Polish Settlers at Early Jamestown

The first Polish settlers arrived at Jamestown on or about October 1, 1608, aboard the ship Mary and Margaret. Virginia Company of London records identify "8 Dutchmen and Poles," possibly four of each. The Poles were skilled workers brought to the colony for their ability to produce glass, pitch, tar, and other materials in an attempt by the Virginia Company to develop commercial activity and local industries in Virginia. Most likely Protestants, they shared in the privations and dangers of daily life at Jamestown, and on one occasion, according to Captain John Smith, appear to have rescued him from an attack by Virginia Indians. Despite this, they did not enjoy the same rights as Englishmen and at one point refused to work in protest. The colony's leaders subsequently granted them such rights and they returned to work, agreeing to take on apprentices. In 1623 a Polish man called Molasco filed a grievance against the Crown for money owed him and other Poles. Despite winning his argument, however, he had difficulty collecting from the Virginia Company. MORE...

 

"8 Dutchmen and Poles"

By the sixteenth century it was clear to European monarchs that trade with Asia could be very lucrative. England, to avoid conflict with Spain, chose to explore and establish colonies in North America some distance from the Spanish claims in Florida. Funded by private investors in joint stock companies such as the Virginia Company of London, the stockholders expected to profit from the venture. Although most histories focus on the colonists' attempts to farm, agriculture was not the only economic activity envisioned by the colony's founders. In 1585, Richard Hakluyt the elder identified one of the other industries envisioned for Jamestown when he suggested the hiring of "Men skilfull in burning of Sope ashes, and in making of Pitch, and Tarre, and Rozen, to be fetched out of Prussia and Poland." Later, John Smith, an early leader of the colony, wrote that "Muscovia and Polonia doe yearly receaue many thousands for pitch, tarre, soap ashes, Rosen, Flax, Cordage, Sturgeon, masts, yards, wainscot, Firres, glasse, and such like." With these skilled artisans, commodities could be manufactured for profitable export to England. It is equally clear that they were looking to eastern Europe for these specialists.

The first colonists founded Jamestown in May 1607. According to the Reverend William Symonds's Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia (1612), the ship Mary and Margaret arrived on or about October 1, 1608, carrying approximately seventy people, including "8 Dutchmen and Poles." Symonds did not list names for the eight, nor is it conclusively known how many were "Dutchmen" and how many were "Poles." Historians have been debating this, along with the specific roles the people played, ever since. Some have maintained that the "Dutchmen" were actually Germans, relying on the nineteenth-century American use of the term "Dutch" when referring to Germans. The argument is not convincing, but nothing substantive has as yet come to light to answer the question.

One was identified as Swiss in another source. Of the other seven, German-oriented historians have claimed that four were Germans and they were skilled glassmakers. However, the historian Richard J. Orli has argued convincingly that the Germans, who may well have actually been Dutch as the source states, were woodworkers and that there were four Poles who were skilled in making such products as tar, pitch, resin, and glass. In a pamphlet published on the occasion of Jamestown's 350th anniversary in 1957, the Polish-born American journalist Arthur Waldo claimed to have seen a memoir by one of the Poles, using that as the basis for writing a book that included their full names, origins, and experiences in the colony. Despite efforts by other researchers, no one has ever seen the memoir and no bibliographic or other reference to it has come to light; consequently, historians do not accept it as legitimate.

Some writers contend that the Poles were Catholic, making exaggerated claims that they launched religious toleration in America. In fact, they almost certainly were Protestants. Writing in 1584, in reference to the impending colonization of Roanoke, Richard Hakluyt the younger specified that "in choice of all artisans for the voyage this general rule were good to be observed that no man be chosen that is known to be a papist for the special inclination they have of favor to the king of Spain." In his Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, Governor Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, required that inhabitants swear an "Oath of Supremacy" to the Church of England to be eligible to go to Virginia. Catholics were not wanted, both for religious reasons and for fear that they might betray the colony to the Catholic Spanish in Florida.

Life in the Colony

There are at least fourteen specific English references to Poles in Jamestown, which, when taken together, provide an outline of how they lived in the colony. Most likely the Poles produced glass, along with pitch, tar, soap ash, and potash, the last two used in making glass. Apparently Smith valued their work, writing in his Generall Historie of Virginia (1624) that most of the colonists "neuer did know what dayes worke was, except the Dutch-men and Poles, and some dozen other."

