Early Life in Virginia
Capps was born in England, probably between 1580 and 1585, but nothing regarding his parentage or early years has been confirmed. In the employment of the Virginia Company of London in May 1609, he departed England in one of the company’s ships bound for Virginia and most likely reached the colony in August 1609. Over the next few years the company granted Capps patents to several tracts of land at Kecoughtan, at the southeastern end of the Peninsula, and he later acquired land in the area that became Princess Anne County. He directed the shipment of supplies to the colony and often transported colonists, including a group of 100 people early in 1622. He also plantedand raised livestock.
Burgess and Agitator
CappsKecoughtan in the , which met in Jamestown from July 30 to August 4, 1619. He was the fifth of eight men the Speaker named to a committee to review parts of the company’s 1618 charter, known as the , and to recommend modifications beneficial to the colony. The assembly also petitioned the company’s London council to give Kecoughtan an English name, and the following year it named the site Elizabeth City in honor of the daughter of .
During the 1620s Capps made several trips between Virginia and England. He advised the company officials on affairs in the colony but thought it prudent before returning to Virginia in 1622 to obtain an authenticated certificate that the company’s officers held him in high esteem. By then Capps had made some enemies. He criticized various company officials early in the 1620s and in April 1621 filed a petition charging that Governor Sir George Yeardley had appropriated his land on the pretense that it was company property. The company compensated Capps by allowing him headrights to patent more land, but he nourished a grudge against the governor and privately accused him of being a “right worthie Statesman, for his owne profit.” In March 1623 Capps complained to John Ferrar, deputy treasurer of the company, about the company’s administration and charged that another of its officers had seized all of his swine, which during seven years of Capps’s management had increased to a valuable herd. He was a cantankerous man. In 1628 the governor’s Council forced him to apologize for calling a man a “rogue & theefe” and in the spring of the following year found him guilty of not regularly attending church according to law.
Capps was in England at the time of the Indian attack that started thein 1622. When he returned to Virginia afterward and found that a large portion of the colonists had died, he declared that the event had “burst the heart of all the rest.” Whether the Catharine Capps who was reported as recently deceased in Elizabeth City about that time was his wife is not certain. He had a namesake son who was born in the mid-1610s, but the son is not listed among the victims or the survivors, and his whereabouts immediately after the uprising are not known.
In the autumn of 1622 Capps joinedand several other veteran Virginia planters in petitioning the Crown “on the behalf of themselves and the rest of your poore distressed Subjects of that Plantation.” They complained of the company’s mismanagement and asked the king to take the colony and the tobacco trade under his protection. Capps’s grievances and others like them from respectable and experienced colonists influenced the king’s decision in 1624 to revoke the company’s charter and to make Virginia a royal colony.
From Company Man to Royal Agent
Capps made a successful transition from responsible company employee in the 1610s to responsible planter and royal agent in the 1620s. He never again held public office, but the king employed him to deliver official instructions to the governor and Council. Capps shared his sovereign’s skepticism of building the colony’s economy solely on tobacco cultivation, and he experimented with other sources of income. In 1621 he and some other men contracted to ship 100,000 pounds of sassafras to England, and two years later Capps asked that brickmakers, carpenters, and sawyers be sent to Virginia along with enough provisions to support them for a year while promising to take responsibility for building guesthouses at Elizabeth City and. Later, in 1628, the Council ordered him to find a place on the Eastern Shore to experiment with making salt by solar evaporation of seawater.
Returning by February 1628 from one of his trips to England, Capps carried orders from the king that the colonists search for mines, plant grapevines, and establish new industries in Virginia. The king’s accompanying authorization to the governor to call the assembly into session was the Crown’s first official recognition of the assembly’s right to participate in the government of the colony. In February 1629 Capps petitioned the governor and Council for leave to return to England again on his business, which “consisteth cheifly on the kings affaires.” The governor and Council denied him permission to depart, but evidently believing that the king’s business was more important than the governor’s permission, Capps left the colony anyway later that year. He returned to Virginia again sometime in 1630 with another set of instructions from the king.
Disappearance from Colonial Records
That is the last time that Capps’s name appears in surviving records relating to the colony. A William Capps resided in Lower Norfolk County in the 1640s and 1650s, but his age indicates that he was the colonist’s son. The date and place of William Capps’s death are not known. The will of a mariner of that name, of Wapping, Middlesex County, England, written on March 16, 1625, and proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury on May 7, 1633, mentions a wife Edy, or Editha, Capps and a son Benjamin Capps. Another William Capps died overseas on an unrecorded date before his widow, Mary Capps, received letters of administration from the same court on January 10, 1637. It is not certain that either was the Virginia merchant and burgess.