Life in early colonial Virginia was as nasty, brutish, and short as it got for seventeenth-century Englishmen, as shown in the sufferings of Richard Frethorne.
Colonial Virginia was an almost unbelievably bad place to live for virtually everyone unfortunate enough to live there. From the beginning of the Jamestown settlement, Virginians long failed to produce food enough to feed themselves, failed to maintain any sort of peace with Native Americans, and failed to produce any profits for investors in what we often forget was a corporation more than it was a political extension of England. By 1616, the Virginia Company faced bankruptcy and opted to allow settlers to own and operate private property, much of which must be devoted to producing the new cash crop, tobacco. The Company began fervently importing indentured servants from English and continental city centers, often through illicit means including kidnapping, impressment, fraud, and changes to the judicial system specifically designed to condemn convicts to plantation production in the New World. Most of the new indentures were the “Masterless Men and Women” displaced from traditional common fields in the English countryside by the long, grinding process of aristocratic land expropriation called “enclosure.” The “Enclosure Movement” fenced common lands traditionally farmed by landless peasants and tenant farmers, forcing many to seek employment in cities. Historian Alan Taylor describes London (ca. 1600) as “A sprawling and frightening metropolis…notorious for filth, poverty, plagues, fires, crime, and executions.” In an effort to prevent social revolution in London and enrich themselves in the process, colonial companies and their promoters advertised America as a place for the “surplus poor” to improve their prospects, a new frontier for social mobility, peace, and freedom. The reality was starkly different.
Very few documents remain from common people for the whole of the seventeenth-century, especially so for those in the early settler colonies, making documents like Richard Frethorne’s letters to his parents both rare and precious. Frethorne was an indentured servant in Virginia, whose parents contracted him into servitude in the early 1620s. In these three letters, written in March and April, 1623, Frethorne desperately laments his conditions and declares that he would rather sacrifice arms and legs to return to England once more. Above all, he begs his parents to send cheese and beef—anything he can trade to relieve his sufferings and pay his indenture. It reminds us at once of the ravages of the past compared withthe relatively comfortable and pacific present while showing that people of virtually all ages have dealt with similar struggles and personal crises from living with endless and crushing debt to battling against a variety oppressive social and political f
*Note*—The spelling and grammar will be easier to decipher if you read the letters aloud.
Letters to Father and Mother, from Richard Frethorne, Virginia
March 20, 1623
Loveing and kind father and mother my most humble duty remembred to you hopeing in God of yo[u]r good health…I yor Child am in a most heavie Case by reason of the nature of the Country is such that it Causeth much sicknes, as the scurvie and the bloody flix [dysentery], and divers other diseases, wch maketh the bodie very poore, and Weake, and when wee are sicke there is nothing to Comfort us; for since I came out of the ship, I never at[e] anie thin but pease [porridge], and loblollie (that is water gruell) as for deare or venison I never saw anie since I came into this land, ther is indeed some foule, but Wee are not allowed to goe, and get [it], but must Worke hard both earelie, and late for a messe of water gruell, and a mouthful of breead, and beife, a mouthful of bread for a pennie loafe must serve for 4 men wch is most pitifull if you did know as much as I, when people crie out day, and night, Oh that they were in England without their lymbes and would not care to lose anie lymbe to bee in England againe, yea though they beg from doore to doore, for wee live in feare of the Enimy evrie hower [hour], yet wee have had a Combate with them on the Sunday before Shrovetyde, and wee tooke two alive, and make slaves of them, but it was by pollicie, for wee are in great danger, for o[u]r Plantac[i]on is very weake, by reason of the dearth, and sicknes, of o[u]r Companie, for wee looke everie hower When two more should goe, yet there came some fo[u]r other men yet to lyve with us, of which ther is but one alive, and our L[ieutenant] is dead, and his ffather, and his brother, and there was some 5 or 6 of the last yeares 20 of wch there is but 3 left, so that wee are faine to get other men to plant with us, and yet wee are but 32 to fight against 3000 if they should Come, and the nighest helpe that Wee have is ten miles of us, and when the rogues overcame this place last, they slew 80 Persons how then shall wee doe for wee lye even in their teeth, they may easily take us but that God is merciful, and can save with few as well as with many; as he shewed to Gylead and like Gileads Souldiers if they lapt water, wee drinkee water wch is Weake [without alcohol], and I have nothing to Comfort me, nor ther is nothing to be gotten here but sicknes, and death, except that one had money to lay out in some thinges for profit; But I have nothing at all, no not a shirt to my backe, but two Ragges nor no Clothes, but one poore suite, nor but one paire of shooes, but one paire of stockins, but one Capp, but two bands [collars], my Cloke is stolen by one of my owne fellowes, and to his dying hower would not tell mee what he did with it but some of my fellows saw him have butter and beife out of a ship, wch my Cloke I doubt [not] paid for, so that I have not a penny, nor a penny Worth to helpe me to either spice, or sugar, or strong Waters, and strengthen them so water here doth wash and weaken the[se] here, onelie keepe life and soule togeather. 
