Virginia: Jamestown

James Fort was the first permanent English settlement in North America. The first Anglican congregation in North America met here in 1607. The settlement grew to become Jamestown, the first capital of the Virginia colony. In 1619, America’s oldest legislative body, the House of Burgesses (later the General Assembly), held its first session in Jamestown. In that same year, the arrival of both Africans and a substantial number of women from England helped ensure the colony’s survival.

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Colonial National Historical Park

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Yorktown, VA 23690-0210

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Jamestown’s place in American history is ensured by its being the first successful English settlement, as well as by the number of political, religious, and cultural events originating on this small island site. Here three cultures–Native American, European, and African–met and began the creation of a new nation.

Founding of the Fort

In June, 1606, the Virginia Company, a group of London merchants, received a charter from King James I of England, authorizing them to explore and colonize a large North American area, from what would become North Carolina to the southern part of the future state of New York. The first group of 104 men and boys sailed from London in December, and on May 13, 1607, reached the swampy island which they would name for their king. (An order proclaiming the anniversary of that day as a day of thanksgiving would be issued by the colonial government in 1619.) The land itself was called Virginia, in memory of Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen.”

The site was chosen for its military value–the island was secluded but provided a good view of any Spanish ships that might arrive–and the colony’s goals included searching for gold and a trade route to Asia, not particularly settling and farming. The first settlers included artisans and laborers, but about half, according to Captain John Smith (1580-1631), who soon assumed leadership of the colony, were gentlemen, unaccustomed to manual labor. The absence of women and families also indicated a desire to acquire wealth as quickly as possible, partly through trade with Native Americans, rather than a desire to establish a new place to live.

The Englishmen encountered a number of Algonquian Indians who initially offered them corn and furs, but no gold, and had no intention of working for the intruders. Relations quickly deteriorated, leading the colonists to built a triangular wooden fort, which protected their church and storehouse, as well as several houses.

Indian attacks were but one of many trials faced by the English. Jamestown Island was marshy and disease-ridden; the water was bad, and in the summer the heat became intense. The fort was accidentally burned in 1608. Unwilling or unable to successfully imitate Native American cultivation methods, many colonists died of starvation as well as disease, and their numbers dropped to thirty-eight in less than a year. Following the so-called Starving Time, by 1609 to 1610 only sixty of five hundred settlers still survived.

Although the extent of John Smith’s role in Virginia’s early history has been debated by scholars, there is no doubt that his robust energy kept Jamestown functioning during its first two years, until he was injured in a gunpowder accident in October, 1609, and returned to England. While exploring the interior and trading with local tribes, Smith met a formidable counterpart in Powhatan (c. 1550-1618), the leading chief of approximately twenty-four tribal units near the settlement. Powhatan, whom Smith described as possessing “such a Majestie as I cannot expresse,” had no illusions about the English and distrusted them, as their numbers continued to increase.

Smith’s brief captivity at the hands of the Indians in December, 1607, led to his meeting with Powhatan’s favorite daughter, Pocahontas (c. 1596-1617). There are varying interpretations of Smith’s story that she intervened to save his life, but clearly she became fascinated with the colonists, visited them on a number of occasions, and perhaps interceded on their behalf. In 1613 she was captured and held in Jamestown; after accepting Christianity, she married a planter, John Rolfe (1585-1622), in 1614. Their union fostered a brief peace between the two cultures. In 1616 Pocahontas accompanied Rolfe and the colony’s governor, Sir Thomas Dale (d. 1619), to London, where she was presented at court and had a brief emotional reunion with Smith. She died at Plymouth early in 1617, leaving one son from whom many Virginians have claimed descent.

Life in the Colony

Until his death in 1622, John Rolfe played a vital role in the colony’s success through his importation of tobacco, beginning in 1612, from the West Indies. Smoking tobacco became fashionable despite King James’s disapproval of the “noxious weed,” and it ensured the Virginia colony’s economic survival. Until the land wore out and the market declined in the 1660’s, tobacco was supposedly planted everywhere in Jamestown, including its unpaved streets.

The labor-intensive nature of tobacco cultivation led to a demand for more workers. Despite an influx of poor white servants, many of whom sold their labor as indentures for between five and seven years, the labor shortage fueled the importation of African workers. It is not known whether the twenty Africans sold by the Dutch in 1619 were indentured or permanently enslaved, since a number of African Americans managed to acquire freedom and property during the seventeenth century. However, opportunities for poor men, both white and black, became increasingly limited by the 1670’s, as Virginia’s class structure became more fully developed. By contrast, many of the women who survived the occasional Indian attacks, disease, and primitive conditions fared well in Virginia. The colony’s gender imbalance meant that the one hundred white women sent by the Virginia Company in 1619 and those who followed them, including servants, had more opportunities to improve their status through marriage than did females in England. Less is known about African women, but 1619 census records indicate that in addition to the men on the Dutch ship, seventeen black females and fifteen black males were living in the colony.

Still another vital component of Virginia life arrived in 1619 with Governor Sir George Yeardley, who was empowered by the Company to summon an assembly of “burgesses”–two elected representatives from each of eleven settlements–who first met with him and his council on July 30, 1619, in the church at Jamestown. In the early 1640’s, the General Assembly became a bicameral legislature.

