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Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.

Vol. II. The Beginnings of Americanism: 1650–1710

Robert Beverly

ROBERT BEVERLY, the most interesting and one of the important of the colonial historians of Virginia, was born in that colony about 1675, and died there in 1716. At twenty-two he succeeded his father, Major Robert Beverly, as Clerk of the Council of Virginia, under Governor Andros. This office gave him access to documentary records, and in 1705, for reasons given in our selections, he published in London a History and Present State of Virginia, in four books. This was not merely an account of present conditions, social or economic, though it gives us many intimate details of the daily life in Virginia during the first century of its settlement; it gave also an account of the settlement of the colony and of its history. The work attracted so much attention that two years after its first appearance a French translation of it with fourteen illustrations by Grivelius appeared in Amsterdam, and these illustrations were used in a second English edition in 1722. Beverly enjoys the distinction of being the first American in whose behalf the habeas corpus act was invoked, but he deserves the higher distinction of being remembered as a far-sighted, patriotic citizen, and a sensible, sprightly writer.

How He Came to Write.
[From the Preface to the “History and Present State of Virginia.” Edition of 1722.]

MY first business in the world being among the public records of my country, the active thoughts of my youth put me upon taking notes of the general administration of the government; but with no other design than the gratification of my own inquisitive mind; these lay by me for many years afterwards, obscure and secret, and would forever have done so, had not the following accident produced them.

In the year 1703, my affairs calling me to England, I was soon after my arrival, complimented by my bookseller with an intimation, that there was prepared for printing a general account of all her Majesty’s Plantations in America, and his desire that I would overlook it before it was put to the press; I agreed to overlook that part of it which related to Virginia.

Soon after this he brings me about six sheets of paper written, which contained the account of Virginia and Carolina. This it seems was to have answered a part of Mr. Oldmixon’s British Empire in America. I very innocently (when I began to read) placed pen and paper by me, and made my observations upon the first page, but found it in the sequel so very faulty, and an abridgement only of some accounts that had been printed 60 or 70 years ago; in which also he had chosen the most strange and untrue parts, and left out the more sincere and faithful, so that I laid aside all thoughts of farther observations, and gave it only a reading; and my bookseller for answer, that the account was too faulty and too imperfect to be mended. Withal telling him, that seeing I had in my junior days taken some notes of the government, which I then had with me in England, I would make him an account of my own country, if I could find time, while I staid in London. And this I should the rather undertake in justice to so fine a country; because it has been so misrepresented to the common people of England, as to make them believe that the servants in Virginia are made to draw in cart and plow, as horses and oxen do in England, and that the country turns all people black, who go to live there, with other such prodigious phantasms.

Accordingly before I left London, I gave him a short history of the country, from the first settlement, with an account of its then state; but I would not let him mingle it with Oldmixon’s other account of the plantations, because I took them to be all of a piece with those I had seen of Virginia and Carolina, but desired mine to be printed by itself. And this I take to be the only reason of that gentleman’s so severely reflecting upon me in his book, for I never saw him in my life that I know of.

Governor Nicholson’s Career.
[From the Same, Book I.]

IN November, 1698, Francis Nicholson, Esq., was removed from Maryland, to be Governor of Virginia. But he went not then with that smoothness on his brow he had carried with him, when he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor. He talked then no more of improving of manufactures, towns, and trade. Neither was he pleased to make the acts of assembly the rule of his judgments, as formerly, but his own all sufficient will and pleasure. Instead of encouraging the manufactures, he sent over inhuman memorials against them, which were so opposite to all reason, that they refuted themselves. In one of these, he remonstrates, “That the tobacco of that country often bears so low a price, that it will not yield clothes to the people that make it;” and yet presently after, in the same memorial, he recommends it to the parliament “to pass an act, forbidding the plantations to make their own clothing;” which, in other words, is desiring a charitable law that the planters shall go naked. In a late memorial concerted between him and his creature, Col. Quarrey, ’tis most humbly proposed, “That all the English colonies on the continent of North America be reduced under one government and under one Viceroy; and that a standing army be there kept on foot, to subdue the Queen’s enemies; “surmising that they were intending to set up for themselves….

