|ATC considers it a great honor to have permission from
the author to reprint this article on Franz Ludwig Michel. The article
first appeared in Summer 1998 issue of Colonial Williamsburg, the
Journal of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Many thanks to Robert
A. Selig, the author, for enhancing our historical overview of the early
days of Virginia, and the explorers who roamed its undiscovered
The real reason behind the long and arduous journey across the Atlantic, however, was not to sample the wonders of Virginia's flora and fauna for their own sake. Wherever Michel went in the summer of 1702, he inquired about the most advantageous land grant conditions and suitable locations where Swiss emigrants might establish a colony. Since it was of paramount importance for the success of his mission that he secure the support of the colonial government, Michel also spent a considerable amount of time in the new capital of Williamsburg. It is unknown whether Michel had been sent to Virginia or whether he went of his own accord. But we do know that following his return to Bern in December 1702, he was requested, in his own words, to "make a short report." In January 1703 he handed a draft of "an imperfect essay" about conditions in Virginia, "difficult to read, full of disorder and without orthography," to his younger brother.
Hans Ludwig wrote out a number of clean copies and then apparently discarded the original. One of these copies in Hans Ludwig's handwriting, identified as 3te Copey - Copy Number 3 - on the top right-hand margin of page one, is preserved in the Bargerbibliothek Bern.
Meines Bruders Frantz Ludwig Michels Kurze Americanische Reilßbeschreibung, or My Brother Franz Ludwig Michel's Short Account of his American Travels it is one of the earliest known accounts of Williamsburg. Its 124 pages of text, 4 illustrations, and 18 pages of material concerning Franz Ludwig's second journey to America and plans for a settlement in Virginia contain descriptions and illustrations of buildings that in many cases disappeared within a few years of his visit and, with few exceptions, before the 18th century was over.
Little is known about Franz Ludwig Michel. His father David Michel von Schwertschwendi, Lord of Rallingen, was born in 1634. By 1673, he was a member of the Great Council of Bern; nine years later he served as prefect of Gottstatt. At his death in 1696, David left behind three children: two sons and a daughter, Johanna Esther.
Franz Ludwig was the eldest of his children, and though the exact date of his birth is unknown, it was probably around 1680, certainly before 1684, when his younger brother Hans Ludwig was born.
For a while Franz Ludwig fought for the "Sun King" Louis XIV most likely in the Regiment Erlach, a regiment raised in Bern in 1672. This was not an uncommon experience, as Swiss men had served under the fleurs-de-lis for more than two centuries and would continue to do so for another 120 years. Possibly at the end of the War of the League of Augsburg in October 1699, Michel returned to Bern. But his restless spirit kept him from settling down, and in the fall of 1701 he set out on a journey to Virginia, where he arrived just as Williamsburg was assuming her new role as capital for the colony.
Until shortly before Michel stepped ashore in Yorktown, the "governor made his residence at Jamestown," spelled Jemston in Michel's manuscript, "situated on the James River. It is one of the largest and most beautiful places in the country, though it does not contain more than thirty-five houses. Four years ago, the late King William ordered at Mittelplantag, which is now called Wilhelmsburg in his honor, a large building called college, together with a State House, to be erected and contributed 4,000 guiné to it, which is where the gouverneur now resides.... This place lies between the Jems and Jorgk Rivier, six miles from Jems and ten from Jorgtown."
What Michel describes here are the events surrounding the transformation of a small settlement called Middle Plantation into the capital of Williamsburg. Founded in 1633, Middle Plantation had already served as a base camp for British troops and as substitute capital, when in September 1676 Nathaniel Bacon's rebels burned down Jamestown. When the statehouse in Jamestown was once again destroyed by fire in 1698, Governor Francis Nicholson seized the opportunity not only to relocate the seat of government but also to plan and build a completely new capitol. On June 7, 1699, Virginia legislators approved what Robert Beverley in his 1705 History and Present State of Virginia called the "wild Project" of turning Middle Plantation into "the Capitoll and the City of Williamsburgh."
The "imaginary city,- in Beverley's words, that greeted Michel was very different from today's Williamsburg. In May 1699, a student at the recently founded College of William and Mary - and most certainly a supporter of the relocation of the colonial capital - described it as a small village of a few widely scattered houses. It consisted of "a church, an ordinary, several stores, two mills, a smith's shop, a grammar school, and above all the Colledge."
