The English Establish a Colony in Jamestown, Virginia

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The English Establish a Colony in Jamestown, Virginia


After a few failed expeditions across the Atlantic, English colonists established the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. The representative legislature instituted there in 1624 was the first of its kind in America. Captain John Smith (1580?-1631), an early leader of the colony who had returned to England in 1609, published the first major English account of the New World in 1624. As the first successful English colony in the Americas, Jamestown helped establish Virginia as a major player in the history of the United States.


Although Europeans had for centuries regarded themselves as having discovered the Americas, the continents were not empty of human inhabitants when the first sailing ships arrived from across the Atlantic. Virginia's coastal regions were populated by the Powhatan Confederacy, a part of the Algonquin language group. Other parts of Virginia were inhabited by tribes that spoke Siouan and Iroquoian languages. Altogether, there were about 18,000 Native Americans in Virginia at that time; half lived in the areas around the Chesapeake Bay.

Relations between the Native Americans and Europeans were often difficult. The Europeans saw the natives, whom they called Indians, as savage heathens to be Christianized, and considered the land unexploited and ripe for colonization. The indigenous people naturally saw things differently. The first European settlement in Virginia, established by Jesuits from Spain, was destroyed in an Indian raid a few months later.

In 1584 Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618) authority to establish colonies in America. Expeditions were sent to the eastern United States, and Raleigh named the area Virginia in honor of Elizabeth, who was known as the Virgin Queen. However, without enough supplies to make a proper start, the earliest attempts failed. The Virginia Company of London was chartered by King James I in 1606 to make a fresh start on colonization.


On December 20 of that year, Captain Christopher Newport set out from England with three ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. On board the ships were 144 men and boys, recruited with the goals of converting the Indians to Christianity, searching for gold and silver, looking for a waterway to the Pacific Ocean, and growing agricultural products to send back to England. They were ill prepared for a hard life; most were from the upper class, had few practical skills, and little experience with manual labor. On May 14, 1607, they set up an encampment on a peninsula about 60 mile (96.6 km) upriver from the Chesapeake Bay on Virginia's coast. This settlement, which was to become the first permanent English colony in the New World, was named Jamestown after the King.

The site of the colony was chosen because it seemed as if it would be easy to defend, and the water around it was deep enough for the ships to drop anchor near the shore. But the area turned out to be swampy and mosquito-infested, and the drinking water from the James River was brackish and muddy. Both contributed to disease, and lack of sufficient food weakened the colonists further. Two-thirds died of malnutrition, malaria, pneumonia, or dysentery.

Captain John Smith, a veteran of military exploits in the Netherlands, Hungary, and Turkey, took over as leader of the settlement in 1608. He held the situation together by trading for food with the Powhatans and forcing the reluctant men to take part in the physical labor needed to establish the colony and build up its defenses.

Another setback for the colony was Smith's return to England in 1609 for medical treatment after his gunpowder bag caught fire. The winter after his departure nearly put an end to Jamestown. Conflict with the Indians meant both bloody attacks and an end to trade. Supplies ran low. Fire, drought, and disease took their toll. Many more settlers died in what became known as the "starving time."

That spring, the remaining colonists prepared to give up and return to England. Just in time, at Hampton Roads, they met the incoming ships of Governor Thomas West (1577-1618), bearing additional settlers and replenished supplies. Like Smith, West was an effective leader. Without these two men, it is unlikely that Jamestown would have survived.

One of the Jamestown colonists, John Rolfe (1585-1622), began raising tobacco in 1612. He grew a type of tobacco from Trinidad that was sweeter than the native Virginian plant, and developed a method of curing the tobacco so that it could be exported. Once the colony had a way to produce income, its prospects were much brighter. Corn and hogs were also grown successfully at Jamestown. These remain important agricultural products in Virginia today.

Rolfe also contributed to the welfare of the colony by marrying Pocahontas (1595?-1617), daughter of Powhatan, a powerful chief, in 1614. The marriage inaugurated a period of peace between the Native Americans and the English. However, after Powhatan died four years later, relations deteriorated between the settlers and the new chief, Opechancanough. Opechancanough perceived that as the colony prospered and grew, his people were being squeezed out of their territory. He led an attack in 1622 in which 347 colonists were massacred.

Still, by this time the colony was fairly well established. Settlers had been granted land of their own. A ship full of young women had been sent over from England for the colonists to marry. Having become householders with farms and families, the settlers were far more likely to stay. In 1619 Dutch traders brought the first African slaves to Virginia, at the same time increasing the colony's prosperity and opening a sad chapter in the history of the region and of the future United States.

That same year, the first representative legislature in America was formed on instructions from the Virginia Company. Called the House of Burgesses, it met with the governor and his council in a lawmaking body called the General Assembly of Virginia. The House of Burgesses served as the model for many of the colonial and state legislatures that were to follow.

Meanwhile, Captain John Smith had recovered from his wounds and returned to America in 1614, exploring the region of New England, a name he coined. In his later years, he lived in London and wrote about his adventurous life. His principal work, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, was published in 1624. It was the first significant account of the New World in English.

In 1626 James I revoked the charter of the Virginia Company and declared Virginia a royal colony. Some of the royal governors dispatched from England had quarrelsome relationships with the colonists. Sir William Berkeley (1606-1677), who arrived in 1642, was an exception. However, he was ousted 10 years later, after King Charles I was overthrown by Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War.

During the Cromwellian period, the colony was generally left to run its own affairs. Its population was augmented by a number of royalists fleeing England. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Berkeley was re-appointed, but this time his tenure was not as successful. The population center was moving west to the edge of Virginia's Piedmont region, and many objected to Berkeley's allowing wealthy coastal families, known as the Tidewater aristocracy, to rule the colony. The Piedmont settlers wanted protection from Native Americans, fewer regulations imposed upon them from the east, and freedom from British restrictions on colonial trade. In 1676 a group of colonists rebelled, led by a young planter named Nathaniel Bacon (1647-1676). Jamestown was burned to the ground. The settlement was rebuilt, but the statehouse was again destroyed, this time by an accidental fire, in 1698.

As a consequence, the capital of the Virginia colony was moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg, and the earlier settlement was deserted. It had served its purpose as the English foothold in the New World. At the start of the eighteenth century, Virginia was the largest North American colony, with a population of about 58,000.

Virginia continued to play a pivotal role in American history. Four of the first five presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—were born there. Its large territory included regions that eventually became all or part of eight other states: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Virginia's current capital, Richmond, was the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The peninsula on which Jamestown was established eventually became an island, as the tides eroded the neck of land. For many years it was believed that the remains of the 1607 fort were underwater, but in 1996 archaeologists discovered evidence of the fort on the island as well as artifacts from the settlement. Today the island is part of the Colonial National Historical Park, visited by more than a million people every year. Meanwhile, archaeological research continues to shed light on this important early colony.


Further Reading

Bridenbaugh, Carl. Jamestown, 1544-1699. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Friddell, Guy. We Began at Jamestown. Richmond, VA: Dietz Press, 1968.

Hume, Ivor Noel. The Virginia Adventure: Roanoke toJames Towne. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Vaughan, Alden T. American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1975.

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The English Establish a Colony in Jamestown, Virginia

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