Dr. John Potts: Hero or Villain?

Dr. John Potts: Hero or Villain?


A third man for you to evaluate: Was John Pott a hero or a villain? A reader can see it either way.

John Pott was a surgeon and epidemiologist (of the 17th century variety). He had earned a Master of Arts at Oxford in 1605. In the next fifteen years, he practiced medicine in the environs of London and associated with leaders of the medical community.

By the late 1610s, Pott had gotten tired of the London scene, or had his sights on adventure. In either case, Pott, his wife Elizabeth, and several servants left England aboard the ship, George, in March, 1619 and landed in Jamestown in June. Because the year number changed on March 25 every year, it is likely that the ship landed in June 1620.

Dr. Lawrence Bohune arrived in Jamestown with Thomas West, Lord De La Ware, in June 1610, as the governor’s personal doctor. When the governor became ill in the spring, Bohune returned to England with him. Almost ten years later, December 1620, Bohune, who was living in England,  was appointed surgeon general of the colony. Part of his recompense was 500 acres of land and twenty servants. He and his stepson left for Virginia at the end of January. On a stop for water in the West Indies, their ship, Margaret and John, was attacked by Spanish ships and Bohune was killed.

When news got to Virginia that their doctor had died, John Pott saw an opportunity for land and prestige. He got the recommendation of an old friend, Dr. Theodore Gulston, read into the minutes of the Virginia Company on July 16, 1621: “For so much as the Phisicons place to the Company was now become voyde by reason of the untimely death of Dr. Bohune, slaine in the fight with two Spanish Shipps of Warr the 19th of March last, Dr. Gulstone did now take occasion to recommend unto the Company for the said place one Mr. Potts, a Master of Arts, well practised in Chirurgerie and Physique, and expert also in distillinge of waters.”

Pott made sure to negotiate the same recompense as Bohune, including a box of medical tools.

Being in a premier position, Pott quickly became active in the political and social scene. He was soon appointed to the Governor’s Council, which advised the governor, participated in the General Assembly and presided over the General Court. George Sandys, poet, cousin-in-law of Governor Yeardley, and treasurer of the colony, did not approve of Pott, calling him a “cipher” and a “pitiful counselor”. Others referred to Pott as a very friendly man who “appears to have been a jovial, easy-going man, fond of company and liquor.” Some of his actions were questionable, and he was frequently under the scrutiny of his peers.

In 1622, the Indians, becoming concerned about the expansion of the white people, attacked the colony early one morning in March and killed about one third (350 people) of the settlers. After some months, the settlers had a peace ceremony with hundreds of Indians from around the Chesapeake area. Two hundred warriors were poisoned with wine. Since Pott was known to have experience with all kinds of medicines, he was blamed. An investigation ensued and Pott was not found guilty. His council seat was returned to him. No one else was ever blamed. But some continued to be suspicious.

Pott had a plot of land in Jamestown. In 1623, Captain John Harvey (later governor) was a commissioner with three others (Pory, Mathews and the cape merchant Piersey). While there, Pott observed Harvey abusing Harvey’s former servant. He ended up testifying in court against Harvey. The servant was probably happy. Harvey was not.

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, writing “desiring Sec. Conway to put Mr. Potts name out of it, His Majesty knows the reason, he was the poisoner of the Savages there (in Virginia) and therefore it is very unfit that he should be employed by the state in any business.”

Pott was a member of the Council in May of 1625 and in 1628 became acting governor at the death of George Yeardley.

When Sir John Harvey, the nominated governor, came to Virginia, Pott’s reputation was upended again. By this time, Pott had a number of enemies. Pott, as governor, had upheld the law requiring swearing to believe the Anglican religion. So, when Lord Baltimore asked for temporary asylum for his Catholic friends, Pott denied it. A number of people were not happy. Harvey was a friend of Baltimore. He was likely not happy with the way Pott treated his friend. At the same time, seven years may not have been enough time for Harvey to remember Pott’s testimony on the abuse of a servant. Thus, there were two reasons Harvey had it out for Pott.

Pott was immediately reported for allowing a murderer to go free and holding on to cattle he did not own. Harvey soon brought him to court on charges of “felony”. Harvey confiscated Pott’s property and kept him under house arrest for three months. Although Pott insisted the evidence was unreliable, the jury of thirteen found him guilty. Harvey reversed himself and wrote to the King asking for a pardon because Pott was the only medical officer in the colony. The King investigated and determined that the finding of a felony on such flimsy evidence was drastic. A year later, Pott was free, and his property returned to him.

After that, Pott mostly retired from politics and concentrated on his medical practice, having a small vessel that went up and down the James River visiting patients.

In 1632, based partly on health considerations and partly on Harvey’s campaign to enlarge the colony and move inland, Pott bought land seven miles from the James River, starting a popular move to what became Williamsburg.

Three years later, Pott, his brother Francis, Samuel Mathews and several others had the largest rebellion to date in the colony. Francis Pott and two others were arrested for making speeches against the unpopular Harvey. The Governor’s Council met with Harvey to discuss this. However, Harvey tried to arrest some of the councilors. At the same time, the Council arrested Harvey, impeached him and sent him to London for trial. Dr. Pott was very active in this event, controlling the musketeers who would guard John Harvey until he left for England. His brother, Samuel Mathews and two others were sent to London to be tried for treason. A year later, they returned, after the charges were dropped.

Pott and his wife never had children, which was probably just as well. Captain Francis Pott and a nephew, John Pott, Jr. inherited most of his possessions.

External link: Doctor, Poisoner, Governor, Rebel: John Pott, America’s “Founding Physician” – The UncommonWealth (virginiamemory.com)