Early Years and New England
Archer was born about 1574 and was probably the elder of two known sons of Christopher Archer and Mary Archer, of Mountnessing, Essex County, England. He matriculated as a pensioner of Saint John’s College, Cambridge University, about 1591 and entered Gray’s Inn on March 15, 1593. Very little else is known about his life in England.
The Relation of Captaine Gosnols Voyage to the North Part of Virginia
First Trip to Virginia
Late in 1606, in close association with Gosnold, Archer enrolled in the expedition of the Virginia Company of London to establish a colony in what was then known as South Virginia. Safely entering Chesapeake Bay in the spring of 1607, Captain Archer, as he is referred to in the records, suffered an injury to both hands during an Indian attack on the night of April 26. On the journey up the James River he selected a settlement site, thereafter named Archers Hope, which Captain Christopher Newport rejected in favor of the deeper water a few miles away at Jamestown Island. Archer accompanied Newport in his exploration of the James River as far as the fall line at what became the city of Richmond. Archer’s primary function was to maintain a journal of the expedition’s progress. An unsigned document in the Public Record Office in London contains his narrative of events between May 21 and June 21. A parallel document in a different handwriting, also unsigned but plausibly attributed to Archer on stylistic grounds, gives a useful but superficial account of the topography and Indians encountered in the initial exploration. Both manuscripts have always remained in official custody and were probably sent to Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, the most prominent official supporter of the Virginia venture. Archer’s reports are among the most informative eyewitness accounts of the first weeks of the Jamestown colony.
Archer’s subsequent activities in Virginia are difficult to document thoroughly. He survived the sickness that killed more than half the colonists during the summer and autumn of 1607, and he was nominated recorder of the colony, effectively a magistrate. As such he participated with several councillors in the political trial at which the president, Edward Maria Wingfield, was convicted of a string of minor offenses and deprived of his office on September 10. Wingfield was confined to the pinnace, the small ship Discovery, where he continued to inveigh against Archer throughout the following months.
Captain John Smith, having been captured by the Pamunkey Indians and handed over to Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, was returned to Jamestown on January 2, 1608. According to Wingfield, Archer then charged Smith with responsibility for the death of two of his men, who had been killed by the Indians. On the strength of a text in Leviticus, Archer sought the death penalty. Smith was on the verge of being hanged when Newport appeared in the river with supplies and reinforcements from England. Smith’s version of events merely stated that Archer and his friends had attempted to exclude him from the Council. Newport eventually dealt with the squabbling handful of survivors by leaving for home on April 10, 1608, with Wingfield and Archer on board, much to Smith’s relief.
Death in Virginia
While in England in the summer of 1608, Archer probably supplied the Virginia Company with copies of his reports. Although he made some unrealistic recommendations for crops that could be profitably cultivated in Virginia, including pineapples, sugar, and olives, he did think that tobacco had export potential. During Archer’s 1608–1609 English sojourn he apparently came to terms with Wingfield. Some of the evidence of Archer’s intrigues must also have come to light, but his defects were overlooked because of his experience and his skill as a reporter. When a great national effort was mounted to put the Virginia colony on a sounder footing with a relief fleet of nine vessels, Captain Archer was placed in command of the Blessing. His ship survived the storm that scattered the flotilla, reaching Jamestown on August 11, 1609.
Archer found Captain John Smith installed as president until his one-year term expired on September 10. Because the documents conveying authority to Sir Thomas Gates had gone astray during the stormy Atlantic crossing, Smith refused to surrender his presidency to the newcomers and endeavored to distribute the 300 to 400 arrivals at new settlements up and down the river. Using a legalistic ruse that Archer probably devised, the newly arrived councillors announced that they would formally take over when Smith’s term ended. After Smith was injured in an explosion, he finally agreed to leave with one of the departing vessels.
Archer’s last surviving letter, dated August 31, 1609, and sent to a friend via one of the ships returning to England, included a brief but lucid account of his recent voyage as well as an attack on Smith for not showing “due respect to many worthy Gentlemen that came in our ships.” Archer reported on the beginnings of the new administration, admitting that Smith would “have it blazoned a mutenie.” One final record of this antagonism is a series of trivial charges against Smith by Archer that were later forwarded to England.
Gabriel Archer’s Grave
- The Relation of Captaine Gosnols Voyage to the North Part of Virginia (1625)