Jamestown Colony was the first permanent English settlement in the New World and has been called the beginning of the British Empire. Jamestown was established by the Virginia Company of London and became the capital of Virginia Colony from 1616 until 1699.
The settlement was located within the country of Tsenacommacah, which was ruled by the Powhatan Confederacy, and specifically in that of the Paspahegh tribe. The natives initially welcomed and provided crucial provisions and support for the colonists, who were not agriculturally inclined. Relations with the newcomers soured fairly early on, leading to the total annihilation of the Paspahegh in warfare within 3 years. Mortality at Jamestown itself was very high due to disease and starvation, with over 80% of the colonists perishing in 1609–1610 in what became known as the “Starving Time.”
Jamestown Colony Facts: Arrival
Virginia Company of London sent an expedition to establish a settlement in the Virginia Colony in December 1606. The expedition consisted of three ships, Susan Constant (sometimes known as Sarah Constant), Godspeed, and Discovery. The Discovery was the smallest ship; the largest ship, the Susan Constant, was captained by Christopher Newport. The ships left Blackwall, now part of London, with 105 men and boys and 39 crew-members.
By April 6, 1607, Godspeed, Susan Constant and Discovery arrived at the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico, where they stopped for provisions before continuing their journey. In April 1607, the expedition reached the southern edge of the mouth of what is now known as the Chesapeake Bay. After an unusually long journey of more than four months, the 104 men and boys (one passenger of the original 105 died during the journey) arrived at their chosen settlement spot in Virginia. There were no women on the first ships.
Arriving at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay in late April, they named the Virginia capes after the sons of their king, the southern Cape Henry, for Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, and the northern Cape Charles, for his younger brother, Charles, Duke of York. On April 26, 1607, upon landing at Cape Henry, Chaplain Robert Hunt offered a prayer, and they set up a cross near the site of the current Cape Henry Memorial. This site came to be known as the “first landing.” A party of the men explored the area and had a minor conflict with some Virginia Indians.
Jamestown Colony Facts: Exploration and Choosing Location
After the expedition arrived in what is now Virginia, sealed orders from the Virginia Company were opened. These orders named Captain John Smith as a member of the governing Council. Smith had been arrested for mutiny during the voyage and was incarcerated aboard one of the ships. He had been scheduled to be hanged upon arrival, but was freed by Captain Newport after the opening of the orders. The same orders also directed the expedition to seek an inland site for their settlement, which would afford protection from enemy ships.
Obedient to their orders, the settlers and crew members re-boarded their three ships and proceeded into the Chesapeake Bay. They landed again at what is now called Old Point Comfort in the City of Hampton. In the following days, seeking a suitable location for their settlement, the ships ventured upstream along the James River. Both the James River and the settlement they sought to establish, Jamestown were named in honor of King James I.
On May 14, 1607, the colonists chose Jamestown Island for their settlement pretty much because the Virginia Company advised them to select a location that could be easily defended from attacks by other European states that were also establishing New World colonies and were periodically at war with England, notably the Dutch Republic, France, and Spain.
The island fit the criteria as it had excellent visibility up and down the James River, and it was far enough inland to minimize the potential of contact and conflict with enemy ships. The water immediately adjacent to the land was deep enough to permit the colonists to anchor their ships, yet have an easy and quick departure if necessary. An additional benefit of the site was that the land was not occupied by the Virginia Indians, most of whom were affiliated with the Powhatan Confederacy. Largely cut off from the mainland, the shallow harbor afforded the earliest settlers docking of their ships. This was its greatest attraction, but it also created a number of challenging problems for the settlers.
Jamestown Colony Facts: Construction, Politics and Difficulties
The settlers came ashore and quickly set about constructing their initial fort. Despite the immediate area of Jamestown being uninhabited, the settlers were attacked less than two weeks after their arrival on May 14, by Paspahegh Indians who succeeded in killing one of the settlers and wounding eleven more. Within a month, James Fort covered an acre on Jamestown Island. The wooden palisaded walls formed a triangle around a storehouse, church, and a number of houses. The fort burned down the following year.
It soon became apparent why the Virginia Indians did not occupy the site: Jamestown Island, then a peninsula, is a swampy area, and its isolation from the mainland meant that there was limited hunting available, as most game animals required larger foraging areas. The settlers quickly hunted and killed off all the large and smaller game animals that were found on the tiny peninsula. In addition, the low, marshy area was infested with airborne pests, including mosquitoes, which carried malaria, and the brackish water of the tidal James River was not a good source of water. Over 135 settlers died from malaria, and drinking the salty and contaminated water caused many to suffer from saltwater poisoning, fevers, and dysentery.
