"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.
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."
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.
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.
- Colonial History (ca. 1560–1763)
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Pula, J. S. Polish Settlers at Early Jamestown. (2019, October 16). 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 Humanities, 16 Oct. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: July 12, 2019 | Last modified: October 16, 2019