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Richmond Times-Dispatch                        January 13 , 1935


Home    >    Newspaper Articles    >    Henricopolis, America's First College




Henricopolis, America's First College

Indian Massacre Ended Young Colony's Venture Into Higher Education After Brief 3-Year Career; Monuments Mark Site

By Priscilla Williams


The Old James flows silently by. Only the occasional call of a bird or the distant whirr of an automobile may be heard now, but in the early part of the seventeenth century all was astir with life. One might have then heard the sound of hammer and saw, or the men calling to each other as they made brick, or out in the fields planted corn and tobacco. Keen ears might have heard the snapping of a twig and turning, saw behind a tree an Indian watching these strange white men building their stranger town. For on this high plateau, overlooking the James, about 11 miles below Richmond, the colonists established the town of Henricopolis, one of the leading towns in the Virginia Colony in the early part of the seventeenth century and the College of Henricopolis.


Monuments at Henricopolis, sit of America's first University.


But all is silent now, and not even an old foundation is visible, but two monuments marks the spot, one erected by the Episcopal Church commemorating the founding of the Parish of Henrico or Henricopolis as it was then called and the other erected by the Colonial Dames of America, commemorating the founding of the College of Henricopolis.

It was not destined to live and grow into the great universtity planned for it by its founders, this College of Henricopolis. Perhaps in their eagerness, they attempted too soon to found a university in the struggling young colony, but for three years it existed and was a part of the life of the colony, when in 1622 it was ruthlessly destroyed by the Indians in the great massacre of that year; and, to this college, though short lived, belongs the distinction of being the first to be founded in America.

Its history is meagre and scattered, but we find it mentioned frequently in the records of the London Company from 1619 to 1624, and in the proceedings of the first American Representative Assembly which met at Jamestown in 1619.


*          *          *


The town of Henrico or Henricopolis, using the older form of the name, was founded by Sir Thomas Dale in 1611 and called Henricopolis for Prince Henry, the eldest son of James I. In the charter which was granted for the establishment of the town, there is reference to the college which was to be built immediately, but it is not until 1618, however, that we hear of it again, when Governor Yeardley is instructed to choose a suitable site at Henrico and to prepare for the building of the college.

Ralph Hamor, who was secretary of the colony, gives us a description of the town in quaint old English in his "A True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia."

"There is in this town three streets of well framed houses, a handsome church, and the foundation of a more stately one laid of brick, in length, an hundred foote, and fifty foot wide, beside store houses, watch houses, and such like: there are also, as ornaments belonging to this towne, upon the verge of this river, five faire block houses, or comaunders, wherein live the honester sort of people, as in farmes in England, and there keep continuall centinell for the townes security . . . "

It was near this little town that Pocahontas lived with her English husband, John Rolfe, on their plantation called Varina, and here their son, Thomas Rolfe, was born.

Through the influence of Sir Edwin Sandys, the London Company granted a tract of 10,000 acres of land along the southern bank of the James River to the college, and plans were made for a complete system of education.

One thousand acres were to be used for a school for christianizing and educating the Indians, training some of them for missionaries to their own people. the other 9,000 acres were to be used for a college and university for the English.

An additional thousand acres were appropriated at Charles City for a preparatory school for the college. Many donations were made for the proposed institution both in England and in Virginia.

In the records of the London Company, we find that in 1618 King James authorized the bishops and clergy of England to make a collection of 15,000 pounds "for the college and university of Virginia," and 1,500 pounds were collected. Of the individual donations, Nicholas Farrar left 300 pounds in his will, and George Ruggles gave a legacy of 100 pounds. There were also "a communion cup, with a cover and case, a trencher plate for the bread, a carpet of crimson velvet, and a damask tablecloth." The Rev. Thomas Bargrave of Henrico Parish donated his library.


*           *         *


The school for the Indians is perhaps the best known. The college is even sometimes referred to as the Indian College, but the department for the Indians was only a small part of the proposed institution.

There were in Virginia at this time about 4,000 colonists who were living on scattered plantations along the James River from the falls to Chesapeake Bay, and the most urgent need of these colonists was not an institution of learning for the English, but rather a practical school for christianizing and educating the barbarous tribes by whom they were surrounded. Then, too, the funds were inadequate for the establishment of a great university, and, for this reason, it was decided to place tenants on the vast tract of land that had been granted to the college, to develop it, and use the proceeds as an income for the college. These tenants were to cultivate the land on halves. "They were to have half the profit of their labour to themselves, and the other half was to go towards forwarding the building, and the maintenance of the tutors and scholars." As a further source of income, it was decided to erect an iron furnace at Falling Creek, and 50 men were sent over in 1619 to work it.

The Rev. George Thorpe was elected deputy and superintendent of the college in 1619. He had been a gentleman of the king's Privy Chamber and one of the Council for Virginia in England. He reached the colony May 11, 1620. He was a very pious and good man, and he took a great interest in christianizing the Indians. To win the confidence and friendship of the Indian Emperor, Opechancanough, he had a house like those used by the English built for him in the forest. This delighted the old Indian, especially the mechanism of the lock and key which he is said to have locked and unlocked a hundred times a day.

By the spring of 1622, the college was being firmly established. Over 100 tenants had been settled on the college lands, and the iron furnace at Falling Creek was described as being "in a very great forwardness." In London, the London Company had elected the Rev. Patrick Copland as rector or president of the college.


A medal struck to commemorate the Indian Massacre and demolishing of Henricopolis University

But all of this was swept away in a day. In the massacre of March, 1622, Henrico was completely annihilated. At the iron furnace at Falling Creek, every one was killed except a boy and girl, and the tools of the men were thrown into the river. George Thorpe, who lived at Berkeley, was warned of the attack by his servant, but he refused to believe there was any real danger, and his body was found later horribly mutilated.

For four years the crafty old emperor had been planning this attack, at the same time pretending great friendship for the English. Only a few months before he had sent word to Governor Wyatt that so dear to him was the peace existing between the English and his people that "the sky should fall before he broke it," and on the morning of the massacre, the Indians had visited several plantations bearing gifts of game and had had breakfast with the English in the most friendly manner. So skillfully was the attack planned that each town and plantation from the falls to the Bay was attacked at exactly the same hour, the Indians waiting until the men were about their work and then falling upon them with their savage yells.

"They fell upon the English and basely and bararously murdered them, not sparing age or sex, man, woman or child. Being at their several works in the house and in the fields, planting corn and tobacco, gardening, making brick building, sawing and other kinds of husbandry, so sudden was the cruel execution that few or none discerned the weapon or the blow that brought them to destruction."

The converted Indian, Chanco, living in Jamestown warned his master, who in turn warned the town and nearby plantations, and through him the capital of the colony was saved, for the Indians quickly fled into the forest when they found the English waiting for them. Only a few of the plantations, however, could be warned, and when later in the day the Governor sent parties down the river to determine the extent of the terrible carnage, and to bring back to Jamestown the wounded, it was found that 347 of the English had been killed, whole families had been wiped out, their bodies mutilated and their homes in flames. The colonists now forgot their plans for christianizing and colonizing the Indians, and in retaliation burned their villages, destroyed their crops and drove them further into the forests.

From the massace the college would probably have survived, but only two years later the king withdrew the charter of the London Company. Virginia became a royal province under the king, and the college lands were confiscated, bringing to an end the college in Virginia.

Like the college, the town was never rebuilt, but the name, Henrico, has survived in the name of Henrico County. The site of old Henricopolis, however, is now in Chesterfield County, the original Henrico County having been subdivided.



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