Jamestown Colony Facts: Supply Missions
By mid June the colonists had finished the triangular James Fort and were running out of supplies. Captain Newton took the Susan Constant back to England along with a ship full of pyrite or “fools gold.” He left behind 107 colonists and the ship Discovery. There would be two supply missions that would be called the First and Second supply missions.
The First Supply mission: The “First Supply” arrived on January 2, 1608. It contained insufficient provisions and more than 70 new colonists. Despite original intentions to grow food and trade with the Virginia Indians, the barely surviving colonists became dependent upon supply missions.
The Second Supply mission: On October 1, 1608, 70 new settlers arrived aboard the English “Mary and Margaret” with the Second Supply, following a journey of approximately three months. Included in the Second Supply were Thomas Graves, Thomas Forrest, and “Mistress Forrest and Anne Burras her maide.” Mistress Forrest and Anne Burras were the first two women known to have come to the Jamestown Colony. Also aboard the second supply ship was the first group of non-english settlers that had been recruited as skilled craftsman to help with the colony. They would only deplete the limited resources of the colony quicker.
Jamestown Colony Facts: Captain John Smith
The investors of the Virginia Company of London expected to reap rewards from their speculative investments. With the Second Supply, they expressed their frustrations and made demands upon the leaders of Jamestown in written form.
It fell to the third president of the Council to deliver a reply. By this time, Wingfield and Ratcliffe had been replaced by John Smith. Ever bold, Smith delivered what must have been a wake-up call to the investors in London. In what has been termed “Smith’s Rude Answer”, he composed a letter, writing (in part):
- “When you send again I entreat you rather send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, gardiners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons and diggers up of trees, roots, well provided; than a thousand of such awe have: for except wee be able both to lodge them and feed them, the most will consume with want of necessaries before they can be made good for anything.”
There are strong indications that those in London comprehended and embraced Smith’s message. Their Third Supply mission was by far the largest and best equipped. They even had a new purpose-built flagship constructed, Sea Venture, placed in the most experienced of hands, Christopher Newport. With a fleet of no fewer than eight ships, the Third Supply, led by Sea Venture, left Plymouth in June, 1609.
Smith managed to establish a little trade with a local tribe, but still ended up in conflict with the the Powhatan Confederacy. The conflict rose to the point of he being executed until Pocahontas pleaded for his life. Captain John Smith returned to Jamestown, but was hurt after an explosion. Due to his injuries he was sent back to England.
Jamestown Colony Facts: Starving Time
What became known as the “Starving Time” in the Virginia Colony occurred during the winter of 1609–10. Only 60 of 500 English colonists survived.
The colonists, the first group of whom had originally arrived at Jamestown on May 14, 1607, had never planned to grow all of their own food. Instead, their plans also depended upon trade with the local Virginia Indians to supply them with enough food between the arrival of periodic supply ships from England, upon which they also relied.
This period of extreme hardship for the colonists began in 1609 with a drought which caused their already limited farming activities to produce even fewer crops than usual. Then, there were problems with both of their other sources for food.
An unexpected delay occurred during the Virginia Company of London’s Third Supply mission from England due to a major hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. A large portion of the food and supplies had been aboard the new flagship of the Virginia Company, Sea Venture, which became shipwrecked at Bermuda and separated from the other ships, seven of which arrived at the colony with even more new colonists to feed, and few supplies, most of which had been aboard the larger flagship.
When the survivors of the shipwreck of the Third Supply mission’s flagship Sea Venture finally arrived at Jamestown the following May 23 in two makeshift ships they had constructed while stranded on Bermuda for nine months, they found fewer than 100 colonists still alive, many of whom were sick. Worse yet, the Bermuda survivors had brought few supplies and only a small amount of food with them, expecting to find a thriving colony at Jamestown.
Thus, even with the arrival of the two small ships from Bermuda under Captain Christopher Newport, they were faced with abandoning Jamestown and returning to England. On June 7, 1610, both groups of survivors boarded ships, and they all set sail down the James River toward the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
Shortly after they had abandoned Jamestown, they came upon a fleet of three supply ships arriving from England, commanded by a new governor, The 3rd Baron De La Warr. The two groups met on the James River on June 9, 1610 near Mulberry Island.
Jamestown Colony Facts: Renewed Interest in the Colony
During the same period that Sea Venture suffered its misfortune and its survivors were struggling in Bermuda to continue on to Virginia, back in England, the publication of Captain John Smith’s books of his adventures in Virginia sparked a resurgence in interest in the colony. This helped lead to the dispatch in early 1610 of additional colonists, more supplies, and a new governor, Thomas West, Baron De La Warr.
On June 9, 1610, Lord De La Warr and his party arrived on the James River shortly after Deliverance and Patience had abandoned Jamestown. Intercepting them about 10 miles downstream from Jamestown near Mulberry Island, the new governor forced the remaining 90 settlers to return, thwarting their plans to abandon the colony. Deliverance and Patience turned back, and all the settlers were landed again at Jamestown.
