Thorpe was born at Wanswell Court, the family estate in Gloucestershire, in the southwest of England. The eldest surviving son of Nicholas Thorpe and his first wife, Mary Wilkes alias Mason, he was baptized in the parish of Berkeley on January 1, 1576. He had a brother, Nicholas; likely two sisters, Joan and Agnis; and possibly two additional siblings, John and Elizabeth, who died as children. He also had two half brothers, William and John, by his father’s second wife, Anne Hill Lawrence.
A history of Parliament has described the Thorpes as “an undistinguished gentry family,” well off enough to send George Thorpe to study at Staple Inn in London and then to the Middle Temple, where he matriculated on February 20, 1598. He likely studied the law. When Nicholas Thorpe Sr. died in the first half of 1600, however, George Thorpe returned to Gloucestershire to handle the estate. On July 11, 1600, he married Margaret Porter at Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, in what is now London. The couple had no surviving children.
By all accounts, Thorpe prospered in the years that followed. He bought and leased land, owned houses in addition to Wanswell Court, which he inherited, and had at least seven personal servants. By about 1605, he was appointed a Gentleman Pensioner, a court office involving personal duties on behalf of the king and possibly some military service. By March 1612 he had become a chief investor in the Virginia Company of London and in 1614 represented Portsmouth in the short and ineffective session that became known as the Addled Parliament. By 1620, he had earned appointment as a Gentleman of the King’s Privy Chamber.
After his wife’s death in 1610, Thorpe married Margaret Harris on February 21, 1611, in Saint Pancras, Soper’s Lane, in London. The couple had five children: one daughter and four sons, of whom at least two, William and John, lived to maturity.
Virginia Company and Berkeley Hundred
Thorpe was involved in numerous colonizing ventures. In addition to his membership in the Virginia Company of London, he may have invested in the Somers Isles Company, which settled the Bermudas. (He is named in the 1615 charter, but he may have withheld his subscription over concerns of how the plantation was managed.) In 1618, he invested £300 in the East India Company and also may have invested in Smythe’s Hundred (later Southampton Hundred), a Virginia plantation.
Thorpe’s relative, Sir Thomas Dale, organized Bermuda Hundred in 1613, and in 1616 brought to England Pocahontas and several other Indians. Evidence suggests that one of these Indians may have come under Thorpe’s care, either as a servant, a student, or both. While organizing his own plantation venture, Berkeley Hundred, Thorpe and other investors wrote the new Virginia governor, Sir George Yeardley, on February 18, 1619, with a enclosed patent that had been transcribed “by the virginian boy of mee George Thorpe.” Thorpe’s biographer Eric Gethyn-Jones has argued that this Indian may have been Georgius Thorp, “Homo Virginiae,” who was baptized in the family church of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields and then buried there seventeen days later, on September 27, 1619. Gethyn-Jones also speculates that George Thorpe’s later missionary interest in the Virginia Indians may have stemmed from this relationship, which was likely cut short by disease.
In addition to Thorpe, the primary investors in Berkeley Hundred were Smyth, Sir William Throckmorton, and Richard Berkeley, all from Gloucestershire and the latter two related to Thorpe and Dale by marriage and blood. As such, the plantation founded as the Society of Berkeley Hundred in 1618 was an assertion of both Gloucestershire and Thorpe family interests in Virginia. The investors initially received about 6,000 acres of land and were charged with constructing a secure town—eventually located on the north bank of the James River—and populating it with English men and women. Many of those who immigrated or planned to immigrate to the plantation, such as Robert Coopy, hailed from Gloucestershire, where the woolen mill industry was depressed and recent attempts at tobacco-growing had been halted by the king in favor of Virginia’s exports.
A first company of thirty-five to thirty-eight colonists, under the command of Captain John Woodlief, arrived in Virginia late in 1619, celebrating what some twentieth-century Virginians claimed was the first Thanksgiving. (His orders specifically “ordaine[d] that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perputualy keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”) The next year Thorpe traveled to Virginia himself, sailing from Bristol aboard the London Merchant on March 27, 1620.
While Thorpe was at sea, the Virginia Company appointed him to serve as deputy of at least 10,000 acres of land located on the north side of the James River, east of present-day Richmond and set aside for a university, which included plans for an Indian school. Thorpe was allocated 300 acres of land on the site and ten tenants to work it. On June 28 the company named him to the Council of State, and two months later, upon the removal of Woodlief, he and William Tracy became governors of Berkeley Hundred. Tracy, who had purchased Throckmorton’s share in the plantation, died three months after his arrival in the colony.
In a letter to Smyth dated December 19, 1620, Thorpe reassured his partner that he and his fellow colonists remained healthy, this despite widespread and largely accurate reports of high mortality both for Virginia’s Englishmen as a whole and for those who had settled at Berkeley Hundred. Thorpe also mentioned a mash of corn that he had distilled, a “soe good drinke of Indian corne” that at times was even better than “good stronge Englishe beare.” Some historians have suggested that this may have been the colony’s, and perhaps America’s, first batch of whiskey.
Six months later, in a letter to the Virginia Company treasurer, Sir Edwin Sandys, Thorpe indicated that he was involved in all manner of projects in the colony, from building an ironworks to planting vines at the college site. Of particular interest to him, however, were Virginia’s Indians. He reported on his attempts at converting them to Christianity and bemoaned the fact that they were treated poorly, “they beinge (espetiallye the better sort of them) of a peaceable & vertuous disposition.” In an attempt at easing relations, he suggested the company send gifts and publicly state its intentions toward the Indians. These included removing Indian children for education and conversion at the proposed college, a plan that may have excited Indian resentment against Thorpe.
On June 27, 1621, Thorpe wrote to Sandys that he planned to meet with Opechancanough, one of the leaders of Tsenacomoco, a polity of twenty-eight to thirty-two small chiefdoms and tribes of Algonquian-speaking Indians. Later accounts, including Captain John Smith’s, note that Thorpe arranged to have built “a faire house after the English fashion” for Opechancanough, and that Opechancanough appeared open to conversion. In fact, the Indians were planning a series of attacks against James River settlements such as Berkeley Hundred. Launched on March 22, 1622, the attacks killed about 347 English men, women, and children, including Thorpe, whose body reportedly was mutilated at Berkeley Hundred. All told, eleven settlers were killed at the plantation and seventeen at the college site.
In the aftermath, English accounts, such as the company report drafted by Edward Waterhouse, tended to exaggerate the good intentions of men like Thorpe. “He thought nothing too deare for them,” Waterhouse wrote of Thorpe, referring to the Indians, yet “all was little regarded after by this Viperous brood.” In death, Thorpe came to represent among the English much that he had fought against in his life: the idea that Christians were particularly noble and the Indians inherently treacherous.
Thorpe may have been in some debt at the time of his death, including money he owed Yeardley for Opechancanough’s new house. On March 7, 1624, the General Court ordered Yeardley to have Thorpe’s estate inventoried. The resulting list of goods and their values in pounds of tobacco is the earliest known inventory of a Virginia colonist’s estate.