Jamestown Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the New World. While not considered a success, the English experience of founding the colony informed all subsequent endeavors, and the colony thus established the patterns and practices through which the British Empire would come to dominate North America.

Summary of Event

On December 20, 1606, the London Company (also known as the Virginia Company of London Virginia Company ), a stock company acting under a charter granted by King James I James I (king of England);Virginia and , sent out three ships, the Godspeed, the Discovery, and the Susan Constant, under the command of Christopher Newport. The ships carried 144 settlers who were to establish a trading post in Virginia. Investors in the company, which was modeled after the highly successful East India Company, hoped to profit from trade with Native Americans, the discovery of precious metals, and the production of goods in short supply in England. The settlers hoped to make their fortune in the New World. The English government saw a chance to establish a foothold in North America. During the eighteen years of the London Company’s existence, however, one disaster followed another; the investors lost their money and four out of five of the settlers died of disease or Indian attacks. Nevertheless, by the time the company’s charter was annulled in 1624, Virginia had evolved the pattern of settlement through which the British Empire would spread over much of North America. Colonization;England of Virginia Virginia;colonization of [kw]Jamestown Is Founded (May 14, 1607) Colonization;May 14, 1607: Jamestown Is Founded[0470] Expansion and land acquisition;May 14, 1607: Jamestown Is Founded[0470] American Colonies;May 14, 1607: Jamestown Is Founded[0470] Jamestown Newport, Christopher Opechancanough Pocahontas Powhatan Smith, John (1580- 1631) Smythe, Thomas Somers, George De La Warre, Lord Wingfield, Edward Maria

On May 13, 1607, Captain Newport selected a low-lying peninsula some sixty miles inland from the coast as the site of the new settlement and disembarked the one hundred men and four boys who had survived the voyage. With water on three sides and a narrow neck, the site chosen was militarily defensible, though the stagnant swamps nearby would pose significant health hazards. It soon became clear that the settlers were poorly adapted for their task. Too many of the colonists were gentlemen and their personal servants who were unwilling to work with their hands; too few were farmers or ordinary laborers willing to work in the fields. Unable or unwilling to raise their own food, the English depended on Virginia Indians for supplies. When they could not buy food, the settlers seized it by force, setting off a series of small-scale guerrilla wars between the two groups. Soon after Newport left the settlement, men began to sicken and die. When he returned in January, 1608, with more supplies and settlers, only thirty-eight colonists were still alive.

John Smith believed that Powhatan was about to have him killed when the sachem’s daughter, Pocahontas, intervened to save him. Modern scholars believe she may merely have been playing her assigned role in a tribal ritual Smith did not understand.

(Gay Brothers)

Under the forceful leadership of John Smith, Smith, John a veteran of European wars against the Ottoman Empire, the colony was able to secure itself during the following year. When Smith assumed control in the winter of 1608-1609, he made it the rule “that he that will not worke shall not eate (except by sicknesse he be disabled).” Smith had previously established friendly relations with local Indian tribes. While exploring north of Jamestown in December, 1607, he had been captured by a band of Powhatan Indians. Smith believed that he had been condemned to death by Powhatan Powhatan and saved only by the personal intervention of the chief’s favorite daughter, Pocahontas Pocahontas . Modern scholars have suggested that Smith misunderstood an adoption ceremony in which Powhatan, impressed by Smith’s bravery, had him ritually killed and reborn as a member of the tribe. In either case, Smith’s relations with Powhatan enabled him to get vital supplies of corn for the settlers. Under his command, only seven or eight men died that winter.

As it became clear that Virginia had no easily extractable mineral wealth, usable native labor force, or significant trade opportunities with the Indians, the London Company began to rethink its strategy. Led by its treasurer, Sir Thomas Smythe, Smythe, Thomas the company decided to try to increase the population of the colony and have the colonists produce goods such as sugar, dye woods, and naval stores (masts, tar, pitch, and resin), which might be profitably sold in England. More shares of stock were issued and prospective settlers were promised one hundred acres of land if they would work for the company in Virginia for seven years. In June, 1609, the company sent a new fleet with five hundred men and one hundred women, as well as large quantities of equipment and supplies. The four hundred settlers who survived the voyage arrived weakened and debilitated. Again they failed to plant crops; Smith, who had been wounded in a gunpowder explosion, had returned to England. At the end of the winter of 1609-1610, the sixty colonists who were still alive decided to abandon the settlement. By chance, when they set sail for England, they were met by a new fleet bringing more men and supplies and turned back to Jamestown.