Then, Sir George Somers returned to Bermuda with Patience to obtain more food supplies, but he died on the island that summer. His nephew, Matthew Somers, Captain of Patience, took the ship back to Lyme Regis, England instead of Virginia (leaving a third man behind). The Third Charter of the Virginia Company was then extended far enough across the Atlantic to include Bermuda in 1612.
Jamestown Colony Facts: John Rolfe
John Rolfe arrived in Jamestown a satchel full of tobacco seeds. The native Englishmen did not find the tobacco crop in the New world palatable so Rolfe wished to plant a crop of native English tobacco in the New World. Rolfe was able to raise export tobacco in the failing colony. The local colonists would not touch the stuff, but as the crop proved to be liked by those in England Rolfe became extremely wealthy. Soon other colonists followed in his steps and Jamestown became a large center for tobacco production and created a gold rush atmosphere.
John Rolfe was widowed in Bermuda when his wife died and in the New World he fell in love with an old friend of the English, Pocahontas. Their marriage would birth a son, Thomas Rolfe.
Jamestown Colony Facts: Economic and Population Boom
Virginia’s population grew rapidly from 1618 until 1622, rising from a few hundred to nearly 1,400 people. Wheat was also grown in Virginia starting in 1618.
1619: First democratic assembly
On June 30, 1619 Slovak and Polish artisans conducted the first labor strike for democratic rights in Jamestown. The British Crown overturned the legislation in the Virginia House of Burgesses in its first meeting and granted the workers equal voting rights on July 21, 1619. Afterwards, the labor strike was ended and the artisans resumed their work. The House of Burgesses, the first legislature of elected representatives in America, met in the Jamestown Church. One of their first laws was to set a minimum price for the sale of tobacco and set forth plans for the creation of the first ironworks of the colony. This legislative group was the predecessor of the modern Virginia General Assembly.
1619: First Africans
In August 1619 “20 and odd Negros” arrived on the Dutch Man-of-War ship at Jamestown colony. This is the earliest record of Black people in colonial America These colonists were freemen and indentured servants. At this time the slave trade between Africa and the English colonies had not yet been established.
Records from 1623 and 1624 listed the African inhabitants of the colony as servants, not slaves. In the case of William Tucker, the first Black person born in the colonies, freedom was his bright right. He was son of “Antony and Isabell”, a married couple from Angola who worked as indentured servants for Captain William Tucker whom he was named after. Yet, court records show that at least one African had been declared a slave by 1640; John Punch. He was an indentured servant who ran away along with two White indentured servants and he was sentenced by the governing council to lifelong servitude. This action is what officially marked the institution of slavery in Jamestown and the future United States.
1620: More craftsmen from Germany and Italy arrive
By 1620, more German settlers from Hamburg, Germany, who were recruited by the Virginia Company set up and operated one of the first sawmills in the region. Among the Germans were several other skilled craftsmen carpenters, and pitch/tar/soap-ash makers, who produced some of the colony’s first exports of these products. The Italians included a team of glass makers.
1621: Arrival of marriageable women
During 1621 fifty-seven unmarried women sailed to Virginia under the auspices of the Virginia Company, who paid for their transport and provided them with a small bundle of clothing and other goods to take with them. A colonist who married one of the women would be responsible for repaying the Virginia Company for his wife’s transport and provisions. The women traveled on three ships, The Marmaduke, The Warwick, and The Tyger.
Many of the women were not “maids” but widows. Some others were children, for example Priscilla, the eight-year-old daughter of Joanne Palmer, who travelled with her mother and her new stepfather, Thomas Palmer, on The Tyger. Some were women who were traveling with family or relatives: Ursula Clawson, “kinswoman” of ancient planter Richard Pace, traveled with Pace and his wife on the Marmaduke. Ann Jackson also came on the Marmaduke, in the company of her brother John Jackson, both of them bound for Martin’s Hundred. Ann Jackson was one of the women taken captive by the Powhatans during the Indian Massacre of 1622. She was not returned until 1630. The Council ordered that she should be sent back to England on the first available ship, perhaps because she was suffering from the consequences of her long captivity.
Some of the women sent to Virginia did marry. But most disappeared from the records—perhaps killed in the massacre, perhaps’ dead from other causes, perhaps returned to England. In other words, they shared the fate of most of their fellow colonists
Jamestown Colony Facts: Online Resources
- Wikipedia – History of Jamestown
- Historic Jamestowne Official Site
- Eyewitness History – Captain John Smith is saved by Pocahontas
- Jamestown 400th Anniversary
- The History Junkie’s Complete Guide to Colonial America
- The History Junkie’s Complete Guide to the 13 Original Colonies
- The History Junkie’s Complete Guide to the Middle Colonies