Skip to main content

From the earliest days of America’s founding, we as a nation have sought heroes to help tell our story. Whether iconic leaders like Washington and Lincoln, or early settlers like Jamestown’s Captain John Smith and Massachusetts’ John Winthrop, we celebrate these key figures as paragons of insight, character, and vision.1 But reality is seldom that simple.

No one exemplifies this better than John Pott, the so-called “Doctor/Governor” of early colonial Virginia. While not quite a rags-to-riches story, Pott’s colonial adventure exemplifies the American Dream before there was an America. Coming to a new land as an immigrant, he used his much-valued medical skills to amass wealth and power, eventually rising through the ranks of early colonial government. Like later patriots, he rose against tyranny and organized a revolt that had repercussions back in England.

But from another perspective, he was a “master of advancing his own interests,” exploiting his fellow settlers and access to power to enrich and elevate himself. 2 Commentators have noted, “Dr. Pott’s career in Jamestown continually fluctuated between the illustrious and the scandalous,” while one historian called him a “well-known medical rogue.”3 His story is worth considering when we seek to understand early colonial America and these very first “First Founders.”

Physician General

Arriving in 1620, Pott likely received a warmer welcome than most Jamestown settlers. While craftsmen and field hands alike were needed, no one was more prized than the physician. Settlers regularly faced death—from illness, malnutrition, food poisoning, accidents, animal attacks, and clashes with the local Powhatan people. Anyone with medical expertise—physician, surgeon, apothecary—was welcome. Pott fit the bill: Having finished his master’s around 1605, he likely practiced medicine in England until his departure for Virginia at around age thirty-five.

What enticed Pott to make the journey? It’s often asserted that he was brought over to succeed Lawrence Bohune, the recently appointed Physician General who had died during a sea battle on his way to take his post. But Pott and his wife actually arrived the year prior, so it seems probable he came for the same reason so many did: new opportunities in a new world.4

Contents of a Surgeon's Chest, 1617

From The Surgeon's Mate by John Woodall, 1617.

Pott must have reveled in his new role as Physical General, with all its associated benefits. These included five hundred acres and ten servants, as well as a “Chest of Physique” filled with medical supplies valued at twenty pounds and a ten-pound allowance for “Books of Physique.”5 In the words of one historian, Pott “performed well in Virginia’s ‘servant sweepstakes,’ one of the main pathways to wealth in the colony, since the more servants [and land] you possessed, the more tobacco you could grow.”6

Did the Virginia Company get what it paid for? Various members of the medical profession assume so.7 But it’s worth remembering what medical treatment consisted of at the time. Pott likely benefited from the knowledge his predecessor Bohune had amassed about local herbs and indigenous medical practices, but many standard treatments—bleeding, purging, enemas, sweating, and so forth—either helped not at all or did more harm than good.8

Then there were his actions in the face of a newly arrived “plague ship.” In December, 1622, a ship arrived from England filled with plague-ridden passengers. Quarantine was the standard practice, but there was nowhere to house the patients. Perhaps more decisively, the governor’s wife was on board. As Ivor Noël Hume writes, “It would have called for a high degree of courage on Pott’s part to order her to stay there. So he didn’t.” The sick and dying disembarked and dispersed to their various plantations. More than six hundred settlers perished in three months.9

“Mere Cipher” to Acting Governor

While medicine meant wealth for Pott, it also gave him remarkable access to power. Shortly after arriving, he was appointed to the Governor’s Council, an advisory group to the colony’s leader that also presided over the General Court and served as part of the General Assembly, the colony’s legislative body.10

George Sandys, Treasurer and Poet, was one who did not hold a high opinion of Pott

His early efforts were less than impressive. Treasurer George Sandys called Pott a ‘pitiful counselor’ and ‘a cipher.’11 Indeed, throughout his tenure, Pott repeatedly fell afoul of leadership, both in Virginia and England. In 1624, he was removed for a time from the council by Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick and a Virginia Company investor, for actions he felt made Pott unfit for state employment.12 Pott was reinstated the following year and, as recorded in meeting minutes and legislative records, was active in that capacity.

