Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Military Exploits of Samuel Argall, Admiral of Virginia

An image of Samuel Argall is superimposed upon a portion of a map of Virginia, oriented with the north to the right, which was published in London in 1624 and labeled "Discovered and [sic]Discribed by Captain John Smith, Graven by William Hole, 1606." Argall, an expert seaman, navigator, warrior, diplomat, and administrator, was instrumental in ensuring the survival of English colonists in Virginia and preventing encroachment by competing colonial powers. (Library of Congress/ Dictionary of Canadian Biography

By Christopher Pieczynski
Contributing Writer

Samuel Argall held many titles during his long and storied career: Captain for the Virginia Company of London, Admiral of Virginia, Admiral of New England, and Deputy Governor of Virginia.  He was also bestowed with a number of very descriptive if not unflattering monikers that ranged from “legalized pirate” to “freebooter” to “unscrupulous” to “despotic.”[1] Regardless of a particular love or hate characterization, Argall’s involvement with the Virginia Colony came at a critical time in the survival of the colony and helped ensure that survival by stopping the encroachment of Virginia territory by other countries.
Argall’s versatility and value to the Virginia Company was displayed on several occasions.  His first task in 1609 was to find a shorter route across the Atlantic.  By sailing in a more westerly route from England, roughly along the 30th parallel, via the Azores, Argall proved that you could significantly reduce sailing time and avoid the Spanish in the old southerly route through the Caribbean.[2] Returning to Virginia in 1610, Argall and the new Virginia governor, Thomas West, the Baron De La Warre, found the colony in dire straits and on the verge of abandonment.  Argall was ordered by De La Warre to procure fish for the struggling colony and with his past knowledge of North American fishing areas proceeded to the Bay of Fundy to fill his hold.  Later, while trading with the Patawomeck tribe on the Potomac River, Argall managed to entice Pocahontas, the daughter of the Powhatan leader, onboard his ship, the Treasurer.  By capturing Pocahontas in this fashion, Argall was able to use her as a bargaining chip and establish, if not enforce, peace and trade with the Powhatan tribe, displaying his resourcefulness at negotiating with the native population for food and supplies.[3]

Isle Saint Croix as depicted by Samuel de Champlain on his 1607 voyage, which was published in 1613. (Hathi Trust Digital Library)

The 1606 Charter of the Virginia Company of London claimed land rights “all along the Sea Coasts, between four and thirty Degrees of Northerly Latitude from the Equinoctial Line, and five and forty Degrees of the same Latitude.”  This placed the English colony between the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine to the south and the French settlement of Quebec to the north.[4]  Land rights at the time were more determined by occupation of the land than by any actual claims on paper.  In 1604, prior to the British claim, the French had established a settlement along the modern Maine-New Brunswick boundary at St. Croix, later moving across the Bay of Fundy to a site along the Annapolis River called Port Royal.  The “northern” Virginia colony under George Popham was established near the Kennebec River in 1607.  The short-lived Popham Colony struggled and was abandoned in 1608.[5]  The French settlement at Port Royal also struggled but survived and by 1610 even expanded to the area abandoned by the English at Sagadahoc.     

The French settlement of Port Royal in 1605, as described by Samuel de Champlain. (Hathi Trust Digital Library)
Marc Lescarbot, one of the French settlers at Port Royal, chronicled his experience and explorations in the Acadia region in Histoire de la Nouvelle-France (1609).  Translated into English in 1610, the French settlement was not initially viewed as a threat to English claims in the region – possibly expecting the French colony to fail like the Popham Colony.  However, in 1611, the vessel Grace de Dieu, carrying Charles de Biencourt, the son of Jean de Biencourt de Poutrincourt, the founder of Port Royal, and the Jesuit missionaries Pierre Biard and Enemond Masse, was forced into the Isle of Wight (the English island, not to be confused with the county in Virginia) due to weather.  Information obtained from the crew and passengers indicated the ship’s destination was Port Royal.  All indications were that the French colony was not only thriving but was likely to begin an expansion beyond Acadia.[6]