Three years later it still was not much more than "a large place, where a city is intended and staked out to be built." It consisted of "the Church, College and State House, together with the residence of the Bishop." Besides these official buildings, there were "some stores and houses of gentlemen, and also eight ordinaries or inns, together with the magazine." Michel was confident, however, that "because of the convenient place or situation, and also because of the many springs, which are there ... more dwellings will be built year after year." His prediction turned out to be true, even if most of the additions between 1699 and 1702 seem not to have been residences for law-abiding citizens but rather a public gaol, a magazine, and seven inns for thirsty legislators.
But Michel was not in Williamsburg to sample the fare of its inns: He had official business to conduct. Pierre Sabbattie, a member of one of the four families of French Huguenots who had crossed the Atlantic with Michel, had a letter of introduction to Governor Nicholson. Nicholson and Colonial Secretary Edmund Jenings received them one morning in May 1702, but before any negotiations could take place, they "had to go with him to prayers because it was time for them." The presence of Jenings, the colony's second most powerful official, shows the importance attributed to their visit. Jenings was a royal appointee and one of the 12 members of the governor's council. His office issued all land grants and naturalization papers and was charged with implementing the Act for the Better Strengthening of the Frontier, passed by the burgesses August 6, 1701, whose intent it was to promote the settlement of more Europeans in Virginia.
Nicholson promised to support Michel's and the French Huguenots' cause and invited them to stay for lunch "with command to treat us well." But lunch did not turn out as planned. Even 300 years ago, the French were not popular in Virginia, at least with Nicholson's servants. They "are not on good terms with the French and did not carry out the order right. They gave us soup with fresh ham and some small beer. But the butler took us into the cellar, filled with all sorts of strange drinks. He gave us some English stout, very strong, afterwards Rhine wine."
It is not known where this meeting took place, but most certainly not in the Governor's Palace; its construction did not begin until 1706. Nicholson probably lived in a rented house, possibly that built by John Page; the site was excavated on the grounds of the Bruton Heights School complex in 1995.
Page, owner of 330 prime acres in the new capital and one of the wealthiest men of the colony, had treated himself to an all-brick house complete with basement in 1662. Brick houses were extremely rare in the 17th century. In 1660, there were maybe five or six in the whole colony; at the time of Michel's visit, fewer than two dozen. After Page's death in 1692, Governor Alexander Spotswood perhaps stayed there, as well as Nicholson. Michel was so impressed with the home that he may well have reproduced it in his account as the "Merchant's House."
The church where Michel went for prayers was, of course, Bruton Parish Church, described by him incorrectly as one of only three brick churches in the colony, the others being in Gloucester, or Claster in Michel's spelling, and Jamestown. Middle Plantation was first organized as a parish in 1632; Bruton Parish was founded and endowed with land and funds by John Page in 1674. In Williamsburg Michel saw the first Bruton Parish church. Completed in 1683, it stood a little to the north of the present church, which was built between 1711 and 1715. In the cemetery Michel could have seen Page's tombstone; he may have included it in his drawing but did not identify it.
Following dinner, "we went with the Secretary to Mr. Blair, who received us courteously." James Blair, "bishop of this country, and also president in the Council or Parliament," rivaled Nicholson and Jenings as one of the most important men in early colonial Virginia. Unlike Nicholson, who "drinks no wine nor strong drink," Blair "drank to our welcome from silver vessels. After he had been informed of our desire, he laid before us a number of points in the French language as well as he could (for he could speak only a little French)."
Described by Michel as "a learned, sensible and well-to-do-man ... [who] showed us much courtesy and kindness," Blair had been instrumental in securing a charter for the College of William and Mary. Blair received them in the Wren Building. Two years before Michel's visit, the college had graduated its first class.
Much to the chagrin of President Blair, who complained about the "great disturbance of the College business," Nicholson had moved his offices into the Wren Building as soon as it was completed; the House of Burgesses, 50 members strong in 1702, met there as well. Lawmakers had barely moved into the unfinished Capitol in 1702, when the building visited by Michel burned down on October 29, 1705.
Michel's comments about the college are brief and to the point: "The youth is instructed in the higher branches in the College there. But, because most of the people live far away, only the more wellto-do parents, who have the means, can secure boarding for their sons there, which costs yearly twenty guineas. There are about 40 students there now. Before this it was customary for wealthy parents, because of the lack of preceptors or teachers, to send their sons to England to study there. But experience showed that not many of them came back. Most of them died of small-pox, to which sickness the children in the West are subject."
