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Jamestown- America's Beginnings

Updated on July 24, 2014

Sir Walter Raleigh's attempts to establish the first English colony in the New World were historically unsuccessful. Regardless, the lessons learned by the English through his failures at Roanoke would serve to insure the monarchy's future realization of Raleigh's dream. Failure is often necessary in order to experience success.

Raleigh believed that his colonial ventures would supply him with a source of immense financial gain. Instead, he lost every penny of his investment. He also learned that the location they'd chosen for settlement, although relatively warm, was not conducive to supply the bounty of crops its inhabitants would require.

Another drawback was Roanoke's geographical location. The island lacked any type of protective harbor, was surrounded by shallow coastal waters, and the shifting of the tides was a constant threat to the ships, running them aground.

Sir Walter Raleigh always knew that colonization of the Americas would be profitable, but his planning was never quite precise enough to bring his own attempts to fruition. A successful colony would require more settlers, a larger source of funds, an adequate supply of necessary provisions, and the perfect location. In 1607, a number of these requirements were met in the founding of England's first permanent colony, Jamestown.

The Virginia Company

Queen Elizabeth's death in 1503 brought many changes to England; her successor and cousin, King James of Scotland, made peace with Spain. English privateers, who'd long raided Spanish ships no longer had license to do so. With the country at peace, the monarchy looked toward the New World. Unlike Spain, the English monarchy had no money to finance colonization, and after witnessing Raleigh's independent losses, no other individual was prepared to take that kind of gamble with their own. Thus, the birth of England's first joint stock companies. Backed by investors and chartered by King James I, the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth were born.

The Virginia Company's investors had been hearing stories about Spain's discoveries of gold in both Mexico and Peru for years. They believed that if such riches existed in the areas of the New World colonized by Spain, they were certain to find them elsewhere. Initial proposals chose Virginia as their destination, followed by a short exploration of the area in order to find the perfect location for the construction of a small fortress that would later be replaced by a much larger settlement.

The Virginia Company of London sent its first expedition to Chesapeake Bay in 1607. Their charter had granted them rights to settle in the southern part of England's claimed territory. More than 100 colonists, all men and boys, and all of them volunteers, joined that expedition. Here is their story.

With their charter granted, the Virginia Company's directors went to work. Decisions were made, plans were put in place, and various options were weighed. The investors had no desire to repeat England's previous failures in establishing a permanent settlement, and members of the company were sure that if they did it right, it would only be a matter of time before thousands of English citizens would migrate to the New World.

Part of the Virginia Company's plan was to map the region, and like so many preceding expeditions, to find a route to the Pacific Ocean; the elusive Northwest Passage. Mistakenly, the Virginia Company's directors believed that the New World was no more than a narrow strip of land separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific. Their assumptions were wrong.

150 men volunteered to man the Virginia Company's first expedition. Bricklayers, stone masons, carpenters, and soldiers signed on for the journey. But the ships' rosters also included the names of various members of England's wealthiest families. The Virginia Company would soon find out that the money these men had to invest would in no way make up for their laziness or lack of experience. Physical labor and the ability to deal with harsh conditions were something they were unaccustomed to. Yes, their money was useful, but the men themselves? They were useless.

Susan Constant, Discovery, and Godspeed
Susan Constant, Discovery, and Godspeed | Source

John Smith and the Journey to America

On January 1, 1607, three ships set sail down the Thames River; the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. Once on board and out to sea, the future settlers found the weather less than agreeable, storms slowed the ships down considerably. Many of the men became sick, and before land would ever be sighted 45 of the 150 travelers would be dead.

Aboard the Susan Constant was a man named John Smith. Born January 2, 1579, Smith was a native of Lincolnshire, England. His parents, George and Alice were tenant farmers, but don't let that fool you. The family may not have been members of the aristocracy, but careful planning had allowed George to amass an enormous amount of wealth with his agricultural endeavors. His family enjoyed a much higher standard of living than you would expect of a family of commoners.