But I am not halfe a quarter so strong as I was in England, and all is for want of victuals, ffor I doe protest unto you, that I have eaten more in [a] day at home th[a]n I have allowed me here for a Weeke. You have given more th[a]n my dayes allowance to a beggar at the doore; and if Mr Jackson had not relieved me, I should bee in a poore Case, but he like a ffather and shee like a loving mother doth still helpe me, for when wee goe up to James Towne that is 10 myles of us, there lie all the ships that Come to the land, and there they must deliver their goods, and when wee went up to Towne as it may bee on Moonedaye [Monday]…that Goodman Jackson pityed me & made me a Cabbin to lye in always when I come up, and he would give me some poor Jacks [fish] home with me wch Comforted mee more than pease, or water gruell. Oh they bee verie godlie folks, and love me verie well, and will doe anie thing for me, and he much marvailed that you would send me a servaunt to the [Virginia] Companie, he saith I had been better knockd on the head, and Indeede so I fynd it now to my greate greife and miserie, and saith, that if you love me you will redeeme me suddenlie, for wch I doe Intreate and beg, and if you cannot get the marchaunts to redeeme me for some little money then for Gods sake get a gathering or intreat some good folks to lay out some little Sum of moneye, in meale, and Cheese and butter, and beife, anie eating meate will yeald great profit, oile and vyniger is verie good, but ffather ther is greate losse in leaking, but for Gods sake send beife and Cheese and butter or the more of one sort and none of another, but if you send Cheese it must bee very old Cheese, and at the Chesmongers you may buy good Cheese for twopence farthing or halfepenny that will be liked verie well, but if you send Cheese you must have a Care how you packe it in barrels, and you must put Coopers chips between evrie Cheese, or else the heat of the hold [of the ship] will rott them, and looke whasoever you send me be it nev[e]r so much looke what I make of yt I will deale trulie with you I will send it ov[e]r, and beg the profit to redeeme me, and if I die before it Come I have intreated Goodman Jackson to send you the worth of it, who hath promised he will; If you send you must direct yo[u]r letters to Goodman Jackson, at James Towne a Gunsmith. (you must sett downe his frayt) because there bee more of his name there; good ffather doe not forget me, but have mercie and pittye my miserable Case. I know if you did but see me you would weepe to see me, for I have but one suite, but it is a strange one, it is very well guarded, wherefore for Gods sake pittie me, I pray you to remember my love my love to all my ffreinds, and kindred, I hope all my Brothers and Sisters are in good health, and as for my part I have set downe my resoluc[i]on that certainelie Wilbe, that is, that the Answeare of this letter wilbee life or death to me, therefore good ffather send as soone as you can, and if you send me anie thing let this be the marke. ROT
April 2, 1623
[Here are t]he names of them that bee dead of the Companie came ov[e]r with us to serve under our L[ieutenants]…[a list of twenty names: seventeen men, two women, and a child]. All theis died out of my m[aster’s] house since I came, and wee came in but at Christmas, and this is the 20th day of March and the Saylers say that ther is two thirds of the 150 dead already and thus I end prayeing to God to send me good successe that I may be redeemed out of Egypt. So vale in Christo.