Despite his clash with Warwick and others, Pott was named acting governor in 1628. His tenure was to be short: he would hold the role until the arrival of the new governor, John Harvey, in March 163013. According to Horton and Horton, Pott focused his efforts on managing relations with the native inhabitants, led the General Assembly in passing economic regulation, and established new courts in remote parts of the colony.14 As a curious side note, Pott presided over the hearing of the colony’s first recorded non-binary individual, resulting in a surprising ruling.

“Foule & Coveteous Ways”

If Pott’s tenure in office was short, his time in the new governor’s favor would be even shorter. Virtually upon arrival, Harvey took stock of Pott’s conduct and found it severely wanting. He wrote to the king’s Privy Council,

“I founde one Dr. John Potts, a phisition, governor here at my cominge into this country … who made use of this opportunitie, seekinge his owne benefit by foule & covetous ways…”

The grounds were solid. Harvey had found that Pott had been guilty of “pardoning wilful murther, marking other men’s cattell as his owne, and killing up their hogs” while serving as acting governor. 15

Excerpt from Letter of Governor John Harvey, 1630 May 31.

Even before ascending to governor, Pott had a spotty reputation. There were smaller offenses that, if not absolutely damning, cast a negative light on his character. One such was a lawsuit from a neighbor. The court record shows that the woman’s pigs had entered Pott’s fields and eaten his crops. He killed and ate them, saying it was his right since he didn’t know who they belonged to. The neighbor charged that she had herself gone to Pott to say she was the owner, which was confirmed by his own servant, and that the trauma of the confrontation led her to miscarry a baby. The court found in Pott’s favor, saying he was not responsible for the miscarriage, and that since the pigs were valued less than the cost of his lost crops, he owed nothing. However, the ruling also noted that killing and eating without a legal order was determined to be “irregular and liable to censure.”16

Other charges cast an even darker shadow on his personal and professional character. In 1626, Pott’s apothecary apprentice sued him for failing to teach him the trade. While some historians defend Pott, remarking on the apprentice’s later success as evidence of Pott’s performance of his duties, the court did not find in his favor, ordering him to “endeavor and to teach and instruct” his apprentice, and if he failed to do so, make payment of the young man’s wages.”17

Pott’s most egregious offenses stemmed from the stressful time following the Powhatan uprising against the colony on March 22, 1622. By end of day, 347 settlers were dead, nearly a third of the colony.18 The Powhatan had also taken a number of captives, including Jane Dickenson, whose husband—an indentured servant to one of the colony’s principal investors—had been slain in the attack. Pott, along with other “friends,” helped negotiate for her release, supplying glass beads to barter for her return. But his charity had a price: he required her to serve him for both the cost of the beads and the remainder of her dead husband’s indenture (even though Pott was not her husband’s master). After ten months, Dickenson petitioned the governor asking for release, noting the work she had performed thus far certainly more than recompensed the two pounds of beads, saying that serving him “much differeth not from her slavery with the Indians.”19 The response to the petition does not survive.20

Even more shocking was Pott’s alleged participation in retaliation against the Powhatan for the 1622 attack—an act that led to his removal from the council in 1624, noted earlier, by the Duke of Warwick. In what historian Ivor Noël Hume calls “among the most despicable acts in the annals of English-American history,” Pott is believed to have poisoned more than two hundred Powhatan tribe members during what had been presented as a peace talk.21 The treaty was sealed with a toast of sack (fortified wine) that had been spiked with poison. While fleeing the scene, the Jamestown contingent shot some forty more Powhatan and collected their scalps. No one knows for sure if Pott prepared the poison, but as the chief doctor “expert in Distillinge of waters,” the rumor persisted, believed at least by Warwick.

