| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Edward Maria Wingfield
The early years of the Jamestown colony, established in Virginia in
1607, were fraught with difficulty. The initial group consisted of a fractious
company of 104 men and boys, among them effete gentry with few practical
skills, adventurers beguiled by visions of the riches to be extracted from the
New World, and artisans whose abilities were of little use in the primitive
conditions at hand. On the whole, they were ill equipped for the hard labor
needed to sustain the settlement.
Life at Jamestown proved
calamitous from the outset. The colony was erected on swampy ground where
dank air and mosquito infestation made conditions unhealthful. Attention was
immediately diverted to the futile search for gold and a water route to the
West. Assuming that they would be kept in supplies by the Virginia Company, the
men made few attempts to raise food; a fire in the first winter destroyed most
of the buildings and wiped out the few remaining food stores not contaminated
by rats. The absence of wives and families as well as class tensions
contributed to social instability, and much energy was dissipated in drink and
idleness. Antagonistic relations with local tribes resulted in continuing
strife. Weakened by the stresses of settlement, the colonists fell victim to a
barrage of lethal diseases, and within months of their arrival, fewer than half
of the original group were alive.
The struggle for
survival was augmented by ineffectual governance. The first president of Jamestown
was Edward Maria Wingfield, a former military commander and adventurer who was
elected according to the provisions of the Virginia Company charter of 1606.
One of the seven original members of the Royal Council appointed to administer
the colony, Wingfield was a well-meaning but indecisive leader who proved
unable to reconcile the divided company. Wingfield’s aristocratic lineage
estranged him from working-class colonists; his unwillingness to endorse
favored status for “gentlemen” lost him the support of fellow councillors; and
his Roman Catholic background was suspect in the primarily Protestant band.
The atmosphere of
distrust among the councillors was heightened by the pressures of sickness,
famine, and cold, and within months of his election, Wingfield was under fire
from the Council. Charged with pillaging the company stores (a serious
accusation in a time of severe deprivation), practicing atheism (it was
observed that he neglected to carry a Bible on his person), and assorted other
complaints, Wingfield was summarily deposed from the “Presidentship,” prompting
an administrative crisis that was not quelled until John Smith was elected to
that office in 1608.
Following his removal,
Wingfield penned A Discourse on Virginia, a defense of his own actions
and a narrative that provides one of the few eyewitness accounts of the
struggle to settle Jamestown. Paired with other early documents such as
Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, Morton’s The New English Canaan,
and especially Winthrop’s “Speech to the General Court” recorded in his Journal,
Wingfield’s chronicle illuminates the personal pressures facing colonial
leaders and identifies a number of critical political and social issues central
to the founding of democratic governments in the New World.
Montana State University
In the Heath Anthology
from A Discourse on Virginia
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Site on the rediscovery of Jamestown including historical lists of early settlers, a map, and a timeline of early colonial history.
Wingfield Family Society
Links to the history of the Wingfield family, an essay on Edward Maria, and historical background material.