Hamor was the youngest son (the second of that name, the first having died young) of the eight children of Raphe Hamor and his first wife, Mabell Loveland Hamor, of the Parish of Saint Nicholas Acons, London. He was probably born in that parish and was christened there on February 16, 1589. His given name, and the name he used his entire life, was Raphe Hamor; however, later references to him most often use the modern spelling Ralph.
Hamor’s mother died when he was an infant, and his father, a prosperous and well-connected merchant tailor, provided him with both a good education and a start in the Virginia Company of London. Hamor was admitted to Brasenose College, Oxford, early in 1605 and matriculated at age seventeen in March 1606. The list of students at the University of Cambridge includes a student of the same name admitted to Emmanuel College on July 1, 1607. The second charter of the Virginia Company that King James I issued on May 23, 1609, lists both his father and “Raphe Haman, the younger” among the shareholders. (Some later versions of the charter modernized the spelling of his name.)
First Stay in Virginia
Sea Venture, the grand new flagship that left London early in June 1609 and, caught in a storm, wrecked on the island of Bermuda late in July. If that is correct, then Hamor’s role as an “eye witnes” or “Oculatus testis,” as he described himself, of events in the colony began with the same voyage that likely inspired Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. That would also mean that he arrived in Jamestown late in the spring of 1610 in one of the two vessels that the crew built from the wreckage of the Sea Venture.
Hamor’s name appears in none of the accounts of the shipwreck and winter on Bermuda, however, and in 1615 when he was in England he wrote that he was willing to make a third voyage to Virginia. That suggests that Hamor may have arrived safely in Virginia in one of the other ships in 1609 but went back to England later in the year and then accompanied Governor Thomas West, baron De La Warr, to Virginia and returned in June 1610. Either way, Hamor missed but no doubt observed firsthand some of the consequences of the terrible starving winter of 1609–1610.
The title page of Hamor’s True Discourse identifies him as the “late Secretarie in that Colony.” He may have begun as one of the clerks De La Warr appointed in Jamestown in June 1610 when he named members of his advisory council. Hamor later succeeded William Strachey as secretary of the colony and in that capacity wrote or copied the texts of most of the official letters that government officers in Virginia sent to the company in London during the next four years.
Ralph Hamor’s A True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia
Hamor appended to the True Discourse a letter from Dale and one from Alexander Whitaker, the clergyman who had converted Pocahontas to Christianity, and also Rolfe’s long explanatory letter to Dale requesting permission to marry her and explaining his reasons. The True Discourse first publicized those important episodes and made those valuable documents available. They became essential sources for all later accounts, beginning with the Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles that Captain John Smith published in 1624, which relied heavily on Hamor’s book on many points. Later in 1615, the printer of the True Discourse issued a second, slightly variant text that restored some passages omitted from Whitaker’s letter, and German and Latin editions appeared before the end of the decade.
Hamor remained in England for more than two years. His father died in August 1615 and left him a substantial inheritance. In January 1617 Hamor acquired eight shares in the Virginia Company. One week later the company authorized him to transport several people to Virginia, including himself and his financially embarrassed brother Thomas Hamor. Late in 1616, the company had named Ralph Hamor vice admiral of Virginia about the time it appointed Samuel Argall deputy governor, and Hamor and probably his brother accompanied Argall to Virginia early in 1617.
In Virginia Again
Hamor prospered back in Virginia. He helped arrange shipping for large numbers of immigrants and livestock in 1620 and did the same again in 1622. He acquired additional shares in the Virginia Company and land in several parts of the colony. When Hamor traveled to England again early in 1621 he took with him a cargo of tobacco and sassafras root worth more than £4,500. While he was in London, Hamor attended several meetings of the Virginia Company, and when he returned to Virginia later that year aboard the Sea Flower it carried about 120 immigrants, some of whom he may have sponsored. The company gave him responsibility for managing the Virginia property of Christopher Newport for the benefit of the captain’s widow, and on July 24, 1621, the company elected Hamor to the governor’s Council. Because of the loss of records, the date on which he assumed his prestigious office in Jamestown is not known.