Meanwhile, Argall was fulfilling his duties to the Virginia Company.  While back in England, the Trinity term of the Virginia Court appointed Argall as “Admiral of Virginia” on July 11, 1612 with orders to expel the French from English claimed territory.[7] In accordance with the Charter of the Virginia Company, the Governor “shall and may, from time to time, and at all times for ever hereafter, for their several Defences, encounter, expulse, repel, and resist, as well by Sea as by Land, by all Ways and Means whatsoever, all and every such Person and Persons, as without the especial Licence of the said several Colonies and Plantations.”[8]

The action against the French may have only been one of Argall’s many missions while in Virginia – the support and survival of the colony being his first priority.  His activities between departing England in August 1612 and July 1613 were all in providing for the survival of the colony and included the abduction of Pocahontas.  As Argall set out on another trip to procure fish for the colony, his ship, the Treasurer, carried 14 guns, an additional “fishing” boat and a crew of 60.[9]  While almost all merchant vessels at the time carried some sort of armament, the Treasurer had more the appearance of a warship than a trading vessel.

Argall’s destination was once again the New England fishing grounds that he had charted on earlier voyages.  While all indications were that Argall’s purpose was to obtain fish, he was likely keeping options open to encounter the French.  In July, while approaching Penobscot Bay, the Treasurer was approached by several native canoes.  Argall learned of the presence of a French settlement near Mount Desert Island called Saint Sauveur after convincing the Indians that he was here to visit the French.  One of the Indians embarked aboard the Treasurer guided Argall to Saint Sauveur, where he found a small settlement consisting of tents, the ship Jonas and a pinnace anchored in the sound, but otherwise no other defenses.[10]

Argall seized the opportunity and closed on the Jonas.  Onboard the French vessel, the Jesuit missionary Gilbert Du Thet, realizing the English were about to attack, fired the cannon but with no effect.  Musket fire from Argall’s crew felled Du Thet and when the English boarded the vessel they found several killed and wounded across the deck.  The captain of the vessel, Rene le Coq de La Saussaye, had been ashore and had fled to the woods when the firefight began.  Argall searched La Saussaye’s belongings and found his official commission to establish a settlement at Mount Desert.  The crafty Argall placed the commission in his pocket and after La Sausseye was captured, demanded to see the French paperwork.  Unable to produce the commission (as it was secured in Argall’s pocket), Argall declared La Sausseye and the French pirates and had their property seized.[11]

Thirty of the captives were placed into a small shallop and cast out to sea.  They eventually were able to cross the bay and fall in with French trading vessels which took them back to France.  Argall sailed back to Virginia with Father Biard and the remaining captives and the French vessel Jonas and the pinnace as prizes.[12]
Shortly after Argall’s arrival in Virginia with his prizes, Sir Thomas Dale, Deputy-Governor, ordered the French prisoners hung.  Father Biard, as you might remember, was one of those forced into the Isle of Wight where the English gained a better understanding of the French objectives in the New World.  It is likely that Biard was more than willing to divulge the locations and strength of the French settlements in the Acadia region as a means of gaining favor with the English and perhaps even avoid death. Biard, aside from his own self-preservation, also had a score to settle with Biencourt.  It was Biencourt at Port Royal who viewed the Jesuits as a burden on his colony and after several disagreements with Biard, essentially banished Biard and the Jesuits to Mount Desert Island.  Perhaps reluctantly, Biard offered to guide Argall to Biencourt’s settlements in Acadia.[13]

Departing in the Treasurer, with Biard as guide, and accompanied by the captured Jonas and the pinnace, Argall set out on another expedition to evict the French.  Arriving again at Saint Sauveur, they removed the French crosses and replaced them with English crosses as a sign of territorial claims.  Their next destination was the settlement as Saint Croix.  Argall know that Biard had been to Saint Croix previously but Biard refused to provide directions.  Somehow the English were able to find the settlement which had been abandoned for several years.  Argall’s force removed a supply of salt that was stored there and burned all remaining structures.  Realizing that Biard was likely to be obstinate in providing directions to Port Royal, Argall captured a local Indian and used him as a guide.[14]

The burning of Port Royal in 1613 as depicted in Tuttle's Popular History of the Dominion of Canada, Volume 1, published in 1877. (Hathi Trust Digital Library)
Arriving at Port Royal the English found the settlement empty – the inhabitants working the fields some distance from the village.  Argall waited and when the French returned, Biencourt, the French leader of the colony, attempted to bribe Argall with trading rights.  Instead, Argall ordered his 40-man landing party to plunder and burn the village.[15]