Soon after his accession to the government, he procured the assembly, and courts of judicature, to be removed from Jamestown, where there were good accommodations for people, to Middle Plantation, where there were none. There he flattered himself with the fond imagination of being the founder of a new city. He marked out the streets in many places, so as that they might represent the figure of a W, in memory of his late Majesty King William, after whose name the town was called Williamsburg. There he procured a stately fabric to be erected, which he placed opposite to the college, and graced it with the magnificent name of the “Capitol.”…

In the second year of this gentleman’s government, there happened an adventure very fortunate for him, which gave him much credit, that was the taking of a pirate within the Capes of that country.

It fell out that several merchant ships were got ready, and fallen down to Lynhaven Bay, near the mouth of James River, in order for sailing. A pirate being informed of this, and hearing that there was no man-of-war there, except a sixth rate, ventured within the Capes, and took several of the merchant ships. But a small vessel happened to come down the bay, and, seeing an engagement between the pirate and a merchantman, made a shift to get into the mouth of the James River, where the Shoram, a fifth rate man-of-war, was newly arrived. The sixth rate, commanded by Capt. John Aldred, was then on the Carine in Elizabeth River, in order for her return to England.

The Governor happened to be at that time at Kiquotan, sealing up his letters, and Captain Passenger, commander of the Shoram, went ashore to pay his respects to him. In the meanwhile news was brought that the pirate was got within the Capes; upon which the captain was in haste to go aboard his ship. But the Governor stayed him a little promising to go along with him. The captain soon after asked his excuse, and went off, leaving him another boat, if he pleased to follow. It was about one o’clock in the afternoon, when the news was brought; but ’twas within night, before his Excellency went aboard, staying all that while ashore, upon some weighty occasions. At last he followed, and by break of day the man-of-war was fairly out between the Capes and the pirate; where, after ten hours’ sharp engagement, the pirate was obliged to strike and surrender upon the terms of being left to the King’s mercy.

Now it happened that three men of this pirate’s gang were not on board their own ship at the time of the surrender, and so were not included in the articles of capitulation, but were tried in that country. In summing up the charge against them the (Governor being present), the Attorney-General extolled his Excellency’s mighty courage and conduct, as if the honor of taking the pirate had been due to him. Upon this Capt. Passenger took the freedom to interrupt Mr. Attorney in open court, and said that he was commander of the Shoram; that the pirates were his prisoners; and that nobody had pretended to command in that engagement but himself. He further desired that the Governor who was then present would do him the justice to confess whether he had given the least word of command all that day, or directed any one thing during the whole fight. This, his Excellency acknowledged was true, and fairly yielded him the honor of that exploit to the Captain.

A Pernicious Weed.
[From the Same, Book II.]

THE James Town Weed (which resembles the thorny apple of Peru, and I take to be the plant so called) is supposed to be one of the greatest coolers in the world. This being an early plant, was gathered very young for a boiled salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither to quell the Rebellion of Bacon; and some of them eat plentifully of it, and the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy; for they turned natural fools upon it for several days. One would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner, like a monkey, grinning and making mows at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll. In this frantic condition they were confined lest they should in their folly destroy themselves; though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature…. A thousand such simple tricks they played and after eleven days, returned to themselves again, not remembering anything that had passed.

Perhaps this was the same herb that Mark Antony’s army met with in his retreat from the Parthian war and the Siege of Phraata, when such as had eaten thereof employed themselves with much earnestness and industry in grubbing up stones and removing them from one place to another, as if it had been a business of the greatest consequence. Wine, as the story says, was found a sovereign remedy for it; which is likely enough, the malignity of this herb being cold.

Of the Servants and Slaves in Virginia.
[From the Same, Book IV. Part I.]

§ 50. Their servants they distinguish by the names of slaves for life, and servants for a time.

