InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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.

Liahna Babener
Montana State University

In the Heath Anthology
from A Discourse on Virginia (1608)

Other Works

Cultural Objects

There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add another Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.


Jamestown Rediscovery
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.

Secondary Sources