The Poles shared in the privations and dangers of early colonization, including the sometimes hostile relations with Virginia Indians. Smith wrote that on one occasion "Robert a Polonian" captured an Indian "elder." Another time, as reported in Symonds's Proceedings, when Smith was "returning but from the glasse-house alone" he was attacked by "the King of Paspaheigh, a most strong stout Salvage … Long they struggled in the water, from whence the king, perceiving two of the Poles upon the sandes, would haue fled: but the President [Smith] held him by the haire and throat til the Poles came in. Then seeing howe pittifully the poore Salvage begged his life, they conducted him prisoner to the fort." In his 1622 report on a massive surprise attack by Indians earlier that year, the company secretary, Edward Waterhouse, identified one of the victims as "Matthew a Polander."

Poles were also behind an early struggle for equal rights in the colony. Company court records, dated July 21, 1619, outline that after some sort of dispute with the Poles in Virginia "it was now agreed … that they shalbe enfranchized, and made as free as any inhabitant there whatsoever." It was further agreed that, because of their specialized skills in producing soap-ash and pitch and tar, some young, non-Polish men "shalbe put unto them to leame their skill & knowledge therein for the benefitt of the Country hereafter." Two additional records, dated May 17, 1620, advise that the Poles be "returned to their work," suggesting the broad outline of a labor strike. There is a dispute, the Poles leave work, and the grievance is resolved in their favor, after which they agree to return to work and to teach apprentices.

Despite the dispute, the colony's leaders continued planning to import skilled artisans from eastern Europe. A Virginia Company record dated June 22, 1620, states: "For hemp and flax, potashes and soapashes, pitch and tar, there is a Treaty already on foot, for procuring of men skillful in those trades from the Eastern part: besides the Polackers yet remaining in Virginia."

In November 1623 "Molasco the Polander" was one of the colonists who voted to surrender the Virginia Company's charter to the government, while in February 1624 the court records reveal that this same man had petitioned the Crown for money owed him and other Poles. The grievance was upheld but he subsequently had difficulty collecting from the Virginia Company.

Legacy

The role of Polish settlers at Jamestown has been celebrated and sometimes exaggerated. The dispute described above has sometimes been aggrandized into the first fight for religious freedom in U.S. history, despite the facts that there was no mention of religion in the extant documents and there was at that time no United States. Modern journalists and ethnic activists have sometimes glorified the strike as the beginning of organized labor, the agreement to enfranchise the Poles as the origin of American democracy, and the very presence of the Poles in Jamestown as the launching of cultural diversity, all of these inventing false realities. Some have even advanced the bizarre claim that the Poles in Jamestown invented baseball.

Yet, despite these embellishments, there is a distinct historical record of the Polish presence in the Jamestown colony supported by multiple documentary records. Based on these records, the following can be said with reasonable certainty: Virginia Company officials were aware that Poland contained artisans skilled in making valuable commodities and that between three and four Poles arrived in Jamestown in 1608. They were hired as skilled artisans. Two of them came to John Smith's aid when he was attacked by an Indian, one helped capture an Indian "elder," and one was killed in an Indian attack on the settlement. Smith valued the Poles, but they were apparently denied equal political rights in the colony, and consequently refused to work until the inequity was remedied. As a result of this protest, the colonial leaders agreed that the Poles would be considered free and enfranchised and in return the Poles agreed to go back to work and to teach their skills to other colonists. One of the Poles was among those who voted to return the charter of the Virginia Company, while also filing a claim on behalf of himself and other Poles for funds owed to them. The documents indicate the royal commissioners agreed with the claim, but the Poles had difficulty collecting. All of this is documented; whatever else has appeared is at present mere speculation.

References

Further Reading
Barbour, Philip L. "The Identity of the First Poles in America." The William and Mary Quarterly 21, no. 1 (1964): 77–92.
Kingsbury, Susan M., ed. Records of the Virginia Company of London. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1906.
Orli, Richard J. "The Identity of the 1608 Jamestown Craftsmen." Polish American Studies 65, no. 2 (Autumn 2008): 17–26.
Pula, James S. "Fact vs. Fiction: What Do We Really Know About the Polish Presence in Early Jamestown?" The Polish Review 53, no. 4 (2008): 477–493.
Smith, John. True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captaine John Smith, in Europe, Asia, Afrticke and America: Beginning about the Yeere 1593, and Continued to This Present 1629. Richmond: The Franklin Press, 1819.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Pula, J. S. Polish Settlers at Early Jamestown. (2019, July 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Polish_Settlers_at_Early_Jamestown.

  • MLA Citation:

    Pula, James S. "Polish Settlers at Early Jamestown." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 29 Jul. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: July 12, 2019 | Last modified: July 29, 2019


Contributed by James S. Pula, professor of history at Purdue University Northwest.