Slaves are the negroes, and their posterity, following the condition of the mother, according to the maxim, partus sequitur ventrem. They are called slaves in respect to the time of their servitude, because it is for life.

Servants are those which serve only for a few years, according to the time of indenture, or the custom of the country. The custom of the country takes place upon such as have no indentures. The law in this case is, that if such servants be under nineteen years of age, they must be brought into court, to have their age adjudged; and from the age they are judged to be of, they must serve until they reach four and twenty. But if they be adjudged upwards of nineteen they are then only to be servants for the term of five years.

§ 51. The male-servants, and slaves of both sexes, are employed together in tilling and manuring the ground, in sowing and planting tobacco, corn, etc. Some distinction, indeed, is made between them in their clothes, and food; but the work of both is no other than what the overseers, the freemen, and the planters themselves do.

Sufficient distinction is also made between the female-servants, and slaves; for a white woman is rarely or never put to work in the ground, if she be good for anything else: and to discourage all planters from using any women so, their law makes female-servants working in the ground tithable, while it suffers all other white women to be absolutely exempted: Whereas on the other hand, it is a common thing to work a woman slave out of doors; nor does the law make any distinction in her taxes, whether her work be abroad, or at home.

§ 52. Because I have heard how strangely cruel, and severe, the service of this country is represented in some parts of England; I can’t forbear affirming, that the work of their servants and slaves is no other than what every common freeman does. Neither is any servant required to do more in a day, than his overseer. And I can assure you with great truth, that generally their slaves are not worked near so hard, nor so many hours in a day, as the husbandmen, and day-laborers in England. An overseer is a man, that having served his time, has acquired the skill and character of an experienced planter, and is therefore intrusted with the direction of the servants and slaves.

Of the People, Inhabitants of Virginia.
[From the Same, Book IV. Part II. Chap. XV.]

§ 65. I can easily imagine with Sir Josiah Child, that this as well as all the rest of the plantations, was for the most part at first peopled by persons of low circumstances, and by such as were willing to seek their fortunes in a foreign country. Nor was it hardly possible it should be otherwise; for ’tis not likely that any man of a plentiful estate should voluntarily abandon a happy certainty, to roam after imaginary advantages, in a new world. Besides which uncertainty, he must have proposed to himself to encounter the infinite difficulties and dangers that attend a new settlement. These discouragements were sufficient to terrify any man that could live easy in England, from going to provoke his fortune in a strange land.

§ 66. Those that went over to that country first, were chiefly single men, who had not the incumbrance of wives and children in England; and if they had they did not expose them to the fatigue and hazard of so long a voyage, until they saw how it should fare with themselves. From hence it came to pass, that when they were settled there in a comfortable way of subsisting a family, they grew sensible of the misfortune of wanting wives, and such as had left wives in England sent for them; but the single men were put to their shifts. They excepted against the Indian women, on account of their being pagans, as well as their complexions, and for fear they should conspire with those of their own nation, to destroy their husbands. Under this difficulty they had no hopes, but that the plenty in which they lived, might invite modest women, of small fortunes, to go over thither from England. However, they would not receive any, but such as could carry sufficient certificate of their modesty and good behavior. Those, if they were but moderately qualified in other respects, might depend upon marrying very well in those days, without any fortune. Nay, the first planters were so far from expecting money with a woman, that ’twas a common thing for them to buy a deserving wife that carried good testimonials of her character, at the price of 100 pounds, and make themselves believe they had a bargain.

§ 67. But this way of peopling the colony was only at first; for after the advantages of the climate, and the fruitfulness of the soil were well known, and all the dangers incident to infant settlement were over, people of better condition retired thither with their families, either to increase the estates they had before, or else to avoid being persecuted for their principles of religion, or government.

