In 1606, King James I (1566–1625) of England granted a charter to the Virginia Company of London, giving it rights to establish a business in the New World under the protection of the English. The one charter gave two companies, the Plymouth Company and the London Company, shares in land between the Cape Fear River of North Carolina and Bangor, Maine . The northern part of this land grant went to the Plymouth Company, and the southern part went to the London Company.
On December 20, 1606, the Virginia Company sent three ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery, to the Chesapeake Bay region for the London Company. On May 24, 1607, the passengers disembarked and called the site for their settlement Jamestown, after King James I. Through persistence and determination, the settlers made Jamestown the first permanent English settlement in America.
The settlement faced difficulties from its very first moments. It was to be governed by a local council of seven men. The men who were chosen to serve on the council, however, hated and feared each other. Many of the settlers were headstrong adventurers with individual ambitions. Others were unwilling to put in the work needed to establish a viable community, choosing to relax and play games instead of growing food and working. Disease weakened and killed many of the settlers in the first year.
Only after three council members returned to England and three others died did the settlement get effective leadership, under Captain John Smith (c. 1580–1631). In 1608, Smith took firm control of the settlement. Four to six hours of work were required from each person every day. Smith also worked to improve relationships with the native Indians, though this was not an easy task. In 1609, Smith was injured and returned to England.
A new charter was written that year, and the seven-man council was replaced by a governor. The Virginia Company sent several hundred settlers to strengthen the colony before the governor's arrival, but their own arrival strained the settlement's resources. Without a strong leader like Smith, most of the settlers died during the Jamestown winter of 1609 to 1610, which is called the “starving time.” Of the 490 settlers Smith had left behind, only sixty survived the food shortages, disease, and Indian attacks of the winter.
In 1610, the new governor arrived and imposed a strict government. With additional supplies, increased manpower, and required work, the colonists began to be successful. In 1614, the colony switched from exporting ship masts and lumber to exporting tobacco . The economic outlook of the colony brightened somewhat.
In time, disease, violent clashes with Indians, and difficulty with laborers undermined the potential success of the tobacco crops. In 1619, the company reorganized again, sending another 1,216 people to Jamestown. The company authorized the colonists to form the House of Burgesses , the first representative elected assembly in America. But these efforts failed to bring the necessary profits for the company's survival, and King James I dissolved the bankrupt Virginia Company in 1624. This made Virginia the first royal colony, controlled directly by the king's ministers rather than through a company.
By 1625, 124 people resided in Jamestown, but more and more settlers began to move to the countryside to support their tobacco farms. In spite of efforts to revive its importance, Jamestown was badly located on swampy ground, and when fires in 1676 and 1698 destroyed the town, the government of Virginia was moved further inland to Williamsburg in 1699.
Only a few excavated foundations and the ruined tower of the brick church remain on the site of Jamestown today. The United States declared Jamestown a national historic site in 1940, and the Colonial National Historical Park welcomes visitors to it.