descriptions of Virginia's boundaries. The colony's second charter in 1609 granted the Virginia Company land two hundred miles north and south of Point Comfort, and from sea to sea. Virginia's English population occupied only a small section of the James River when Strachey wrote, and more of the James and some of the Eastern Shore when Martin wrote. (2) A half century later the extent of Virginia's population, its dependence on tobacco cultivation and export via Chesapeake waterways, and the establishment of Maryland north of the Potomac would suggest these borders for the English colony, but the 1612 English population of about 500 and the 1622 population of just over 1,200 were not nearly enough to require the area encompassed by Strachey's and Martin's descriptions. (3)

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