Argall retuned to Virginia in the Treasurer with livestock, grain, and other stores sorely needed in the colony.  Biard proceeded to Virginia in the Jonas, perhaps destined for certain death upon his arrival.  The possibility of death in Virginia may have been preferable to certain execution had he remained in Port Royal at the hands of Biencourt who viewed Biard as a traitor to France.  During the transit back to Virginia a storm scattered the ships.  The pinnace was never seen again and presumed sunk, Treasurer eventually made it back to Virginia where Argall provided Dale with the news of the successful expulsion of the French and the delivery of the badly needed stores.  The Jonas was swept so far off course in the storm that it was easier to sail to the Azores for relief than to Virginia.  The next dilemma facing Biard in the Azores was the potential of the Catholic Portuguese population turning unfavorably on his plight believing that he had betrayed their fellow Catholic French.  The French were hidden in the hold of the Jonas while in Fayal and eventually the ship returned to England and Biard repatriated back to France.[16]

The controversy over Argall’s attacks started with Biard’s return to France.  Biard reported the incidents to the Marchioness of Guercheville who had sponsored the settlements and claimed ownership of the vessels captured by Argall.  The Marchioness demanded restitution of 100,000 livres, return of the two Jesuits still being held in Virginia, and a formal declaration of the boundaries of Virginia as the French settlements were believed (by the French) to be outside of these boundaries.[17]  In answering the French accusations, the English government exerted their support for Argall and stated, in part, that de Guercheville “has no reason to complain, nor to expect any reparation, seeing that her ship forcibly entered the territory of the said colony to settle and traffic without their permission to the prejudice of treaties…”[18] The Jonas, however, was eventually returned to de Guercherville.
The next settlement in the area would be established by Scottish adventurer William Alexander, about five miles further up the Annapolis River in 1629.  The Scottish colony was eventually ceded to the French under the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1632.  Eventually the settlement became the modern Canadian community of Annapolis Royal.  Samuel Argall was later appointed deputy Governor of Virginia in 1617 and ruled the colony in the absence of the governor until 1619.  He was named Admiral of New England in 1622 and was knighted that same year.  Samuel Argall died at sea on January 24, 1626.[19] Argall left behind a varied and distinguished legacy but his attacks on the three French settlements marked the first time that forces under the flag of Virginia attacked another nation.                         

[1] Seymour V. Connor, “Sir Samuel Argall: A Biographical Sketch,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 59, No. 2 (April 1951), 162.
[2] Ibid., 163.
[3] Samuel Argall to Nicholas Hawes, June 1613, in Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrims, Vol. XIX (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1906),  90-95.
[4] Charter of the Virginia Company of London, 1606, American Historical Documents, 1000–1904, Vol. XLIII. The Harvard Classics (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14), 51.
[5] Banks, Charles Edwards, “New documents Relating to the Popham Expedition, 1607,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society for October 1929 (Worcester, MA: Davis Press, 1930). 
[6] Father Pierre Biard to Rev. Christopher Balthazar, June 10, 1611, in Alexander Brown, ed., The Genesis of the United States, Vol. 1 (Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1897), 475-76.
[7] Brown, Alexander, The First Republic in America (Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1898), 178.
[8] Charter, American Historical Documents, 57.
[9] Argall to Hawes, Purchas his Pilgrims, 90-95.
[10] “Biard’s Relation,” in Genesis, Vol. II, 710-11.
[11] Ibid., 713.
[12] Ibid., 715.
[13] Ibid., 717.
[14] Ibid., 718.
[15] Ibid., 719.
[16] Ibid., 720-21.
[17] H. de Montmorency, Admiral of France to King James, October 18, 1613, Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, 1574-1660, W. Noel Sainsbury, ed. (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1860), 15.
[18] Answer to the Complaints presented to the King by the Sieur de Buisseaux, French Ambassador, at the Court of his Majesty, 1614, Calendar of State Papers, W. Noel Sainsbury, ed. (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1893), 53.
[19] “Argall Biographical Sketch,” 174.

Christopher Pieczynski served for 24 years as a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy. He is currently an adjunct professor of history  at Tidewater Community College and university of Maryland University College.  He specializes in the War of 1812 and naval history under sail.  

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