Powhatan paramount chief Opechancanough was probably an intended victim of the poisonings. He was later killed by English colonists in 1646.

By John White, 1585

Pott was later restored to the council, suggesting that either he was proven innocent or that the population at large did not condemn the action.

America’s First Rebel?

With this track record, it’s little wonder that Harvey, the incoming governor, wanted to downgrade Pott’s power and influence. Harvey himself was a problematic leader; from the start, he was suspicious of the settlers and concerned about challenges to his authority, an attitude that marked his entire career. Upon arrival, he wrote to England about

“waywardness and oppositions of those of the Councell … for instead of giving me assistance, they stand contesting and disputing my authoritie … avering that my power extendeth no further than a bare casting voice.”22

Harvey’s response? He launched a show of power by humiliating his predecessor. Harvey kicked off his tenure by bringing charges against Pott for abuses of power while serving as acting governor. Pott was found guilty of two indictments, and Harvey confiscated his estate.23 Then, in a surprise twist, Harvey himself wrote to the king himself requesting clemency. His justification was that Pott “is the only physicean in the Collonie, and so well acquainted with the diseases here incident….”24

Harvey and Pott most likely sailed on ships similar to these of the ``Winthrop Fleet`` which landed in Massachusetts in 1630.

Pott was released and his estate returned, but he never forgave Harvey. He wasn’t alone. Unhappy with Harvey’s leadership, the colonists soon spoke of rebellion. Pott helped foment unrest, going from plantation to plantation circulating a petition for the governor’s recall and attending secret meetings. When Harvey heard of this, he issued warrants for the organizers, including Pott. Pott stated that if he had offended, he would appeal to the King, for he was sure of no justice from Sir John Harvey.”25

Harvey’s response helped precipitate his own fall. He summoned the council, urging martial law and execution for all the rebels.

The council refused and at a subsequent gathering seized Harvey and accused him of treason. Pott, who was present, signaled for some forty co-conspirators, armed with muskets, to circle the house.26

Harvey, now deposed, was forced to sail to England to explain himself to the king, ironically enough alongside Pott, who traveled on the same ship to face his own charges. Upon arrival, Harvey added new charges, calling Pott the agent of the “late mutiny and rebellion.” Harvey was exonerated, while Pott and his co-conspirators were convicted of treason but later acquitted based on testimony from witnesses from Virginia.27 Both doctor and governor returned to Virginia, but Pott was never restored to his seat on the council. He remained in the colony until his death in 1642.

What Was Pott's Legacy?

So what are we to make of the career and life of John Pott, America’s “Founding Physician”? His life was a checkered one and, given the spottiness of records from that time, there’s a lot of leeway for interpretation.

Those looking for a hero tend to downplay his offenses and draw upon historical scraps to either excuse him or interpret his actions as triumphs or evidence of his benevolent character. These interpretations tend to come from a previous generation of historians or members of the medical profession. For example, Charles Horton, MD, and Charles Horton, Jr., play up Pott’s “popularity,” interpreting colony treasurer George Sandys’ criticism that Pott was given to drunken parties with working-class colonists as a sign of his bonhomie and his appointment to the council as a mark of his popularity and character instead of the outcome of a political game.28

Fred T. Given, in a presidential address to the South Atlantic Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, calls Pott a “maligned early patriot,” suggesting his revolt against Harvey was an early seed of the spirit that would lead to the formation of an independent state. Given also excuses the poisoning of the Powhatan as heroic in the eyes of his fellow colonists and positions the surge of plague in the Jamestown settlement not as an outcome of Pott’s self-serving negligence but rather a sign of how valuable he was (“There can be little doubt that Dr. Pott was indeed a busy practitioner”). 29 Thomas Hughes excuses Pott’s spotty performance of his professional duties, noting, “Since the biographical material on Pott’s non-professional life reveals so many intellectual and political interests, it would be surprising if he had not occasionally neglected his medical practice.”30 This urge to whitewash his career can be seen in a plaque in a local church and the naming of Pott Street in Williamsburg.31

