Friday, August 14, 2009

The History of Jamestown, Virginia

Jamestown Site 7Image by Ken Lund via Flickr

The History of Jamestown, Virginia

Jamestown, VA was the first permanent English settlement in America. On April 26, 1607, three ships stopped at Cape Henry, at the southern entrance to Chesapeake Bay, after more than four months at sea. Captain Christopher Newport commanded this fleet, which was made up of the ships Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. Colonists on the ships saw “faire meddowes and goodly tall trees” along the Virginia coast. The colonists consisted of 100 men and 4 boys. They had been sent out by a group of London merchants known as the London Company. These men came to America to search for treasure, to spread the Christian faith among the Indians, and to raise farm products that England could not grow at home. Only a few of the men were able or willing to do manual labor.

The three ships sailed up the James River from Cape Henry for about 60 miles. The colonists landed on a little peninsula on the river on May 14, 1607, and established their settlement there. They named both the river and their settlement in honor of King James I of England. The site of the colony turned out to be a bad choice. The ground was swampy, and the drinking water was impure. A meager and unwholesome diet weakened the men, and about two-thirds of them soon died of malnutrition, malaria, pneumonia, and dysentery. To further complicate their problems, they had not expected the sharp contrasts of climate.

The Jamestown settlement suffered one dreadful disaster after another. Captain John Smith held the colony together when he took control from mid-1608 to mid-1609. He forced the settlers to work, and bought corn from the Indians. But an accident in 1609 forced Smith to return to England for treatment for his wounds. Fire, drought, Indian attacks, disease, starvation, and lack of another strong leader brought the colony to its lowest ebb in the winter of 1609. The colonists later called that winter “the starving time.” The arrival of Governor Thomas West, Lord de la Warr, in 1610 with new settlers and fresh supplies saved Jamestown from abandonment. The settlement could not have survived without the strong and intelligent leadership of Captain John Smith and Lord de la Warr.

About 18,000 Indians lived in Virginia during the early 1600’s. More than 30 of the tribes in the area united to form a confederacy under the mighty chief Powhatan (Wahunsonacock). His daughter, the Indian princess Pocahontas, was reported to have saved the life of Captain John Rolfe, one of the colonists. This marriage brought about eight years of peace between the settlers and the Indians, and temporarily overcame the menace of hostile raids.

The agricultural and industrial activities of the colony got off to a slow start at first. The colonists made unsuccessful attempts to produce silk, grapes, and other items that were unsuited for the Virginia climate. Early industries included glass blowing, iron smelting, the making of potash, and shipbuilding. The first farm products to be raised successfully were hogs and Indian corn. In 1612, John Rolfe introduced a new type of tobacco to the colony by bringing seed from the method of curing the leaves. This new kind of tobacco was sweeter than the native Virginia plant, and the settlers found a ready market for it in Europe. Tobacco, together with corn, and hogs, provided a solid basis for Jamestown’s economy.

The year 1619 was important in the history of the Jamestown colony. The first representative legislative assembly in the Western Hemisphere met in the town that year. This assembly, called the House of Burgesses, served as the model for many of the law-making bodies throughout the United States. Before 1619, only a few married women and female servants lived in Jamestown. In 1619, when the population was about a thousand, the London Company tried to encourage young men to make permanent homes in the colony by sending a number of “young, handsome and honestly educated maids” to become the bachelors’ wives. Another important event of 1619 was the arrival from Africa of a Dutch ship at Jamestown with 20 Negroes. These Negroes, and the many who followed them, had much to do with making the colony a prosperous one.

In 1622, the Indians broke the peace, which had lasted since 1614. They unexpectedly attacked the settlements around Jamestown, and killed about 350 of the colonists. The town itself received a warning of the Indian uprising, and was able to resist the attack. The red men rose again in 1644 and killed about 50 people, mostly in outlying settlements. Both times, the colonists struck back with vengeance, destroying the Indians’ food supplies.

Two of the most important reasons for the success of the Jamestown settlement were that (1) the colonists learned to produce their own food, and (2) family life developed after women settled in the colony.

Ill luck overtook Jamestown in the late 1600’s. The town was burned to the ground in 1676 during the Bacon’s Rebellion, a revolt against the royal governor led by planter Nathaniel Bacon. Fire again destroyed the settlement in 1698. These disasters caused the people in Virginia to transfer their capital to Williamsburg in 1699, rather than again rebuild Jamestown. The town of Jamestown itself fell into decay after that time.

The site of the Jamestown settlement no longer stands on a peninsula. It lies on an island, having been cut off from the mainland by water. Tidal currents have washed much of the original land away. For many years, only a few foundation stones and the ruined tower of a brick church stood as reminders of the settlement. The church itself was reconstructed on the stones of the foundation laid by the hardy colonists. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities controls the land around the ruined church, and the National Park Service owns the rest of the area. The National Park Service operates its part of Jamestown as part of the Colonial National Historical Park.

In 1957, Virginia celebrated the 350th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. The National Park Service and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities built an exact reproduction of the original town about one-half mile from the original site. Archaeologists have discovered many relics of the original town. The restored town of Jamestown draws thousands of tourists each year.

Related Notable People, Places, and Events

Bacon’s Rebellion

London Company

John Smith

Glass, Early American


Virginia, Early History

House of Burgesses

John Rolfe


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