Following the visit with Blair, Michel and Sabattie went to see the Rev. Stephen Fouace to enlist his support as well. Fouace had been rector at York Parish - today's Grace Episcopal Church in Yorktown - since 1686, but he may have been in Williamsburg wrapping up his affairs, since he returned to Europe with Michel later that year. We do not know where Fouace, one of the first trustees of the college, met Michel and Sabattie. But if we can venture a guess from Michel's observation that Fouace prepared for the transatlantic crossing by packing "much strong drink" which he freely shared with his fellow passengers, it may well have been in one of Williamsburg's numerous ordinaries. Fouace, however, gave them only "a short answer. The reason was that he had done much for the French, but they had rewarded him ill. He told us that when 12 Frenchmen were together, ten of them were no good and not worth getting a lodging." Once Fouace realized that Michel was Swiss, however, he showed him "many kind acts."
During their discussions with Blair, the college president had offered some of the more than 10,000 acres owned by the college at Henrico since 1618 for a settlement. But before Michel and his French companions made a decision, they wanted to explore the conditions of French and Swiss settlers near Manakintown near Richmond in Powhatan County. Accompanied by Sabattie, Michel left for Manakintown on April 23. Armed with a letter from the Manakintow minister Benjamin De Joux to the governor, he returned to Williamsburg and applied for land under the same privileges and conditions that the French Huguenots had been granted in 1699 and 1700.
His request and that of the four French families travelling with him were granted immediately, and Michel returned to King William Parish "where we occupied our land." Michel handed his land and possessions over to a Monsieur Dutoit and departed for Williamsburg in early May, convinced "truthfully that there is no other country where it is possible with so few means and so easily to make an honest living and be in easy circumstances."
Michel spent the next few weeks in Williamsburg waiting for a ship to take him back to Europe. There he not only witnessed the colonial administration in its entire splendor, but he also encountered the racial diversity of the New World - white, black, and red. He does not have to say much about York County's 2,300 or so white inhabitants; they were only secondary to his purpose of describing the flora and fauna of Virginia for future settlers. As far as Michel was concerned, Virginians were hospitable and helpful to everyone - with maybe the exception of the French. They were all well off if they cared to work: "Poor people, such namely as ask for alms, are not seen." Even indentured servants, once free, only have "to work for some years until they themselves can set up a plantation or farm." There were no poor people in Virginia: "The cattle increase incredibly fast without trouble ... almost everything grows that is put into the ground," and wild game, fish, and fruit were abundant, making it "possible to live an honest life, quietly and contentedly" in the Virginia countryside.
The reason for Virginia's wealth was the fertility of her soil - Michel claims that in some areas grain yielded 25-fold, while peasants in Europe harvested only five or six times the seed corn - and the abundance of land where pigs and cattle roamed freely. Horses were so cheap that "it must be a poor man who can not afford one." But all this land was worthless unless it could be worked. Virginians faced a labor shortage, but they had also found a way to address that problem: "Most of the wealth consists in slaves or negroes." In 1671, Africans had constituted less than 5 percent of Virginians; by 1715, they would constitute about 24 percent of the colony's population. In the bay area and along the coast they were especially numerous, misleading Michel into over estimating their total number at about 20,000, well above the actual count of 16,000 or so.
Between 1699 and 1715, traders brought about 6,300 slaves into Virginia, and Michel used his spare time to visit with the captain of a slave ship, "which several days earlier had come from Guiné with 230 slaves," the survivors of a cargo of 330 men, women, and children. He gives us no description of the Africans' racial or ethnic features in either word or picture. He had seen blacks in Europe and assumed that his readers had as well. He had little good to say about the recent arrivals: "I was surprised at the animal-like people. The savages are a far better breed." Michel either did not see or, more likely, did not care about the reasons for their destitute appearance. The reader looks in vain for expressions of sympathy or commiseration with the fate of slaves. Slaves and white indentured servants alike enter his account only as commodities: How much do they cost, how much land can they work, how long does it take to return an investment in them?
"These negroes are brought annually in large numbers from Guine and Jamaica (the latter of which belongs to England) on English ships," he wrote. "They can be selected according to pleasure, young and old, men and women. They are entirely naked when they arrive, having only corals of different colors around their neck and arms. They usually cost from 18 - 30 pounds."
