Skilled craftsmen of Polish origin recruited by the Virginia Company began arriving in Jamestown aboard the Mary and Margaret about 1 Oct. 1608. Poles contributed to the development of a glass factory and the production of potash, naval stores, and wood products. Soon samples of their work were shipped back to England. The workers were so highly prized that they were assigned apprentices so that their skill “shall no dye with them.” Capt. John Smith praised their work ethic in his writings. Court records indicate that as a result of a dispute, Poles were granted full voting rights on 21 July 1619.
When the Virginia colony was first forming, it was crucial to its survival to maintain propaganda and to establish firm governmental support and adequate financial backing. To help establish this, a lawyer named Richard Haklyut wrote “Inducements to the Liking of the Voyage Intended Towards Virginia.” In this treatise, he stated “Men skilful in burning of Sope ashes, and in making of Pitch, and Tarre, and Rozen, to be fetched out of Prussia and Poland, which are thence to be had for small wages, being there in maner of slaves” (Barbour, 77).
According to Captain John Smith, “there are no better workers than Poles.” (Grizzard and Smith, 171) Polish craftsmen were originally brought to the Virginia colony of Jamestown a the urging of Captain John Smith. He had observed their work before and was impressed at the skills they possessed with their trade. On October 1, 1608, famous Sea Captain Christopher Newport embarked on another journey to the Jamestown, this time bringing with him “8 Dutchmen and Poles” (Barbour, 78). After arriving in the colony, these Dutch and Polish workers were responsible for creating a glass house, which would be the factory in which glass would be produced. They were also responsible for making pitch and tar and soap ashe. The Polish workers were also responsible for cutting down the timber for their woodworking projects, and they frequently would send examples of their work back to England. These Polish workers can be seen as the first creators of American industry (Barbour, 81).
In 1619, after years of Polish men working in Virginia, the Governor declared the first election of a legislative body for the people, but only those who were born on English soil would be allowed to vote in the election. Outraged, the Polish workers began the first strike in American history and they refused to do anymore work until they were allowed to vote. On July 21, 1619, the court record of the Virginia Company stated:
“Upon some dispute of the Polonians resident in Virginia, it was now agreed (notwithstanding any former order to the contrary) that they shalbe enfranchized, and made as free as any inhabitant there whatsoever: and because their skill in making pitch and tarr and sope-ashees shall not dye with them, it is agreed that some young men, shalbe put unto them to learne their skill and knowledge therein for the benefitt of the Country hereafter.” Basically, the courts determined that the Polish workers had the right to vote as well.
The refusal to work by the Polish laborers has been referred to as “the first labor strike in American history.”
There were actually two men by the name of Richard Haklyut that were involved in the process of colonizing Virginia. One was a preacher and worked in conjunction with Sir Walter Raleigh; the other was a lawyer who wrote “Inducements to the Liking of the Voyage Intended Towards Virginia.”
Captain Christopher Newport was one of the original members of the group of colonists to arrive in Jamestown in 1607. He sailed back to England shortly after arriving in Virginia and then made a second trip back in 1608, this time bringing with him the Polish and Dutch workers.
Barbour, Philip L. “The Identity of the First Poles in America.” William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 21 (1964).
Grizzard, Jr. Frank E. and D. Boyd Smith. Jamestown Colony: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2007.
“The First Polish Settlers,” Polish American Cultural Center Museum, www.polishamericancenter.org (accessed April 29, 2012).
“Depiction of 17th Century Glassblowing,” The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, www.history.org (accessed April 28, 2012).
“Christopher Newport,” Encylopedia: Christopher Newport, www.encyclopedia.com (accessed April 28, 2012).
“On Strike,” First Polish Settlers, www.polishamericancenter.org (accessed April 28, 2012).
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