Smith had long been an adventurer. Having left home after his father's death in 1596, at the young age of 16, Smith traveled to France where he squandered the family fortune. Ashamed of his actions and embarrassed to return to his family home in Sendall, he eventually volunteered in the French army and later hired himself out as a professional soldier. After a few years he returned to England, but his visit was short lived as boredom set in. A soldier's life was filled with travel, adventure, and excitement. It called to him, and he answered its call.

As a soldier, Smith was brilliant. He taught himself swordsmanship and hand-to-hand combat. He was also adept at creating bombs from everyday items. All he needed was tar, a dusting of gunpowder, and the ever accessible clay pot.

His days as a mercenary satisfied his wanderlust, taking him from France to the Netherlands, and finally to southeastern Europe, the edge of the Ottoman Empire. While fighting for the Hungarians, Smith began writing a journal. Whether or not his original writings survived an ambush by the Turks in the Transylvanian Alps is uncertain. Captured by the Turks, he was sold into slavery where he would spend several years bound by an iron neck piece, regularly beaten, and starved almost to the point of death.

It is hard to believe that after such treatment he was able to muster the strength it would take to one day murder his Turkish owner and escape on horseback into Russia. Necessity can give you the power to accomplish most anything. John Smith would use that same sense of urgency and necessity to one day take control of the Jamestown colony.

Smith's interest in the New World was sparked by none other than the great Sir Walter Raleigh himself. With no work to be found as a mercenary, he returned to London to find the city abuzz with tales of the New World, but Smith had tales of his own to tell. And while making his rounds through London's taverns he did just that.

The stories he told soon made their way to Tower of London, where Raleigh was being held on suspicion of treason. The two men held their first meeting in Raleigh's prison cell, trading their stories and dreams of future adventures. Smith, intrigued by what he'd heard, couldn't resist when he found out that the Virginia Company sought investors. Not only did the Virginia Company get Smith's money, they got Smith as well.

While the London investors busied themselves with the purchase of ships and the hiring of captains, they trusted John Smith with the responsibility of ordering and stocking supplies. Smith had assumed the role of buyer on his own. His experiences as a mercenary had left him determined to leave England prepared for things to come. Once again, the family fortune was on the line.

Smith traveled on the Susan Constant, sharing a cabin with Gabriel Archer. Archer was also a soldier and soon to become an enemy. The voyage to North America was long and tedious for other reasons as well. Over the course of their months at sea, Smith, well known to be an arrogant braggart, alienated the expedition's captains on a regular basis. He considered them both ignorant and inept. He had no respect for decorum, and he certainly didn't bow down to authority.

One of the voyage's major problems was caused by a consistent battle for power amongst the ship's travelers. Designation of power or the lack of the designation of power could have become the expeditions undoing. The Virginia Company had made the grave mistake of failing to establish leadership before the ships set sail. Instead, they had drafted a charter for the new colony's governing body, and then locked it in a box with instructions that the box not be unlocked until the ships dropped anchor in Virginia. This mistake left the future colony's inhabitants to indulge in petty arguments that couldn't be solved. The anger festered and the men turned on each other. What was an inarguably difficult journey had been made even more difficult

Smith indisputably made himself heard in each of the ensuing debates. He in fact, so tested the combined authority of the men he sailed with that he was sentenced to hang upon the expedition's arrival in the New World. Smith's death sentence progressed as far as the special gallows erected for his execution on the Caribbean Island of Nevis. That hanging never took place, partly because Smith was so well armed, and inarguably because one of expedition's leaders was smart enough to realize his value. Captain Newport, a career privateer, stopped the hanging because he knew they'd need every able bodied fighting man they had once they arrived in Virginia. Smith was a seasoned soldier; he was valuable, and he would soon prove Captain Newport correct.

April 26, 1607 found three small English ships sailing out of the early morning mist of modern day Cape Henry and cruising their way into the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Scouts had spent more than two weeks exploring the area, and after much deliberation a site had been chosen for settlement. The possibility of being discovered by marauding Spanish warships had led the scouts to choose a location sixty miles inland along the James River. It was there that the colony of Jamestown was born.

