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The Virginia Company refers collectively to a Joint stock company chartered by James I on 10 April 1606 with the purposes of establishing settlements on the coast of North America. The two companies, called the "Virginia Company of London" (or the London Company) and the "Virginia Company of Plymouth" (or Plymouth Company) operated with identical charters but with differing territories. An area of overlapping territory was created within which the two companies were not permitted to establish colonies within one hundred miles of each other. The Plymouth Company never fulfilled its charter, and its territory that later became New England was at that time also claimed by England.
As corporations, the companies were empowered by the Crown to govern themselves, and they ultimately granted the same privilege to their colony. In 1624, the Virginia Company failed; however, its grant of self-government to the colony was not revoked, and, "either from apathy, indecision, or deliberate purpose," the Crown allowed the system to continue. The principle was thus established that a royal colony should be self-governing, and this formed the genesis of democracy in America.
The Plymouth Company was permitted to establish settlement(s) between the 38th parallel and the 45th parallel (roughly between the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay and the current U.S.-Canada border)
On 13 August 1607, the Plymouth Company established the Popham Colony along the Kennebec River in present day Maine. However, it was abandoned after about 1 year, and the Plymouth Company became inactive.
With the religious pilgrims who arrived aboard the Mayflower, a successor company to the Plymouth Company eventually established a permanent settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 in what is now New England.
By the terms of the charter, the London Company was permitted to establish a colony of 100 miles square between the 34th parallel and the 41st parallel (approximately between Cape Fear and Long Island Sound), and also owned a large portion of Atlantic Ocean and inland Canada.
On 14 May 1607, the London Company established the Jamestown Settlement about 40 miles inland along the James River, a major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay in present-day Virginia. The future of the settlement at Jamestown was precarious for its first 5 years. The president of the third Jamestown Council, Captain John Smith, was both a strong leader and a good diplomat who was able to form a positive relationship with the Native Americans.
In 1620 George Calvert asked King James I for a charter for English Catholics to add the territory of the Plymouth Company. Also in 1609, a much larger Third Supply mission was organised. Rushed into service without the customary sea trials, the new purpose-built ship, the Sea Venture, became flagship of the fleet of 9 ships, with most of the leaders, food, and supplies aboard. Notable persons aboard the Sea Venture included the Admiral of the fleet, George Somers, Vice-Admiral Christopher Newport, the new governor for the Virginia Colony, Sir Thomas Gates, future author William Strachey, and businessman John Rolfe with his pregnant wife.
The Third Supply convoy encountered a massive storm believed to have been a hurricane which lasted three days and separated them. The Sea Venture was leaking sea water through its new caulking, and Admiral George Somers had it driven aground on a reef to avoid sinking, saving 150 men and women, and several dogs, but destroying their ship.
The uninhabited archipelago was officially named "The Somers Isles" after Admiral Somers, though it was known as Bermuda. From salvaged parts of the Sea Venture, the survivors built two smaller vessels, Deliverance and Patience. Ten months later they continued on to Jamestown, leaving several men behind on the archipelago to establish possession of it. Arriving at Jamestown on 23 May 1610, they find that over 80% of the 600 colonists had perished during what became known as the "starving time". The Bermuda survivors had anticipated finding a thriving colony at Jamestown and had brought little food or supplies with them. The colonists at Jamestown were saved only by the timely arrival of a supply mission headed by Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, better known as "Lord Delaware", less than 3 weeks later.
In 1612, The London Company's Royal Charter was officially extended to include The Somers Isles as part of the Virginia Colony. However, in 1615, the isles passed to a separate company, the Somers Isles Company, which had been formed by the same shareholders as the London Company.
To the disappointment of its investors, the Virginia Company of London failed to discover gold or silver in Virginia. However, the company did establish trade of various types. The biggest trade breakthrough came when colonist John Rolfe introduced several sweeter strains of tobacco from the Caribbean (rather than the harsh-tasting kind native to Virginia). Rolfe's new tobacco strains led to a strong export for the London Company and other early English colonies, and helped balance a trade deficit with Spain.
The Jamestown Massacre which devastated that colony in 1622 brought on unfavorable attention, particularly from King James I who had originally chartered the Company. There was a period of debate in Britain between Company officers who wished to guard the original charter, and those who wished the Company ended. In 1624, the King dissolved the Company and made Virginia a royal colony.