To put this price into perspective: Michel sets the price of a horse at 3 to 8 pounds, that of a cow with calf at 50 shillings or 2-1/2 pounds. A "good dwelling and as much land as one can work" could be rented for 2 to 5 pounds per year. Michel thought, or had heard, that slaves developed into "good workmen after they have become acclimated." Since one man with two slaves could "clear a beautiful farm" in two years, investment in slave labor, despite its drawbacks - "many die ... in the beginning of their stay here" - was extremely profitable. Depending on skills, free laborers cost 4, 6, 10, up to 30 pounds per year. White indentured servants were cheaper than black slaves. According to Michel they cost between 10 and 18 pounds upon arrival, but Michel had heard that they only served for 4 years, or until they were 21 years old.
Slaves were also cheap to keep: "they receive meager food and are kept very strictly." When he sampled their food, he did not like it at all: "The food prepared for the blacks that work was pounded Turkish maize, cooked in water, called hominy, a healthy food." But their "bread, made of the above mentioned corn, and baked on the fire, we did not like very much, and could hardly eat it." Slaves did supplement this diet with whatever else they could find: "All different kinds of turtles are found in the woods. They are gathered and eaten by the negroes or slaves."
Unlike free labor and indentured servants, slaves offered the additional advantage of a natural increase in numbers. "Both sexes are usually bought, which increase afterwards. The children like the parents must live in slavery." By 1702, heathen Africans were "life-long slaves," though Michel had heard that baptism still conferred freedom. "If they desire to become Christians, this is only rarely permitted, because English law prescribes that after seven years' service they are (in that case) to be freed, in accordance with the Mosaic Law."
This observation in particular shows that Michel arrived in Virginia at a time of hardening of the institution of slavery. In 1667, the General Assembly had decreed that baptism "doth not alter the condition of the person as to bondage or ffreedome." But as Michel's remark shows, this law was either not widely known, or a certain uneasiness about keeping fellow Christians in slavery was still around.
In mid-May, news of the demise of William III reached the city named after the dead king. Nicholson's order for the militia to assemble for a memorial service and the proclamation of Queen Anne also went out to the Indians. On May 18, the militia from six surrounding counties and "two queens together with forty of their most distinguished warriors and servants" appeared in Williamsburg. The militia lined up in horseshoe formation in front of the college, forming a square with the cavalry on the wings and the infantry in the center facing the college. On the uppermost balcony of the Wren Building the buglers from the warships were lined up, on the second balcony were oboes, while on the lowest balcony a group of violinists were ready to play.
After lunch, the whole company marched to the capitol and to a place called "Anna Land," where the proclamation of the new queen was repeated. The governor had arranged for fireworks to be set off in front of the college once it got dark. Most of those present, who apparently had never seen fireworks, were full of praise for the spectacle, but Michel, who had watched from the uppermost tower of the college, thought them "not much diversion for one who had seen much more than these."
The following day the assembled militia, some 2,000 men, took the oath to the new queen and in the afternoon competed for rifles, boots, saddles, and similar prizes in a shooting match. Much to Michel's surprise, the competition was won by two of the Indians, who had come to Williamsburg to attend the proclamation of Queen Anne.
Michel had never seen Native Americans, and his fascination with this unfa-miliar people speaks from every line in the lengthy description he penned for his equally ignorant fellow Swiss. Unlike his remarks about black slaves, Michel's observations about Indi-ans are generally positive: "They are not unfriendly and ugly people." But here, too, a consciousness of cultural superiority, which Michel would have shared with all of his fellow Europeans, is unmistakable:
He had heard that "in their homes they are naked" but for "a little piece of [deer] skin" covering "their loins and feet." For the meeting with Nicholson, however, they had put on their insignia of rank. "When they are summoned their king or queen, as also their princes and nobles... wear crowns of bark, a little more than a buckle wide, round and open above, with white and brown stripes, half an inch long, set in beautifully in spiral form, so that no bark is visible."
Some Indians were wearing European clothes to meet the governor, but they did not look good on them. "They have no clothes except what they get through trade with the English. They wear them when they have to go to the Christians, which happens once a year, at the annual muster of the troops, in order to show them the power" of the English. Michel thought that those assembled in Williamsburg "were ridiculously dressed. One had a shirt on with a crown on his head, another a coat and neither trousers, stockings, not shoes. Others had a skin or red cover around them."