Map of the Viriginia Colony. Created by John Smith in 1612, with color added by Henricus Hondias in 1639
Map of the Viriginia Colony. Created by John Smith in 1612, with color added by Henricus Hondias in 1639 | Source
Chief Powhatan in a longhouse at Werowocomoco.
Chief Powhatan in a longhouse at Werowocomoco. | Source

Jamestown, John Smith, and Powhatan

Jamestown's early history was far from promising. The colony's leadership was inconsistent; its death rate was high, and its settlers were far more interested in self profit than establishing a permanent home. These men had traveled far, and they also had a financial stake in what would be their own futures; farmers, laborers, craftsmen, jewelers, and members of the English gentry had set out to make their fortunes. Each of these men had something to contribute to the group as a whole, but none of them wished for anything more than to prospect for gold.

Desire for immediate riches combined with failure to think about the immediate future may have been the cause of many of their deaths, malaria and other diseases notwithstanding. John Smith, disgusted by their work ethic once declared that things would need to change, but that wasn't where he left his opinions. Fortunately for the colonists, Smith believed in more than mere talk; he believed in action.

Jamestown had need of a leader, and John Smith was the man for the job. His role in the colony had been one of protection, but he was also courageous, experienced, and levelheaded. Freedom of movement ended with Smith's control, his military background influencing both the ends and the means of his actions. Smith's well known quote, "The greater part must be more industrious or starve. He that will not work shall not eat," was the beginning of a period of forced labor, during which colonists built houses and planted crops. They hated his autocratic form of governing and resented his interference, but it was Smith's iron fist that kept them alive.

The area in which Jamestown was constructed was also inhabited by small groups of Native American agricultural villages. The Indians, who are said to have numbered between fifteen and twenty-five thousand, were ruled by the shrewd and forceful leader Wahunsonacock, whom the settlers named Powhatan.

Soon after choosing Jamestown as their location for settlement, Captain Newport took command of the shallop (a small boat constructed by the colonists), and accompanied by John Smith led a scouting party another 70 miles up the James River. Smith took this opportunity and used it to his advantage, easily making friends with the local natives and while doing so picking up bits and pieces of the native languages spoken by the groups they encountered. During those first few months Smith was the only member of the colony able to effectively communicate with the Native Americans.

It is believed that Smith first met the Native American leader Powhatan on this first journey up the river. The tiny expedition had supplied themselves with items for trade, and upon meeting the great chief gave him a number of presents to confirm their good intentions and ingratiate themselves with the people Powhatan ruled. Powhatan, in turn, is believed to have assisted Smith in drawing what would be one of the first maps of Virginia.

John Smith described the Native American leader as "a tall, well proportioned man, with a sower look, his head somewhat gray, his beard so thinne, that it seemeth none at all, his age neare sixtie, of a very able and hardy body to endure an labour."

1870's lithograph of Pocahontas' alleged intervention between Smith and her father.
1870's lithograph of Pocahontas' alleged intervention between Smith and her father.

Rising Tension

Over the course of their first summer in Jamestown, Smith would continue to make many journeys up the James River in order to scout the wilderness, draw maps, and pursue amiable relationships with the neighboring tribes. He traded both axes and cooking pots for much needed food, and accepted Native American lessons in the process of drying animal skins for use as clothing. This lesson would have been deeply appreciated during the onset of winter, as these shirts, trousers, and coats were far warmer than anyone in the colony already possessed.

Eventually, the peace between the colonists and Native Americans became strained as both groups strove for dominance. Powhatan believed that he could bring the colonists under his control, that their settlement could be incorporated into his own realm. Smith, on the other hand, believed that he could manage the Native American leader with bullying and threats. Both men were wrong.

Although each group had begun their relationship desiring peace, their hopes would not survive. On December 29, 1607, Smith and Powhatan engaged in the visit from which legends were made.

Smith and a group of men had been scouring the wilderness for food; the colony was starving. The party, traveling by barge found themselves blocked by branches that overhung the river. Unable to continue by barge, Smith and a few of his men decided to go on in a canoe and were ambushed by Native American bowman; two of Smith's men were killed. It is said that Smith used his Native American guide as a shield and escaped, only to fall into a bog where he was later captured by the Powhatan tribesmen.

