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Jamestown: Facts & History

foundations of original homes in Jamestown, Virginia
Foundations of row houses have been excavated in New Towne, where Jamestown settlers expanded to live in the 1620s.
Credit: National Park Service

Jamestown, founded in 1607, was the first successful permanent English settlement in what would become the United States.

It was located on Jamestown Island, in Virginia, about 30 miles (47 kilometers) up the James River from the Atlantic coast. The original fort site was surrounded by a triangular palisade with three bulwarks. 

Jamestown was not the first successful permanent European settlement in what would become the United States; that distinction belongs to St. Augustine, in Florida, which was founded by the Spanish in 1565.

In its early years, the settlers at Jamestown experienced an extremely high mortality rate, the lack of food actually leading some of the settlers to resort to cannibalism during the winter of 1609-1610, this period becoming known as the “starving time.”

While the founding of Jamestown had the blessing of England’s King James I, and the settlement and James River were named in his honor, it was actually financed and run by the Virginia Company. This company in turn was financed by private investors who expected the colonists to discover a valuable commodity, or a route to East Asia, which would make the enterprise profitable and offer a return on their investment. It wasn’t until 1612, when a colonist named John Rolfe began experimenting with tobacco, that such a commodity was found.

Colonization of the Americas

England at the beginning of the 17th century was something of a laggard when it came to colonization in the Americas. At the time that the venture launched, Spain controlled a vast empire in the New World that included much of South and Central America, Mexico, part of the Caribbean and a settlement in Florida. The Spanish were also moving into what we consider the American Southwest.

Also by this time, the French were exploring Canada’s northeast and, in time, would establish a highly profitable fur trade in the region.

In the 16th century the English did attempt to found Roanoke colony, a venture that ended in disaster, the colonists disappearing and never being heard from again. They were lost in the Chesapeake Bay area and may have left their colony to live with local aboriginal groups.

Karen Ordahl Kupperman, a professor of history at New York University, writes in her book "The Jamestown Project" (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007) that in addition to the Roanoke colonists, other European adventurers had sailed along the east coast of North America, some of whom ended up living with the aboriginal people they encountered. 

“It does not seem too fanciful to assume that some colonists in Jamestown, founded twenty years after the last Roanoke colony, might have encountered descendants of earlier transatlantic migrants without knowing it.”

Indeed it was hoped by the investors in London that some of the Roanoke colonists (or their descendents) were still alive and, with knowledge they gained about the area, could guide the Jamestown colonists to minerals and a passage to the Orient.

Disastrous early years

When the colonists landed in May 1607, they were divided up into three groups. One group was to build fortifications and a storehouse and then some simple houses. The second group was to plant crops, and the third party was to explore for minerals and a passage to the Orient.

It did not take long for the colonists to run into trouble. Within a few weeks, the fort had been attacked by a force of several hundred warriors from one of the aboriginal groups in the area. The colonists did not even have the opportunity to unpack their muskets, and only the use of naval gunfire, from the ships that were still there, drove the attackers off.

It didn’t take long for the colonists to start dying. Of the 104 men and boys who landed, only 38 were still alive by January 1608. Recent research has revealed that the water they drank was salty and even contained arsenic. Additionally, food supplies ran out, famine set in and a particularly harsh winter along with drought compounded the misery of the colonists.

“Our men were destroyed with cruel diseases as swellings, fluxes, burning fevers, and by wars, and some departed suddenly, but for the most part they died of meer famine,” wrote George Percy, one of the survivors, in a report on the colony. “There were never Englishman left in a foreign country in such misery as we were in this new discovered Virginia.”

Pocahontas & John Smith

Captain John Smith, who took over the presidency of the colony’s council after most of the councillors were dead or incapacitated, writes that the colony depended on trade with friendly aboriginal groups in order to survive.

He would later write that at one point he was captured and brought to Powhatan.  Smith wrote in a 1616 letter to Queen Anne that Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, “hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown.”

This story of Pocahontas risking her life to save Smith’s was only told after she converted to Christianity and Smith didn’t mention it in an earlier account of his adventures in Virginia. Additionally it has been argued by historians that, if this episode did happen, it may have been part of a ceremony to demonstrate Smith’s helplessness before Powhatan.

The colony was resupplied, along with 100 new settlers, in January 1608. The colony would struggle on, hitting another low in the winter of 1609-1610, a period that became known as the "starving time." By this time, John Smith had been forced to leave due to gunpowder injuries and the colony’s new governor, Thomas Gates, had been shipwrecked on Bermuda along with essential supplies.

By this point, relations with the aboriginal people in the area had deteriorated to the point where trade was impossible and their fort was under siege. When the colonists ran out of food, they “fed upon horses and other beasts as long as they lasted, we were glad to make shift with vermin, as dogs, cats, rats and mice,” writes George Percy in an account of what happened. Boots, shoes and leather were also consumed and, as recent archaeological evidence confirms, some colonists resorted to cannibalism to survive.

In May 1610, Thomas Gates, the governor who had been shipwrecked on Bermuda before he could arrive at Jamestown, made his way to the colony using makeshift ships made partly with wood they found on Bermuda. Finding only 60 survivors remaining at Jamestown he gave the order to abandon the settlement but not to burn it. As they set out to sea, however, they encountered a fleet led by Lord De La Warr, with fresh supplies and new colonists and they returned to Jamestown and repaired the fort.

map of Jamestown
This map shows the site of the original Jamestown and the status of archaeological excavations.
Credit: Preservation Virginia

Improving fortunes

In the decade to come Jamestown’s situation would improve. Martial law was imposed, solving, however harshly, some of the discipline problems experienced in the first three years of the colony.