Thus in the time of the Rebellion in England, several good cavalier families went thither with their effects to escape the tyranny of the Usurper, or acknowledgement of his title, and so again, upon the Restoration, many people of the opposite party took refuge there, to shelter themselves from the king’s resentment. But Virginia had not many of these last, because that country was famous for holding out the longest for the royal family, of any of the English dominions; for which reason, the Roundheads went for the most part to New-England, as did most of those, that in the reign of King Charles II. were molested on account of their religion, though some of these fell likewise to the share of Virginia. As for malefactors condemned to transportation, tho’ the greedy planter will always buy them, yet it is to be feared they will be very injurious to the country, which has already suffered many murthers and robberies, the effects of that new law of England.

The Pastimes of Colonial Virginia.
[From the Same, Book IV. Part II.]

FOR their recreation, the plantations, orchards, and gardens constantly afford them fragrant and delightful walks. In their woods and fields, they have an unknown variety of vegetables, and other rarities of nature to discover and observe. They have hunting, fishing, and fowling, with which they entertain themselves an hundred ways. Here is the most good-nature and hospitality practised in the world, both toward friends and strangers; but the worst of it is, this generosity is attended now and then with a little too much intemperance. The neighborhood is at much the same distance as in the country in England; but with this advantage, that all the better sort of people have been abroad, and seen the world, by which means they are free from that stiffness and formality, which discover more civility than kindness. And besides, the goodness of the roads and the fairness of the weather bring people oftener together.

The Indians, as I have already observed, had in their hunting a way of concealing themselves, and coming up to the deer, under the blind of a stalking-head, in imitation of which many people have taught their horses to stalk it, that is, to walk gently by the huntsman’s side, to cover him from the sight of the deer. Others cut down trees for the deer to browse upon, and lie in wait behind them. Others again set stakes at a certain distance within their fences, where the deer had been used to leap over into a field of peas, which they love extremely; these stakes they so place, as to run into the body of the deer, when he pitches, by which means they impale him.

They hunt their hares (which are very numerous) a-foot, with mongrels or swift dogs, which either catch them quickly, or force them to a hole in a hollow tree, whither all their hares generally tend, when they are closely pursued. As soon as they are thus holed, and have crawled up into the body of a tree, the business is to kindle a fire and smother them with smoke till they let go their hold and fall to the bottom stifled; from whence they take them. If they have a mind to spare their lives, upon turning them loose they will be as fit as ever to hunt at another time: for the mischief done them by the smoke immediately wears off again.

They have another sort of hunting, which is very diverting, and that they call vermin-hunting; it is performed a-foot, with small dogs in the night, by the light of the moon or stars. Thus in summer time they find abundance of raccoons, opossums, and foxes in the corn-fields, and about their plantations; but at other times they must go into the woods for them. The method is to go out with three or four dogs, and, as soon as they come to the place, they bid the dogs seek out, and all the company follow immediately. Wherever a dog barks, you may depend upon finding the game; and this alarm draws both men and dogs that way. If this sport be in the woods, the game by that time you come near it is perhaps mounted to the top of an high tree, and then they detach a nimble fellow up after it, who must have a scuffle with the beast, before he can throw it down to the dogs; and then the sport increases, to see the vermin encounter those little curs….

For wolves they make traps, and set guns baited in the woods, so that, when he offers to seize the bait, he pulls the trigger, and the gun discharges upon him. What Elian and Pliny write of the horses being benumbed in their legs, if they tread in the track of a wolf, does not hold good here; for I myself, and many others, have rid full speed after wolves in the woods, and have seen live ones taken out of a trap, and dragged at a horse’s tail; and yet those that followed on horse-back have not perceived any of their horses to falter in their pace….

The inhabitants are very courteous to travellers, who need no other recommendation, but the being human creatures. A stranger has no more to do, but to inquire upon the road where any gentleman or good housekeeper lives, and there he may depend upon being received with hospitality. This good nature is so general among their people, that the gentry, when they go abroad, order their principal servant to entertain all visitors with everything the plantation affords. And the poor planters, who have but one bed, will very often sit up, or lie upon a form or couch all night, to make room for a weary traveller to repose himself after his journey.

If there happen to be a churl, that either out of covetousness, or ill-nature, would not comply with this generous custom, he has a mark of infamy set upon him, and is abhorred by all.