Sir Thomas Smythe continued to raise money and send out settlers. The imposition of a harsh disciplinary code prevented further starvation in Jamestown, but the company still did not show any profit. Finally, the stockholders revolted and replaced Smythe as treasurer in 1619 with Sir Edwin Sandys Sandys, Sir Edwin . Unwilling to abandon the colony, Sandys organized a last great effort. To induce settlers to migrate, the company offered “headrights” of fifty acres to any person who settled or brought settlers to Virginia Migration;English into Virginia . Settlers could pool their land holdings into jointly owned tracts or “private plantations.” The military discipline previously imposed under Smythe was replaced with a more normal system of civil courts and a representative assembly, the first in America. In the next six years the company sent some forty-five hundred new settlers and tried, still with little success, to get them to provide desirable products for the British market.

Although the company never realized a profit, individual settlers did. After John Rolfe Rolfe, John demonstrated in 1614 that West Indian species of tobacco Agriculture;tobacco farming could be grown in Virginia and profitably exported to England, the colony experienced a boom. The company tried and failed to discourage production of what they considered an obnoxious weed. Settlement spread out beyond Jamestown along the banks of the James and other rivers as planters sought to increase their production. By making land freely available, the company had opened the way to wealth for those who could find labor to exploit. Virginians who could afford to buy indentured servants Indentured servitude;Virginia worked them as hard as they dared. A shipload of Africans arrived in 1619. Africans were apparently more expensive than English servants and few were then imported; as late as 1640, there were only 150 blacks in Virginia, some of whom were freemen and landowners.





The spread of population beyond Jamestown was also encouraged by a season of relatively peaceful relations with the Indians after Rolfe married Pocahontas in 1614. The Indians’ resentment of the growing expansion of the English simmered under the surface, however. After Powhatan’s death, his successor, Opechancanough Opechancanough , organized a massive attempt to drive out the Europeans. In March, 1622, the Indians attacked along the rivers, killing at least 347 English. In retaliation, the settlers took up arms and proceeded to destroy the towns and food supplies of the Powhatan Confederacy. Food was short for both Indians and English that winter, and both groups suffered in the near famine conditions. Shocking accounts of the savage treatment of the Indians and of the cruel and brutal treatment of the indentured servants reached England and led to an investigation that recommended revocation of the company’s charter.


When King James moved to annul the charter in 1624 and assume direct control of the first royal colony in North America, Jamestown appeared to be a failure North America;first British colony in . The London Company was bankrupt, the shareholders had lost their investment, and only some 1,275 of the approximately 8,500 people who had settled in Virginia remained. The colony, however, had survived all the blunders and disasters of its first two decades, and the basic pattern for the future had emerged. The British empire in North America would consist of settlement colonies, following the rule of law and practicing self-government, with easily available land acting as a magnet for immigrants.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abrams, Ann Uhry. The Pilgrims and Pocahontas: Rival Myths of American Origin. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Examines two myths about American origins, one about Jamestown and Pocahontas, the other about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. Compares and contrasts these myths and the messages they convey.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Billings, Warren M., John E. Selby, and Thad W. Tate. Colonial Virginia: A History. White Plains, N.Y.: KTO Press, 1986. The section on Jamestown captures the drama of the early decades there.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bridenbaugh, Carl. Jamestown, 1544-1699. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. This brief (200-page) history emphasizes what Bridenbaugh describes as the “people—red, white, and black—who lived on or near Jamestown Island.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hawke, David Freeman, ed. Captain John Smith’s History of Virginia: A Selection. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970. Reprints sections on Virginia from Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. A major primary source, if suspect given its discrepancies with Smith’s more contemporaneous account in his True Relation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hume, Ivor Noël. The Virginia Adventure: Roanoke to James Towne. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. Historical archaeologist Hume provides an extremely detailed account of the settling of Virginia, comparing primary documents as well as physical evidence and deftly teasing out fact from legend.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. Five Hundred Nations: An Illustrated History of the North American Indians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. Powhatan and Smith are covered in chapter 4 of this lavishly illustrated history of North America written from the viewpoint of its original occupants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LeMay, J. A. Lee. The American Dream of Captain John Smith. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991. The author provides a step-by-step account of Smith’s activities in Virginia, arguing that his writings were essentially truthful, including the episode with Pocahontas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Price, David A. Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation. New York: Random House, 2003. Draws on period letters, chronicles, and documents to relate the founding of the Jamestown colony.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. Written by an ethnohistorian and anthropologist, this is one of the best studies of Jamestown and the settlement’s relationship to the Powhatan Confederacy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vaughan, Alden T. American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975. A short, balanced biography of Smith combined with a detailed history of Virginia from Smith’s departure in 1609 until his death in 1631.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

James I; Opechancanough; Pocahontas; Powhatan; John Smith. Jamestown

Categories: History