Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America. It was founded in 1607 and served as the capital of the Virginia colony for over 80 years.
Remake of the Susan Constant Photo by Ducksters
Setting Sail for America
In 1606, King James I of England gave the Virginia Company of London the charter to establish a new colony in North America. They financed an expedition of 144 men (105 settlers and 39 crewmen) to travel to America aboard three ships named the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. They set sail on December 20, 1606.
The three ships first headed south to the Canary Islands. They then traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Islands, landing at Puerto Rico for fresh food and water. From there, the ships headed north and finally, four months after leaving England, landed at Cape Henry in Virginia on April 26, 1607.
The first order of business was to select a site to build a fort. The settlers explored the coast and picked an island spot that could be easily defended if they were attacked by the local natives. They named the new settlement Jamestown after King James I. They then built a triangular shaped fort for protection.
Unfortunately, the site they chose was not ideal. In the summer, the site turned into a swamp filled with mosquitoes and poisonous water. In the winter, it was unprotected from the harsh winter storms and became bitterly cold.
The Men of Jamestown
The first settlers of Jamestown were all men. Most of them were gentlemen looking for gold. They hoped to get rich quick and then return to England. Few of the men were used to the hard rigors and work that it took to survive in the New World. They didn't know how to fish, hunt, or farm. Their lack of basic survival skills would make the first few years very difficult.
House in Jamestown Photo by Ducksters
The first year was a disaster for the settlers. More than half of the original settlers died during the first winter. Most of them died from diseases, germs from the water, and starvation. A few were also killed in disputes with the local Native American peoples called the Powhatan. The settlers that did survive only survived with the help of the Powhatan and a resupply ship that arrived in January.
The local Native Americans were part of a large confederacy of tribes called the Powhatan. At first the settlers did not get along with the Powhatan. Some settlers were killed or kidnapped by the Powhatan when venturing outside the fort.
It wasn't until Captain John Smith took over the leadership of the colony that the relationship improved. When Smith attempted to visit the Powhatan Chief, he was taken captive. Smith was saved when the chief's daughter, Pocahontas, intervened and saved his life. After this event, the relationship between the two groups improved and the settlers were able to trade with the Powhatan for much needed goods.
It was in the summer of 1608 that Captain John Smith became the president of the colony. Unlike the other leaders, Smith was not a "gentleman", but an experienced seaman and soldier. Smith's leadership gave the colony a chance to survive.
A lot of the settlers didn't like Smith. He forced everyone to work and made a new rule that said "if you don't work, you don't eat." However, the rule was necessary because too many of the settlers were sitting around expecting others to build houses, grow crops, and hunt for food. Smith also told the Virginia Company to only send skilled laborers such as carpenters, farmers, and blacksmiths to the settlement in the future.
Unfortunately, Smith was injured in October of 1609 and had to sail back to England to recover.
Remake of a Powhatan home Photo by Ducksters
The winter after John Smith left (1609-1610) turned out to be the worst year in the history of the settlement. It is often called the "starving time" because only 60 of the 500 settlers living in Jamestown survived the winter.
After the harsh winter, the few settlers left were determined to abandon the colony. However, when fresh supplies and colonists arrived from England in the spring, they decided to stay and make the colony work.
For the next few years, the colony failed to be much of a success. Things began to turn around, however, when John Rolfe introduced tobacco. Tobacco became a cash crop for Virginia and helped the colony to grow rapidly over the next several years.
Interesting Facts about the Jamestown Settlement
The same colonist who introduced tobacco, John Rolfe, later married the Powhatan princess Pocahontas.
Jamestown remained the capital of the Virginia Colony until 1699 when the capital was moved to Williamsburg.
The first African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619 aboard a Dutch ship called the White Lion. They were sold to the colonists as indentured servants in exchange for food and supplies.
Jamestown was established around 13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The first legislature of elected representatives met in the Jamestown Church on July 30, 1619.