This year marks the quatercentennial of what many of us learned in school as Virginia’s “red letter year” of 1619.
Four hundred years ago, Jamestown saw three events that would shape the colony’s future: The arrival of the first Africans whose legal status is still debated but they certainly weren’t free; the arrival of the first large group of women, and the advent of the first elected legislature in the new world.
The Virginia we know, the United States we know, can trace its origins back to those epic events just a dozen years after the colony’s founding.
There was a fourth historic event in 1619, though, one that never got mentioned in our Virginia history books. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the Polish craftsmen strike at Jamestown — the first strike in North America, one that didn’t deal with wages but with equal rights in general and voting rights in particular.
Before we get to that, though, we have to answer the question some of you are probably asking right now: There were Poles in Jamestown? Yes, there were. Here’s some more of the history we weren’t taught in school.
The first English settlers arrived in 1607 on the Susan Constant, Godspeed and the Discovery. The next year came a second wave of colonists —and those included “eight Dutch men and Poles, with some others.” By some accounts, the “others” may also have included Germans, Slovaks and Armenians. The Virginia colony was multicultural from almost the very beginning.
To understand why the English were inviting Polish immigrants to Jamestown, we must delve even further back into history and John Smith’s adventures fighting the Turks in eastern Europe. Somehow our histories also gloss over how Smith beheaded three Turks in single combat, was knighted by the Prince of Transylvania, then captured in battle, sold as slave to a Turkish nobleman who sent him as a gift to his Greek mistress. Perhaps that’s a bit too, um, colorful for young, impressionable minds, but it’s a lot more interesting than the Disney version of John Smith. In any case, Smith escaped his Turkish captors and travelled across eastern Europe before getting back to England just in time to get involved with a the company trying to set up a colony in the new world.
On his travels through eastern Europe, Smith was mightily impressed by the craftsmanship he saw in Poland. “There are no better workers than the Poles,” he wrote. Ever practical, once Smith got to Jamestown, he decided the new colony needed some of those workers. So on the Second Supply fleet in 1608 there arrived Poles and other eastern Europeans to set up the first factories in North America — making glassware, pottery, pitch, tar and turpentine. The glass was imported back to England as proof of the colony’s economic value; the pottery was used locally and the sticky stuff was used in shipbuilding.
The Poles were considered such valuable contributors to the economy that the colony soon began importing more of them. A second group of Poles arrived a year later, in 1609. There is one unresolved curiosity: What faith did these Poles practice? Poles tended to be Catholics and the English in those days were officially anti-Catholic. Did Virginia colony somehow find Protestant Poles? Or did the Virginia Company, mindful of the bottom line, quietly exempt the Poles from requirements that they attend the Anglican Church? In any case, there were Poles at Jamestown. Michal Lowicki, Zbigniew Stefanski, Jur Mata, Jan Bogdan, Karol Zrenica and Stanislaw Sadowski are not names you’ll read in any Virginia history textbook, but they were among our founders, too.
Then came the red letter year of 1619. A new governor, George Yeardley, arrived, with instructions to replace the colony’s military government with some semblance of a colonial parliament. That led to the election of the first House of Burgesses. It was not without controversy.
Yeardley restricted the vote to Englishmen only. The Poles responded by refusing to work. In modern terms, they went on strike. By some accounts, their labor action began 400 years ago today — on June 30, 1619. This was a problem, because the Virginia Company’s profits depended on those Polish-made exports. That problem quickly went all the way to London. There, the company’s records contain this entry for July 21, 1619: “Upon some dispute of the Polonians resident in Virginia, it was now agreed (not withstanding any former order to contrary) that they shall be enfranchised, and made as free as any inhabitant there whatsoever.”
In other words, they got the right to vote. It would be nearly four centuries before Virginia came to regard everyone on the same legal footing, but giving Poles the same rights as the English in 1619 was the first small step in that direction.
The company records also contain this curious addendum: The Poles agreed to train apprentices. That suggests that maybe the English didn’t want to rely entirely on restive Poles and their insistence on equal rights. Nevertheless, a month later, the Virginia Company decided to seek more skilled workers from eastern Europe, so clearly there wasn’t a prohibition on bringing in more Poles.
In time, the small but vital Polish community in Jamestown simply faded away into what we call the melting pot — and was effectively written out of Virginia’s history. The textbooks that most of us in Virginia were given in school never mention the Poles at all. Even the definitive history of the state — “Virginia: The New Dominion” by the Pulitzer Price-winning journalist Virginius Dabney — contains just one short sentence about their arrival, nothing about their strike for equal voting rights. Our history is more complex than we were taught.
The Poles in Jamestown were not completely forgotten, though. The Polish exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York included a painting called “Poles in Jamestown,” which must have come as quite a surprise to any visitors from Virginia. We’re only now coming to realize all the things we hadn’t been told about before. In 2012, Virginia took its first official step toward recognizing the Polish workers who powered our earliest economy: A historical marker at Jamestown. That marker curiously avoids the word “strike,” though. Instead, it says rather cryptically: “Court records indicate that as a result of a labor dispute Poles were granted full voting rights on 21 July 1619.”
Some might call that the Virginia way.