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Berkeley, Virginia

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March 2019

Berkeley Man makes America Great

Americans would have us believe that the settlement of America in the 1600s, exemplified by the voyage of the Mayflower, was a search for religious freedom by saintly, homely people, boldly going where no-one has gone before. An alternative truth is that it was part of a cynical exercise in globalization and economic monopoly led by wheeler-dealers and pirates, many from our own patch. Nothing is new. Philip Ashford spoke to the March gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeology Society about the migration to Berkeley, Virginia in 1619.

With the spice trade through Venice disrupted by the Muslims, adventurers from Spain and Portugal looked for alternative routes to the Indies, discovering unknown continents and eventually in the 1490s agreeing to divide the whole earth 50:50 between the two countries. However, this did not deter a certain John Cabot from seeking his own slice of the action, and in 1497 he sailed west from Bristol in the ‘Matthew’ discovering the east coast of North America. A vigorous commercial enterprise soon developed, trading fish and furs across the North Atlantic.

When Elizabeth 1st inherited a virtually bankrupt state from her profligate father she sponsored ‘privateers’ (in other words pirates) such as Drake, Hawkins, Raleigh and Frobisher to ‘speculate and accumulate’ whatever they could lay their hands on. Drake sailed around the world, Frobisher searched for the northern passage to China, and Raleigh helped establish the state of Virginia. However, it wasn’t until 1614 that that Jamestown, Virginia became a commercial success when someone hit on the bright idea of growing tobacco. By this time much of America was in the hands of the French so, in order to encourage the English trade, James 1st imposed heavy taxes on tobacco imported from Spain and banned the growing of tobacco in England. (This did little to deter the people of Winchcombe who had discovered that tobacco grew well there, even without a heated loft space, and were drying the crop in their tithe barn.)

So, in 1619 a consortium of Somerset and Gloucestershire big-wigs ventured to obtain a land grant from the Virginia Company of London and establish the Berkeley Hundred in Virginia. Richard Berkeley, William Throckmorton of Clearwell, John Smyth of Nibley and George Thorpe of Wanswell Court chartered the good ship ‘Margaret’ of Bristol and delivered 38 settlers to the new town and hundred of Berkeley. The settlers were carpenters, husbandmen, shoemakers and gardeners from our local area. The Virginia Company had instructed them that ‘the day of arrival shall be yearly and perpetually kept as a day of thanksgiving’ establishing the tradition 2 years before the Mayflower landed.

Berkeley, Virginia initially thrived, even establishing an iron works, but just 3 years later an Indian uprising killed many of the settlers and almost all the homes were destroyed. Jamestown itself was for-warned, managed to defend itself, and became a refuge for survivors from surrounding settlements. Berkeley Hundred was abandoned for some years but was re-established in the 1630s and Berkeley Plantation became the ancestral home of 2 U.S presidents. Virginia and English speaking America went from strength to strength and the French gradually lost their hold. One more story (good old Google) is that American Whiskey was first distilled at Berkeley in 1620. Tobacco and Whiskey – what could possibly go wrong!

Many thanks to Philip Ashford for his entertaining talk.


The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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