Argall was born in England at the manor of East Sutton in the county of Kent, and baptized on December 4, 1580. He was the fifth son and last of eleven children to survive infancy of Richard Argall, a gentleman with extensive properties in Kent, Essex, and London, and Mary Scott Argall, daughter of Sir Reginald Scott, of Scots Hall, Kent. Richard Argall died when his youngest child was eight years of age, and Mary Scott Argall remarried. The single clue to Samuel Argall’s early education is John Pory‘s remark that Argall was “a soldier truly bred in that university of warre the lowe Countries.” In 1606 Argall was working in the transatlantic fishing trade between Newfoundland, Spain, and England, experience that proved useful three years later when he was placed in command of a small ship and charged with discovering a shorter route to the Virginia colony, fishing for sturgeon, and selling provisions.
Argall left England on May 15, 1609, and reached the colony on July 23, 1609. By following the 30th parallel, which took him north of the Caribbean route, he trimmed the voyage from the twelve to eighteen weeks it had taken previously to just nine weeks and six days. Argall returned to England that autumn and in March 1610 set sail again, this time transporting Thomas West, baron De La Warr, the new governor. Traveling the northern route resulted in his entering the James River on June 10, 1610—just in time to prevent Sir Thomas Gates and those sixty-five colonists who had survived the “Starving Time” of 1609–1610 from abandoning the colony for Newfoundland.
War, Diplomacy, and Exploration
Determined to relieve and reform the distressed colony, which had suffered 350 deaths and cost the company some £20,000 since 1607, De La Warr appointed Argall captain of a fifty-man company of musketeers and ordered him to seek provisions on Bermuda. Argall left Jamestown on June 19, 1610, but encountered violent storms and wound up off Cape Cod, where he loaded his pinnace with fish before sailing down the coast and reaching the Chesapeake on August 31. In the interim the colonists had initiated retaliatory raids against the Algonquian-speaking Virginia Indians under Powhatan. Argall joined the effort early in September 1610 by attacking and burning the Warraskoyack village.
When the Jamestown garrison again required provisions in December, Argall was dispatched to the Potomac River and procured maize and furs there from Iopassus (Japazaws), the weroance of Passapatanzy, a Patawomeck town. On March 28, 1611, Argall sailed for England, accompanied by the malaria-ridden De La Warr. He remained there until July 23, 1612, when he commanded Sir Robert Rich’s 130-ton ship, Treasurer, which reached Virginia on September 17 after a fifty-seven-day voyage that was the fastest then recorded.
Between December 1612 and May 1613 Argall sailed the Potomac River and the northern Chesapeake Bay, reaching the falls near present-day Washington, D.C. During this time he observed bison, investigated minerals and water thought to have medicinal purposes, explored much of the Eastern Shore, and traded with Iopassus. Early in April 1613 Argall used his extensive knowledge of the area and its Indian population to kidnap Pocahontas while she was with the Patawomecks—an event that ultimately helped bring the devastating Anglo-Powhatan War of 1609–1614 to a conclusion. Argall obtained Iopassus’s complicity in the kidnapping by threatening that they would otherwise “be no longer brothers nor friends,” but he also rewarded him for his assistance and established an alliance to protect the Patawomecks from Powhatan’s wrath. This diplomacy proved as damaging to the paramount chief as had the English raids, for Eastern Shore tribes also repudiated domination by the Powhatan chiefdom after they learned from the Patawomecks of Argall’s “courteous usage of them.”
Between July and November 1613 Argall routed a French outpost on what is now Mount Desert Island in Maine, claimed it for James I, devastated two other French settlements on the coast of Nova Scotia, and paid a hostile visit to the “pretended Dutch governor” at Manhattan. Having thus rendered inestimable service for England’s future colonization of New England, Argall assisted Sir Thomas Dale, the deputy governor of Virginia, in negotiating a peace with the Pamunkey and Chickahominy in March and April 1614. That England’s first Indian war ended diplomatically, with the John Rolfe–Pocahontas marriage, and not as a bloody Armageddon, owed more to Argall’s strategic alliances with friendly Indians than to Dale’s terroristic tactics against hostile ones. Returning to London late in the spring of 1614, Argall was exonerated of charges that he had encroached on French rights in Canada. He returned to Virginia during the summer of 1615, having again traveled the northern route but inexplicably taken almost five months for the journey. Argall again commanded a ship returning to England when Pocahontas, her husband, and their young son took passage in the spring of 1616. He also commanded the Virginia-bound George from which Pocahontas came ashore, ill and dying, at Gravesend, Kent, late in March 1617.
Argall finally left Plymouth on April 10 and arrived in Virginia about May 15, 1617, when he assumed the office of deputy governor to the absent De La Warr. His administration during this key transitional period between the martial law invoked by Dale and Sir Thomas Smythe, Virginia Company treasurer, and the representative government initiated by subsequent leaders remains controversial thanks to sparse and contradictory records. Although feuding factions in the Virginia Company and changing conditions in the colony made Deputy Governor Argall a universal scapegoat, he successfully administered Virginia by balancing old and new policies. He improved military preparedness and cautiously restricted the colonists’ contacts with Indians, much as had John Smith. He continued to invoke articles of Dale’s Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall but rarely enforced the harshest of its provisions. He was troubled over the colonists’ growing dependence on tobacco to the neglect of foodstuffs, but by promoting private settlements, of which Argall’s Gift (1617) was probably the first, he helped erode the Virginia Company’s power, which rested on public landownership.
In effect, Argall’s administration anticipated the collapse of the company. His promotion of a self-sufficient, militarily and economically strong colony governed by an experienced leader who merged public policy with private profits served as the model for Virginia’s ruling oligarchy in the 1620s and 1630s. When other Kentishmen established an Anglo-Indian entrepreneurial empire in the northern Chesapeake, they followed Argall’s precedents in fur trading, exploration, native diplomacy, and relations with London merchants and imperialistic noblemen. After enduring considerable criticism from both sides of the Atlantic, Deputy Governor Argall turned the government over to Nathaniel Powell on April 9, 1619, and left Jamestown within the next few days. Sir George Yeardley arrived on April 18 and assumed the position of deputy governor.
Successfully defending himself against new charges leveled against him in London, Argall refurbished his reputation by commanding a ship in a 1620 attack on Algiers and being appointed admiral of New England and a member of the Council for New England. James I knighted him on June 26, 1622. On July 15, 1624, Argall was appointed to the Mandeville Commission, which oversaw the reorganization of Virginia following the demise of the Virginia Company. He voted to surrender the company’s charter but was defeated in his bid for election as the royal colony’s governor. After commanding a large English fleet in an abortive attack on Cádiz in the fall of 1625, Sir Samuel Argall, of the manor of Lowhall, Walthamstow, Essex, died at sea aboard the Swiftsure on January 24, 1626. He was survived by one daughter, Ann Argall Percivall.