Paraded through the villages by his captors, Smith was delivered to Powhatan by the dancing warriors who'd taken him prisoner. The Chief, leery of the colonists, their presence, and their expanding settlement, condemned Smith to death by clubbing. Legend tells us that at the last minute Pocahontas threw herself over Smith's body and stopped the execution, that her act was seen by her father as an omen, that because of his daughter's intervention he declared Smith a brother. Tale or truth? Even Smith fails to unveil the answer to that question.

Pocahontas was surely present during the meeting between her father and John Smith, but the details of their relationship are far from concrete. There have been many tales told about these two historic figures, and there are many to consider, but even John Smith's memoirs fail to be consistent. This, their story or stories, if you will; will have to wait for another day.

What is known is that Smith and Powhatan's tenuous relationship eventually embarked on a collision course of misunderstandings and lost opportunities. Each faction, the colonists and the Native Americans were equally accountable for their actions.

Jamestown
Jamestown

Jamestown; the dreams, the hardships, and the reality...

On January 3, 1608, Virginia Company supply boats arrived at the fort accompanied by 100 new colonists. Four days later a fire destroyed a large portion of the settlement.

The new arrivals, expecting an easier life, were shocked that the settlement's existing supplies had been rationed. The supply ship's captain, spent 14 weeks searching for gold and feeding his crew with the stores intended for the colony. The settlers were relieved when the ships sailed home for England, and were also dismayed by the ship captain's refusal to unload supplies until he'd put aside enough food and water to get his crew home with full stomachs. Things were worse than ever.

As if the fire wasn't bad enough, the new settlers had unknowingly brought company with them to the New World. Rats had disembarked the ship alongside their human counterparts, and their numbers increased so rapidly that they'd soon infested and eaten their way through half of the corn in the storage house. Shortly after, Smith was forced to send a third of the colonists down river to subsist on the abundant oysters found in the riverbeds downstream.

In September of 1608, Smith was officially elected the colony's leader. At the young age of 28, Smith became British America's chief executive, military commander, and political leader. He had finally found a niche where name, title, and patronage weren't required for personal advancement, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Smith, though known for his wit and bravery, ruled with a will of iron.

A realist, Smith wasted no time in advising the Virginia Company's investors that the area was not only barren of the gold they hoped for, but that the James River was not going to supply them with the short cut to China they'd been seeking.

Drought took over the land, and the natives refused to trade for food. Horses, dogs, cats, and rats became dinner; settlers wandered through the woods in search of edible roots and snakes when they had no other options.

The settlers who wandered away seldom returned; the settlers who remained were left to bury the dead. Colonists desperate enough to steal from the Algonquians were found murdered, bread stuffed in their mouths, a warning. But what difference does it make how you die when death becomes inevitable.

There are rumors that settlers were driven crazy, that in their insanity they turned to cannibalism. A man was convicted of the murder of his wife; he had chopped her up into bits and pieces, salted her, and then feasted on the majority of her remains before being caught. He was quickly tried, convicted, and burned alive.

Although the colony endured many hardships, the settlers who continued to arrive on the Atlantic shore eventually made Jamestown their permanent home. As the colonists fulfilled their obligations to the Virginia Company for repayment of their passage, more and more of the settlers began to build homesteads and turn to farming.

By the 1620's the people of Jamestown had replaced what had originally been a rudimentary fort with a thriving market town. Settlements were now surrounded by fences, houses boasted enclosed yards to keep their livestock from wandering away, forts were fortified, and storehouses were well provisioned.

The colonists had passed their own laws and held their own elected Parliament; tobacco became the colony's main crop; ships of women arrived to combat the shortage of wives and to establish families (a wife would cost you 150 pounds of tobacco). King James I wasn't necessarily happy with Jamestown's budding independence, but citizens moved forward nonetheless.

English colonization in America had long been a dream, and of the 7,289 colonists who'd set sail for Jamestown in its first 18 years, 6,040 had died. Many lives had been lost to realize success, to realize the dreams of adventurers and explorers. Dreams do come true, never doubt it.

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