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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. (Image credit: National Park Service)

Jamestown, founded in 1607, was the first successful permanent English settlement in what would become the United States. The settlement thrived for nearly 100 years as the capital of the Virginia colony; it was abandoned after the capital moved to Williamsburg in 1699. A preservationist group took over the site in the late 1800s, and today, it is part of a national historic park with tours, museums and ongoing archaeological digs that continue to reveal new findings.

Colonization of the Americas

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.

At the beginning of the 17th century, England was lagging behind other nations when it came to colonization in the Americas. 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 is considered 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 disappeared and were never heard from again, Karen Ordahl Kupperman, a professor of history at New York University, said in her book "The Jamestown Project" (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007). They were lost in what is now the Outer Banks area of North Carolina, and may have left their colony to live with the native people.

In addition to the Roanoke colonists, other European adventurers had sailed along the eastern coast of North America, some of whom ended up living with the native people they encountered, Kupperman wrote. 

"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," she wrote.

Disastrous early years

The founding of Jamestown had the blessing of England's King James I, and the settlement and James River were named in his honor. However, the settlement was 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.

The investors in London hoped that some of the Roanoke colonists (or their descendants) were still alive and, with knowledge they gained about the area, could guide the Jamestown colonists to minerals and a passage to East Asia, Kupperman noted.

Unfortunately, the company chose to build its settlement on "a disease-ridden, bug-infested swampy island with no source of fresh water," according to Jerome Bridges, a park ranger and Historic Jamestowne tour guide. Located about 60 miles (94 kilometers) up the James River from the Atlantic Coast, the site was chosen because the settlers had orders from their investors not to take any land that was occupied by the native people, Bridges said.

When the English landed there in May 1607, they were divided 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 East Asia.

It did not take long for the colonists to run into trouble. Within a few weeks, a force of several hundred Powhatan Indians attacked the settlement. The colonists had not even had the opportunity to unpack their muskets, and so relied on naval gunfire from the ships that were still off the coast to repel the attackers.

In the next few weeks, the settlers focused their work on building a fort, which was a triangular palisade with three bulwarks, or raised platforms, for cannons.

Before long, the colonists started dying. Of the 104 men and boys who landed, only 38 were still alive by January 1608, according to Historic Jamestowne. Research by geology student Doug Rowland at the College of William and Mary and colleagues revealed that the colonists' drinking water was salty and contained arsenic. Additionally, food 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 [also called dysentery], 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 Englishmen left in a foreign country in such misery as we were in this new discovered Virginia."

In that first year, the bodies were buried in unmarked graves to prevent the natives from finding out that so many of the settlers had died, according to Bridges. Recent excavations by a team led by William Kelso, director of archaeology for Jamestown Rediscovery at Historic Jamestowne, have revealed 29 burial shafts close to the west palisade wall inside the fort. The team thinks these graves likely hold many of the colonists who died in 1607.

Two of the excavated grave shafts contain two bodies. According to the Historic Jamestowne website, the colonists likely resorted to double burials because so many men were dying in a short amount of time. Twenty individuals died in August 1607 alone, and multiple burials saved energy and time. 

In the other excavated shaft lay a boy about 14 years old, according to Historic Jamestowne. A small arrowhead was found next to the boy's right leg, which suggests he had been shot shortly before he was buried. This may be the young boy who was recorded by Percy as being slain during combat with Powhatan Indians during the first month of the settlement.

William Kelso, who directs excavations at Jamestown, told Live Science that the archaeology team hopes to excavate the rest of the graves and identify the bodies. "We know their names, and now we know where they were buried," he said. "We'll try to identify them using forensics."

Pocahontas & John Smith

The well-known story of how Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, saved Captain John Smith's life very likely did not happen, at least not the way most people have heard it (and most certainly not the way the Disney animated movie told it), said Bridges. 

Smith, who was elected president of the colony's council after most of the councilors died or became incapacitated, wrote that the colony depended on trade with friendly Powhatan in order to survive. Indeed, according to park ranger Bridges, when they weren't fighting each other, Powhatan's people often visited the settlers. The chief's daughter, about 10 years old at the time, was a frequent visitor to Jamestown, delivering messages from her father and bringing food and furs to trade for hatchets and trinkets, Bridges said.

She also liked to play, and would spend time turning cartwheels with the boys of the colony. Her name was actually Matoaka, and Pocahontas was a nickname meaning "Little Wanton," according to Historic Jamestowne. 

Smith later wrote that at one point during an expedition in December 1607, he was captured and brought to Powhatan. He was first welcomed and offered a feast. Then he was grabbed and forced to stretch out on two large, flat stones. Indians stood over him with clubs as though ready to beat him to death if ordered. Suddenly, Pocahontas rushed in and took Smith's "head in her arms and laid her owne upon his to save him from death," wrote Smith. The girl then pulled him to his feet. Powhatan said that they were now friends, and he adopted Smith as his son, or a subordinate chief. 

Smith's tale has become legend, and he romanticized it in later writings, according to Historic Jamestowne. Smith told the story only after Pocahontas converted to Christianity, and he didn't mention it in an earlier account of his adventures in Virginia. And if Smith's story is true, this mock "execution and salvation" ceremony was traditional with the Powhatan, and Pocahontas' actions were probably one part of a ritual. 