The Indians' unfamiliarity with European culture became obvious when Nicholson invited one of their "queens" to the banquet celebrating the accession of Queen Anne to the throne of St. James. The young Indian woman "was wearing nice clothes of a French pattern. But they were not put on right. One thing was too large, another too small, hence it did not fit." After dinner the orchestra began to play, "but the queen danced so wonderfully, yea barbarously, that everyone was astonished and laughed.... It is impossible to describe this mad and ludicrous dance."
Michel described graphically their love of alcohol: "They like strong drink beyond all measure. They drink it without modesty till they are drunk. Afterwards they make wonderful faces and act as if they were angry and wanted to strike their enemy. There was at that time no king but two queens among them. The older one got so drunk that she lay on the ground like an unreasonable brute," which kept her from attending the governor's ball.
Even so, the Indians were a proud and self-confident people, as Michel found out when he traded some of his goods with them. When he expressed astonishment that the Indians could speak English, "one of them looked at us and said in poor English whether we thought that if they had been taught like we, they could not learn a thing just as well as we. I asked him where he had learned to speak English: he answered they were not so stupid. Because they had to come every year, they could hear us speak and learnt it that way." Michel freely admitted, "It is certain that good talents are found among them."
His fact-finding mission completed and all his trading goods disposed of, Michel boarded the Nassau in late June and began his journey back to England in a convoy of 154 ships. After only seven weeks in the New World, Michel departed from Virginia on July 2, 1702, in the company of "about 45 pigs, one calf, three sheep, more than 20 turkeys and turkey hens, fourteen geese and more than 100 roosters and chickens." Ten weeks later, he was back in England.
In the first days of December, he walked into Bern, but his stay in Switzerland was short. Having reached agreement on a plan for settling a Swiss colony in America with his friends Johann Rudolf Ochs and Georg Ritter, Michel began a second journey for America on February 14, 1703. In early May he was negotiating details for a settlement in London with William Penn; by October he was on the Atlantic again. In January 1704, he informed Ritter from Arundel County in Maryland of his plans to travel to Philadelphia. Ritter submitted a memorial to settle 400 to 500 emigrants in Pennsylvania to the Bern city council in March 1705, which forwarded it to the English envoy in Bern, who in turn sent it on to the Lords of Trade in London. As the Lords were debating the proposals, Michel returned to Virginia and continued his explorations. Leaving from his base near present day Harper's Ferry in February 1707, he may well have been among the first whites to reach the Massanutten range and the area of present-day Edinburg.
Michels goal of settling Swiss emigrants in Virginia seemed within reach, when thousands of Palatines fled their war-stricken homes along the Rhine in 1709 for London. From there they hoped to reach the New World. In August 1709, Queen Anne's government finally approved Michel's and Ritter's proposals of 1705 and directed the governor of Virginia to "Allot unto" the emigrants "certain Lands" on the southwest branch of the Potomac. Michel and Christopher von Graffenried, a bankrupt Swiss nobleman who had joined Michel in London, chose 650 men, women, and children for their colony.
Under the influence of North Carolina surveyor John Lawson, however, the Swiss ended up in a settlement in North Carolina at the confluence of the Trent and Neuse rivers, which they called New Bern. Michel and Graffenried reached New Bern with a second group of 120 emigrants in September 1710. But defection, disease, and Indian uprisings decimated the colony. In September 1711, Graffenried and Lawson were captured by the Indians. They killed Lawson but released Graffenried after one month of captivity. Following his release, Graffenried went to Virginia, from where he returned to Switzerland in the spring of 1713.
Never one to settle down, Michel was actively engaged in warfare against the Tuscarora after 1711. In March 1713, he took part in the successful assault on Fort Nohoroco on Catechna Creek in South Carolina as a colonel of Swiss-German volunteers. A few months later, he disappeared on the frontier. Graffenried recorded in the margin of his account of the New Bern venture simply that he "died among the Indians."
Michel was not yet 40 years old when his "curiosity," his desire "to seek out unknown things," and his urge to "collect the wonders of nature" ended somewhere in the Carolina wilderness.
Bob Selig commented on his search for a silhouette of (or by) Etienne de Silhouette in Freshest Advices (Spring 1998). His most recent article for this journal [Colonial Williamsburg, the Journal of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation], "The Revolution's Black Soldiers," appeared in the Summer 1997 issue.