John Pott Drive in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Image Courtesy of Google Maps

Others take a more critical view. Ivor Noël Hume quotes earlier historian Richard L. Morton, who described Pott as “happy-go-lucky, jovial, and indispensable,” countering that “the evidence given by those who worked for him and took him to trial tell a different story.”32 Edmund Morgan describes him as “more assiduous in pursuit of cattle and servants than his duties as a physician,” and, as noted earlier, both Jennifer Potter and Carl Bridenbaugh take a dim view of Pott’s character and so-called accomplishments.33

What do we take from this? First, when we look to historians to help us understand the past, it’s critical to consult multiple scholars and consider their interpretations within in a larger context, balancing interpretation with an examination of the words on the page.

But there’s a larger lesson. In our urge to create a glorious national story, it’s all too easy to look only for heroes. We build our myths and then impose them onto the facts. For many, the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth is acclaimed as the country’s founding moment, the spark of a central ethos of freedom as a human right for all (instead of “freedom of religion for us,” which was the actual motivation for the Plymouth settlement). But Jamestown was settled more than a decade earlier than Plymouth—and for very different reasons. 34 At its heart a mercantile endeavor, the Jamestown Colony attracted investors and settlers seeking new trade, new income, and greater wealth. That ethos—earning and getting at all expense—has its place in our shared history as much as a search for freedom. To truly understand our roots and how they impact us today, we need to reckon with all aspects of our societal ethos—even the ones that are unsettling and less than glorious. Figures like Dr. John Pott remind us to see the whole picture.

-Kay Daly, PhD


[1] Recent appraisals call Smith’s heroism and valor into questions. See Dennis Montgomery, “Captain John Smith,” The Colonial Williamsburg Journal 16, no. 3 (Spring 1994): 14.

[2] Jennifer Potter, The Jamestown Brides (London: Atlantic Books, 2018), 117.

[3] Charles E. Horton, Jr., and Charles E. Horton, M.D., “John Pott: America’s First Physician-Governor and Revolutionary,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 59, no. 7 (Sep. 1983): 678–685; Carl Bridenbaugh, Jamestown, 1544-1699. (New York: Oxford University Press,1980): 55.

[4] The firmest evidence of Pott’s arrival in 1620 is 1624/1625 the Muster, a house-to-house survey ordered by King James I, which includes the year of arrival and the ship each colonist arrived on. Available online at:

Martha W. McCartney, in both Land Ownership Patterns and Early Development in Middle Plantation: Report of Archival Research (\RR1724.xml) and her entry in Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers, 1607-1635: A Biographical Dictionary (, as does the anonymous author of “Several Early Physicians,” The William and Mary Quarterly 14, no. 2 (1905): 96–100 (

Horton, Jr., and Horton, M.D. follow McCarthy in citing this date. Wikipedia cites his date of arrival as March, 1619, with no citation, and it may be possible that date reflects the fact that in early 17th-century England, the new fiscal year started at the end of March, so a date in March of 1620 could be rendered as March 1619 in contemporary records.

[5] Susan Myra Kingsbury, The Records of the Viriginia Company, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office), 516. Available online:

[6] Potter, Jamestown Brides, 229; Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1975): 119. Tobacco became such an overwhelmingly popular cash crop that the colony leaders were dismayed that settlers cultivated the crop nearly exclusively, instead of the corn they needed to subsist, Carl Bridenbaugh recounts “when Sam Argall came to Jamestown in 1617, he found to his dismay that ‘the market-place the streets, and all other spare places planted with tobacco.” Bridenbaugh, Jamestown, 41.