Despite this establishment of representative government on the parliamentary model, Virginia was increasingly dominated socially and economically by a few relatively wealthy men, who were usually friends of the governor. Faced with falling tobacco prices and convinced that the rich planters and merchants who met in Jamestown were keeping them from acquiring the acres they needed to become gentry, a growing number of poor farmers sought more Indian land, by force if necessary.

Indian Attacks, Governor Berkeley, and Nathaniel Bacon

The truce that began with Pocahontas’s marriage to John Rolfe had deteriorated by 1620. A growing number of confrontations and murders on both sides inspired Powhatan’s brother and successor, Opechancanough (c. 1544-1644), to organize a surprise attack on the English settlements on March 22, 1622. Although 347 out of 1,240 settlers were killed, Jamestown escaped destruction, according to tradition, because of a warning by Chanco, a Christian Indian. Over the next two years the English retaliated, killing more than one thousand native people, regardless of their tribal affiliation. This destruction and the growing ineffectiveness of the Virginia Company led King James to revoke its charter in 1624 and make Virginia a royal colony.

Twenty years later, a second raid by Opechancanough also failed to eradicate the settlement. Captured and brought to Jamestown in 1646, the aged chief was shot by one of his guards, despite the efforts of Governor William Berkeley (1606-1677) to keep him alive as a potential hostage or trophy. Virginia’s Native Americans were forced to recognize English sovereignty and became increasingly marginalized as they were pushed farther west.

By the early 1670’s the elderly and increasingly unpopular Berkeley could not satisfy both the demands of Virginia’s lower classes for land, decreased taxes, and protection from the Indians and the desire for power of prosperous men who were outside Berkeley’s inner circle. Both groups found a leader in Nathaniel Bacon (1647-1676), a member of the gentry who came to Virginia in 1674. Portraying himself as a deliverer from both the Indians and the governor, Bacon soon quarrelled with Berkeley, massacred a peaceful tribe, and by 1675 led a four hundred-man army of white and black servants in a brief rebellion which culminated in Bacon’s burning of Jamestown. After Bacon’s death from dysentery in 1676, Berkeley briefly resumed power, but his arbitrary methods led to some limitations being placed on the governor’s power, decreased taxes, and access to more Indian land for poor white farmers. To forestall a future rebellion by lower-class whites, the African slave trade also increased.

Jamestown’s Decline and Rebirth

Jamestown’s statehouse burned in 1698, and the government moved to Williamsburg in 1699. No longer a colonial capital, Jamestown gradually declined, and by the nineteenth century little remained except the 1639 church tower, a graveyard, a 1697 brick powder magazine, and the ruins of an eighteenth century plantation house. At the beginning of the Civil War, Confederate troops built an earthwork fort near the church, and in 1862 the island was occupied by Union forces. As the James River claimed more and more of the site, including the magazine, the 1607 fort appeared to be lost forever.

Following the acquisition of 22.5 acres of the island by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) in 1893, excavations near the church began to rescue Jamestown’s remains from oblivion. A protective seawall was also built by the state and national governments in 1901.

To celebrate Jamestown’s three hundredth anniversary in 1907, a memorial church was constructed on the 1639 foundations, and bronze statues of Smith and Pocahontas were commissioned. After 1934, when the National Park Service acquired the remainder of Jamestown Island, excavations continued through the 1950’s around the five-acre site of the town. The theory that James Fort had washed into the river was disproved in 1994, after the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, mounted by the APVA, found numerous artifacts and evidence of the triangular structure.

Areas of Interest

Exhibition galleries, maintained by the National Park Service, and a brief video presentation illustrate Jamestown’s early existence. There is a also six-mile loop trail which includes a reconstructed glasshouse where craftsmen re-create Jamestown’s first industry. Continuing work on the 1607 fort site provides visitors with a unique archaeological experience.

In 1957 the state of Virginia constructed the Jamestown Festival Park four miles from the original settlement; it houses exhibition galleries, the reconstructed fort, an Indian village similar to Powhatan’s, and reproductions of the three ships that brought the first settlers to Virginia. Various public events are held at this site.

For Further Information

  • Gleach, Frederic W. Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Describes the interaction of Powhatan’s tribes and the early colonists from a Native American perspective.
  • Hume, Ivor Noel. The Virginia Adventure. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. A fascinating account which includes information about Tudor England and Roanoke island, as well as Jamestown.
  • Kelso, William M. Jamestown Rediscovery I: Search for 1607 James Fort. Jamestown: Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, 1995. Details the rediscovery and excavations of the James Fort, including more than thirty color photographs of items found on-site.
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. “The Founding Years of Virginia–and the United States.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 104, no. 1 (Winter, 1996): 103-112.
  • Lindgren, James M. Preserving the Old Dominion: Historic Preservation and Virginia Traditionalism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. Describes efforts of preservationists to save historic structures and also maintain traditional values. Focuses on the APVA, America’s first state preservation organization.
  • Molineux, Will. “Jamestown Rediscovered.” Colonial Williamsburg: Journal of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, December, 1999/January, 2000, 38-43. Discusses the progress of the Jamestown Rediscovery team.
  • Vaughan, Alden. American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975. Includes Smith’s achievements before and after his Jamestown adventures.