The problem of the colonists finding a marketable commodity was solved in 1612 when John Rolfe, experimenting with tobacco seeds that may have been from Trinidad, developed a marketable crop that could be exported to England. The English king, James I, would give the Virginia Company a monopoly on tobacco, making the trade even more profitable. He even allowed the company to set up a lottery to provide further funds for the Jamestown venture.

In April 1613, Pocahontas was captured and brought to Jamestown. Although she was supposed to be used to barter for English prisoners she turned into a catalyst for peace. She married John Rolfe in 1614, converting to Christianity and taking the name Rebecca Rolfe. Her father, Powhatan, reached a peace with the English that allowed the colony to expand its cultivated territory, setting up new settlements including Henrico and Bermuda Hundred.

Now “after five years’ intestine war with the revengeful, implacable Indians, a firm peace (not again easily to be broken) hath been lately concluded...” wrote Governor Thomas Dale in 1614.

Pocahontas, Rolfe and their infant son Thomas would go to London where she became something of a celebrity. Tragically, she died while the three of them prepared to return to Virginia, leaving Rolfe to return to Virginia alone, leaving their son in the care of an English family.

With the development of tobacco, and the need for labor to grow the crop and food supplies, several thousand more colonists were sent in the late 1610s and early 1620s. Many of them died after arriving, being ill prepared and lacking proper clothing and food supplies.

One notable change in settlement policy started in 1619 when the company allowed single woman to travel to Jamestown, which in its early years had been a largely male-only settlement. The company hoped that this would encourage the male colonists to settle down rather than return to England after making some money.

“Both at the time and since, many have maligned these recruits and charged that the company swept up women off the streets to found families across the ocean.” Kupperman writes. She notes that recently discovered documents have shown that in fact they had to have a certificate from their church minister and the company noted the particular skills each possessed.

Also in 1619, a Dutch ship arrived at Jamestown and for traded food supplies from the ship's cargo of "20 and odd negroes," originally from Angola. Kupperman writes that "slavery as it was later defined did not yet exist in the Chesapeake, and some of these Africans lived to achieve their freedom." They worked as indentured servants (as many English newcomers did) but were forced to work for longer terms.  

In that same year, an elected assembly met for the first time in Jamestown to discuss issues facing the growing colony. “This assembly was the first expression English representative government in North America,” writes William Kelso, who directs excavations at Jamestown, in his book "Jamestown: The Buried Truth" (University of Virginia Press, 2006)

An attack too late

Things changed for the English after the death of Powhatan in 1618, the leader whom the English had made a peace with. With the colony growing, the settlers using more land and making more aggressive attempts to convert the aboriginal people to Christianity, the stage was set for a showdown.

Opechancanough, Powhatan's successor, felt threatened by the growing English presence. In 1622, he launched a surprise attack in an attempt to wipe out the colony, now with a population of more than 1,000 people in several plantations.

Kupperman notes that, officially, the company claimed the attack killed 347 people, although the actual death toll was likely higher. The English were forced to abandon some plantations and cluster closer together.

While the attack succeeded in killing many English, it failed in its aim of dislodging their presence. More settlers, spurred on by poor economic conditions in England, arrived to work on the plantations, in time hoping to get land of their own. The attack gave the English the excuse they needed to wage war against Opechancanough’s people, sparing only the children so that they could be converted to Christianity and forced to work on the English plantations.

This war was a take-no-quarters affair, Kupperman writes. “In 1623 they invited Indian leaders to a peace parley where they served poisoned wine and then fired on the disabled Indians.” The company offered a reward for anyone who could capture Opechancanough.

In time, with new settlers flowing in, the English would gain control of the Chesapeake Bay area and launch new colonies (including Plymouth in 1620) along the eastern seaboard of the future United States. In May 1624, the Virginia Company was formally dissolved and Jamestown became a crown colony.

With the growth of new settlements in Virginia, and the improving military situation of the English, the original fort site became redundant. As “Jamestown grew into a ‘New Town’ to the east, written reference to the original fort disappear. Jamestown remained the capital of Virginia until its major statehouse, located on the western end of Preservation Virginia property, burned in 1698,” write researchers with the Jamestown Rediscovery Project in an article on their website.

Rediscovery of the original fort

Kelso notes that starting in 1994 the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) conducted archaeological work to see if there was anything remaining of the original Jamestown fort. It was widely believed at the time that the fort had been washed away into the James River.

Excavations revealed that the archaeological remains were still present. They found holes where the triangular palisade had once stood along with remains of three bulwarks used to strengthen its defences. They also found five churches (one replacing the other), row houses, including a structure that appears to be the governor’s house, a blacksmith shop and barracks among other features. 

In his book, Kelso recalled some British tourists who came to talk to him while he was excavating the remains of a wall that consisted of a black stain in the clay (the wall was made of perishable material that had decayed away leaving a stain). The British tourists were startled that the first English settlement, which paved the way to modern America, was so simply made.

“You mean that’s it? That’s all there is? America, the last of the world’s superpowers, began as ... just dirt?” One of the British tourists asked. “No, there was just dirt,” Kelso answered. “But you know what else? I guess plenty of, well, just hope.”

“Oh brilliant!” the tourists exclaimed in unison, “brilliant indeed!”

— Owen Jarus is a writer based in Toronto, Canada. His main areas of expertise are history, archaeology and urban & regional planning. He has also written articles on health, politics, community events, education and amateur sports. His work has appeared in a wide variety of publications. His website is http://www.owenjarus.com.

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