Hamor narrowly escaped death in the coordinated attacks on Virginia settlements that Opechancanough launched on March 22, 1622. As a ruse to kill Hamor, one party of Indians approached Thomas Hamor and asked him to summon his brother to go hunting with them. The Indians burned a tobacco house on the property and shot Thomas Hamor but did not kill him. Ralph Hamor knew nothing of the attack until he visited his brother’s residence later in the day. He immediately retreated to his own new house on Hog Island, across the James River and several miles downstream from Jamestown, where he and several other men defended themselves until the Indians withdrew. Hamor then made his way to Jamestown.
In the aftermath of the organized attacks that killed more than 300 colonists, or about one-third of the English-speaking population, Hamor assumed a major role in the defense of Virginia. On April 15, Governor Sir Francis Wyatt appointed him commander of the settlement at Martin’s Hundred and four days later ordered him to transport the whole population of Warrosquyoake to Jamestown. In May the governor dispatched Hamor to the Chesapeake Bay to obtain provisions from Indians who lived along its tributaries. He commanded a ship sent to the Potomac River in the autumn under instructions from the governor “to procure Corne, or any other Comodities either by trade or by force of armes as occacion shalbe given by the Indians.” He killed Indians who refused to sell provisions and then seized what he needed to supply the survivors of the March attacks. He also persuaded some of the northern tribes to promise to oppose Opechancanough. He led another such expedition during the winter of 1624.
The destruction of Hamor’s property in the spring of 1622 and perhaps other unrecorded losses together with his expensive importation of laborers left him, as the treasurer of the colony reported in April 1623, “miserablie poore.” Nevertheless, by the summer of 1624, Hamor had erected a new house in the new part of Jamestown. The Council also granted him 500 acres of land, perhaps as compensation for his work defending and supplying the colony after the 1622 attack.
In 1624 and 1625 Hamor joined some of his colleagues on the Council and burgesses in the General Assembly in signing several letters and resolutions, some addressed to the king or his Privy Council, complaining about the company’s management of the colony, the state of the tobacco trade, and the conduct of some company officials in Virginia. Hamor was not immune from criticism for those and other actions. Early in 1625 after the Council requested Hamor and another Council member to procure documents essential to its settlement of a dispute about an estate, a colonist remarked that if he had done what Hamor had done in taking the papers from a person’s trunk, he would have been publicly whipped. The Council ordered that the man apologize to Hamor in open court and fined him £20 sterling. In the summer of 1626 another man complained that Hamor was one of two Council members who boarded a ship to purchase goods that they then sold at “unreasonable” rates “& that they were unfit to sitt at the Councill” table. The Council ordered that the man spend one month in jail then have his ears nailed to the pillory (a punishment that usually terminated with the ears being cut off) and post a bond of 300 pounds of tobacco for his good behavior.
On an unrecorded date before February 16, 1624, perhaps even before his trip to England in 1621, Hamor married Elizabeth Fuller Clements, a widow with one or two sons and one daughter then living. She had first traveled to Virginia in 1617 with her children and servants, perhaps aboard the same ship with Argall and Hamor, suggesting that her husband was already in Virginia or that she was a widow by then. By 1624, they resided in his new house in Jamestown. They are not known to have had any children.
Hamor remained a member of the Council after James I revoked the charter of the Virginia Company in May 1624 and Charles I proclaimed Virginia a royal colony on May 13, 1625. The surviving incomplete records of the Council indicate that Hamor regularly attended meetings through April 6, 1626, but that he was not present at any later documented session. Hamor died, probably in Jamestown, before October 11, 1626, when the governor and Council granted his widow authority to administer his estate. She declined to act as executrix as directed in his will but presented an inventory of his property to the Council along with his will that day; neither document survives. She relinquished the administration of the estate to George Menifee in February 1628 after remarrying again and making plans to return to England.
- A True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia (1615)