[7] Horton, Jr., and Horton, MD, “John Pott: America’s First Physician-Governor and Revolutionary,” 679-681; Fred T. Given, Jr., MD. “Dr. John Pott: Maligned Early Patriot.” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 147, no. 2 (Sept. 1983). 115-120.

[8] For a discussion of medical practice and its roots in European medicine and mention of Bohune’s knowledge of local remedies, see Thomas P. Hughes, Medicine in Virginia, 1607-1699, Jamestown 350th Anniversary Historical Booklet, Number 21. Available online:

[9] Hume, Ivor Noël. “Doctor John Pott: First Citizen of Williamsburg” in 1607: Jamestown and the New World, ed. Dennis Montgomery. (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2007), 190.

[10] For more on the Governor’s Council, see the Encyclopedia of Virginia’s through entry: To learn about the General Assembly, this article on the Historic Jamestown site:

[11] Kingsbury, Records, vol. 4, 67, 110. Available online:

[12] “The New Government for Virginia, 1624,” in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 7, no. 1 (1899): 50–51.

[13] There’s often confusion about dates that fall from Jan-Mar in this period because of difference between the old style calendar (Julian) and the newer Gregorian calendar. Some sources have inaccurate dates because of this confusion.

[14] Horton, Jr., and Horton, MD, “John Pott,” 681-682.

[15] Harvey’s letter to Privy Council, Virginia in 1629-30, May 29, 1630, in “Governors Potts and Harvey” in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 7, no. 4 (April 1900): 381

[16] Wyndham Bolling Blanton, Medicine in Virginia in the Seventeenth Century (Richmond, Va.: Byrd Press, 1930): 18-19. Hume, “Doctor John Pott,” 192

[17] Blanton, “Medicine in Virginia,” 25; Horton, Jr., and Horton, MD, “John Pott,” 681: Morgan, E., American Freedom, American Slavery, 195; H. R. McIlwane, ed., Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia 1622–1632, 1670–1676 (Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1924), 117.

[18] For a full account of the event and its after-effect, see Potter, Jamestown Brides, 210-226.

[19] Potter, Jamestown Brides, 230. See also Bridenbaugh, Jamestown, 54-55; Morgan, E., American Freedom, American Slavery, 117; Kingsbury, Records, vol. 4, 473.

[20] Interestingly, her name does not appear in the 1624/1625 Muster, the record of all who lived in the colony at that time, just a few years after her lawsuit, though perhaps she had remarried by then.

[21] Hume, “Doctor John Pott,” 190.

[22] Wertenbaker, T. J., The Shaping of Colonial Virginia (New York: Russell and Russell, 1910), 67-68; Horton, Jr., and Horton, MD, “John Pott,” 682.

[23] Wertenbaker, Shaping, 75.

[24] Virginia Historical Society. “Virginia in 1629 and 1630.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 7, no. 4 (April, 1900), 383.

[25] Wertenbaker, Shaping, 75.

[26] Detailed and full account in Wertenbaker, Shaping, 76-79.

[27] Horton, 683-684.

[28] Horton, Jr., and Horton, MD, “John Pott,” 679.

[29] Given, “Dr. John Pott: Maligned Early Patriot,” also handwaves away the charge that Pott had neglected to teach his apprentice the craft: “Dr. Pott must have been a good teacher, since Richard Townsend later became quite successful, although there is no certainty that he ever practiced his profession” (117).

[30] Hughes, Medicine in Virginia.

[31] Hume, “Doctor John Pott,” 188.

[32] Hume, “Doctor John Pott,” 190; Morton, Colonial Virginia, vol. 1 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1960), 115.

[33] Morgan, American Freedom, American Slavery, 122.

[34] For a discussion on the roles of Jamestown and Plymouth in American mythmaking, see James Axtell, “Virginia’s Jamestown was the continent’s first permanent English settlement. So how is that Massachusetts’s Plymouth has precedence in the minds of so many Americans?”, The Colonial Williamsburg Journal (Winter 2007).

Leave a Reply