Loveing ffather I pray you to use this man [who delivers this letter] verie exceeding kindly for he hath done much for me, both on my Journy and since, I intreate you not to forget me, but by anie meanes redeeme me, for this day we heare that there is 26 of English men slayne by the Indians, and they have taken a Pinnace of Mr Pountis, and have gotten peeces [muskets], Armour, swords, all them from English, till it is too late, that they bee upon us, and then ther is no mercie, therefore if you love or respect me, as yo[u]r Child release me from this bondage, and save my life, now you may save me, or let me bee slayne, with Infidelle, aske this man [who delivers this letter], he knoweth that all is true and Just that I say here; if you do redeeme me the Companie must send for me to my Mr Harrod for so is this M[aster’s] name.
Yo[u]r loving sonne
April 3, 1623
Moreover, on the third day of Aprill wee heard that after theis Rogues had gotten the Pinnace, and had taken all the furnitures as peeces, swords, armour, Coats of male, Powder, shot and all the thinges that they had to trade withal, they killed the Captaine, and Cut of his head, and rowing with the taile of the boat foremost they set up a pole and put the Captaines head upon it, and so rowed home, then the Devill set them on againe, so that they furnished about 200 Canoes with above 1000 Indians, and came and thought to have taken the ship, but shee was too quicke for them wch thing was very much talked of, for they always feared a ship, but now the Rogues growe verie bold, and can use peeces, some of them, as well or better than an Englishman, ffor an Indian did shoote with Mr Charles my M[aster’s] Kindsman at a marke of white paper, and hee hit it at the first, but Mr Charles Could not hit it, But see the Envie of theis slaves, for when they Could not take the ship then o[u] men saw them threaten Accomack that is the next Plantac[i]on and now ether is no Way but starveing ffor the Governour told us and Sir George, that except the [ship] Seaflower come in or that wee can fall foule of theis Rogues and get some Corne from them, above halfe the land will surelie be starved, for they had no Crop last yeare by reason of theis Rogues, so that wee have no Corne but as ships do relieve us, nor wee shall hardlie have anie Crop this yeare, and Wee are as like to perish first as anie Plantac[i]on, for wee have but two Hogsheads of meale left to serve us this two Monethes, if the Seaflower doe stay so long before shee come in, and that meale is but 3 Weeks bread for us, at a leafe for 4 about the bignes of a pennie loafe in England, that is but a halfepenny loafe a day for a man: is it not staunge to me thinke you? But What will it bee when wee shall goe a moneth or two and never see a bit of bread. As my M[aster] doth say Wee must doe, and he said hee is not able to keepe us all, then wee shalbe turned up to the land and eate barks of trees, or moulds or the Ground therefore and with weeping teares I beg of you to helpe me. O that you did see [my] daylie and hourelie sighes, grones, and teares, and thumpes that I afford mine owne brest, and rue and Curse the time of my birth with holy Job. I thought no head had been able to hold so much water as hath and doth dailie flow from mine eyes.
But this is Certaine I never felt the want of ffather and mother till now, but now deare ffrends full well I knowe and rue it although it were too late before I knew it.
I pray you talke with this honest man [who delivers this letter] he will tell you more then now in my hast I can set downe.
Source: The Records of the Virginia Company of London, edited, with an introduction and bibliography, by Susan Myra Kingsbury (Library of Congress, 1905); See also: Johnson, Reading the American Past: Selected Historical Documents, Vol. I: To 1877, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. 37-41; Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America, New York: Penguin Books. 2001, 117-157.