One of my favorite Virginia public history sites is Henricus Historical Park because of its evocative 17th-century interpretive and environmental atmosphere. On September 17 and 18, Henricus will celebrate its annual “Publick Days.” This event continues the 400th anniversary of Henricus’ establishment, with over 100 living historians participating on site. Located in Chesterfield County, Virginia, the park recreates the the Anglo-Virginian settlement founded four years after Jamestown’s 1607 establishment, and also the Powhatan Indian town located in the vicinity. Named for King James I‘s first son, Henry, “The Citie of Henricus” was an attempt to solve two of Jamestown’s continuing problems: unhealthy climate and location. By planting Henricus upriver on the James River, founder Sir Thomas Dale sought an effective replacement capital for the colony which Middle Plantation — renamed as Williamsburg — ultimately became in 1699.
As governor, Dale envisioned fortifications at Point Comfort (Hampton), the Indian town of Kiskiack (on York River), Jamestown, and two additional sites, including what would become Henricus. He wrote in a August 17, 1611 letter to Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, a member of the Virginia Council: “I have surveyed a convenient, strong, healthy, and sweet seat to plant a town in.” He recommended adding a fifth site ten miles further upriver at the Falls to complete his plan to secure the Virginia Peninsula for the English. Dale promised Cecil that colonists would then hunt, fish, and cultivate the land, so that “we should no more lament of us of want or scarcity of any provision.” Dale’s determination was met by Native resistance and by some of his own men abandoning their tasks to go AWOL into Indian territory. However, Thomas Dale was no stranger to enforcing martial law. He proved it at Jamestown in a new regime meant to set the colony to rights. His contemporary George Percy wrote that Dale executed captured offenders in terrifying ways at Henricus to set an example for others.
Dale’s intent to create new settlements or plantations along the James was realized, but the push outward into Powhatan Indian territory factored in the Native uprising of 1622. Henricus was destroyed and the intent to locate a college there also ended abruptly; as a result, Harvard College in Massachusetts took precedence as America’s first higher education institution, founded in 1636. Virginia lagged behind for decades as planners, promoters, and administrators sought to re-energize that dream, eventually realized with the 1693 royal charter for The College of William and Mary.
Today, Henricus Historical Park commemorates some “what ifs” of Colonial Virginia history in an educational — and peaceful — way. Dale and other early colonial administrators expected prosperity through encouraging land ownership for the colonists, building an ironworks at the Falls, and a lingering hope of discovering gold in Virginia. Of these, only settlement succeeded in the early era. Both ironworks and gold mines did come later in the Commonwealth’s history, fulfilling those early dreams. For more background on the early period, watch this video from Henricus Historical Park, “Henricus: A Citie of Beginnings.”