The "starving time"

Although the colony had been resupplied, along with 100 new settlers, in January 1608, the settlers hit another low in the winter of 1609-1610, a period that became known as the "starving time," according to Historic Jamestowne. By this time, Smith had been forced to leave due to gunpowder injuries, and the colony's new governor, Thomas Gates, had been shipwrecked on the island of Bermuda along with essential supplies.

By this point, relations with the Powhatan had deteriorated to the point where trade was impossible and the Jamestown 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," wrote 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, Gates made his way from Bermuda to the colony on makeshift ships made partly from wood found on Bermuda. Finding only 60 survivors at Jamestown, he gave the order to abandon the settlement but not to burn it. As the group 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.

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, according to Historic Jamestowne.

The problem of the colonists finding a marketable commodity was solved in 1612 when John Rolfe, experimenting with tobacco seeds ― possibly from Trinidad ― developed a marketable crop that could be exported to England. 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 additional funds for the Jamestown venture, according to Historic Jamestowne.

In April 1613, Pocahontas was captured and brought to Jamestown. Although she was supposed to be used as barter for English prisoners, she turned into a catalyst for peace. She married Rolfe in 1614, in the Jamestown church, converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca Rolfe. Her father, Powhatan, reached a peace agreement 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 Gov. Thomas Dale in 1614.

Pocahontas, Rolfe and their infant son, Thomas, would go to London, where she would become something of a celebrity. Tragically, she died in 1617 while the three of them were preparing to return to Virginia. Rolfe returned to Virginia alone, leaving their son in the care of an English family.

First representative assembly & first slaves

In 1619, the colony's new governor, Sir George Yeardley, returned to Jamestown with instructions from the Virginia Company, which controlled the colony, to create "a laudable form of government ... [for] the people there inhabiting," according to historical documents, The Washington Post reported.

In June of that year, 30 men met for the first time in Jamestown to discuss issues facing the growing colony. "This assembly was the first expression of English representative government in North America," Kelso wrote in his book, "Jamestown: The Buried Truth" (University of Virginia Press, 2006).

That same year, the company allowed single women to travel to Jamestown, which in its early years had been a largely male-only settlement. The company hoped that women would encourage the Jamestown men to settle down, rather than return to England after making some money.

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

An attack too late

After the death of the peacemaker Powhatan in 1618, war seemed inevitable, according to Kupperman. With the colony growing, and the English settlers using more land and making more aggressive attempts to convert the Powhatan to Christianity, the stage was set for a showdown.

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

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

Although the attack succeeded in killing many English, it failed in its aim of dislodging their presence. More settlers, spurred by poor economic conditions in England, arrived to work on the plantations, hoping, in time, to obtain 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, according to Kupperman.

This war was a take-no-prisoners' affair, Kupperman wrote. "In [May] 1623 they invited Indian leaders to a peace parley where they served poisoned wine and then fired on the disabled Indians." 

This map shows the site of the original Jamestown and the status of archaeological excavations. (Image credit: Preservation Virginia)

New Towne

As the Virginia colony grew, Jamestown developed into a thriving port town. Thousands of colonists either passed through to start tobacco plantations farther inland, or they settled in Jamestown, which expanded to a suburb of sorts called New Towne, situated east of the original fort. 

Representative government took hold in the 1620s, and legislative business called for inns and taverns. The tobacco trade required warehouses and piers along the shore. Jamestown's well-to-do residents built English-style cottages and houses along New Towne's main road.

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 a governor appointed by the king.

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[s] 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," researchers with the Jamestown Rediscovery Project wrote in an article on their website.

Rediscovery of the original fort

In 1994, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) began archaeological work to look for ruins from the original Jamestown fort, Kelso said. It was widely believed at the time that the fort had been washed away into the James River.

Excavations revealed holes where the triangular palisade had once stood, along with remains of three bulwarks used to strengthen its defenses. The archaeologists also found the remains of five churches (one built on top of the remains of the preceding church); row houses, including a structure that appears to be the governor's house; a blacksmith shop, and barracks, among other features. 

To this day, Jamestown is an active dig site. In 2015, the team uncovered the burial sites of four Jamestown leaders who had been buried in the church. In 2018, archaeologists digging in a church in Jamestown found a headless body that might be that of Yeardley. They are hoping to match DNA from the skeleton and teeth found nearby with DNA from Yeardley's living descendants.

In recent years, replicas of the triangular fort, a barracks and the original church have been built on their original plots. Foundations of some New Towne houses have been uncovered, but because they would erode quickly if exposed to the elements, they were reburied, according to signs at Historic Jamestowne. Some reproductions have been built using similar bricks. 

In his book, Kelso recalled some British tourists who came to talk with 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, leaving the stain). The British tourists were startled to find 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?" asked one of the British tourists, according to Kelso. "No, there was just dirt," Kelso said he responded. "But you know what else? I guess plenty of, well, just hope."

"Oh brilliant!" the tourists exclaimed in unison, "brilliant indeed!"

Additional reporting by Reference Editor Tim Sharp.

Additional resources

Owen Jarus
Owen Jarus

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.