On April 10, 1606, the Virginia Company of London received a royal charter to settle two large, slightly overlapping areas along the eastern coast of North America. Run by a thirteen-member, royally appointed council, the company was funded by a number of well-placed private investors. Among them was Sir Thomas Smythe, a wealthy backer of the East India Company and a former ambassador to Russia who, despite having run afoul of Elizabeth, had been knighted by James. His cousin by marriage, Bartholomew Gosnold, had explored New England in 1602, while Gosnold's cousin, Edward Maria Wingfield, had served in Ireland and the Netherlands. John Smith came from more modest means, but his larger-than-life career fighting in northern France, in the Netherlands, and in Hungary against the Turks recommended him, even at the age of twenty-seven, for adventure in Virginia.
Powhatan, meanwhile, presented a dilemma for these new English settlers. As mamanatowick, or paramount chief, he held more power and influence over the village-based Indians of Tsenacomoco than any single weroance, or chief, had among the Indians around Roanoke. Both groups were Algonquian-speakers with similar religions, politics, and—in the nearby Iroquoian- and Siouian-speakers—enemies. But Powhatan's paramount chiefdom of twenty-eight to thirty-two groups, centered around the James, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey (York) rivers, could more quickly and easily mobilize against the Jamestown colonists. And Powhatan did not appear to trust the tassantassas. Some historians believe that shortly after the English landed in 1607, he ordered killed the last survivors of John White's "Lost Colony," men, women, and children who possibly had, in the twenty years since their disappearance, assimilated among the Algonquian-speaking Indians.
On December 20, 1606, three ships and 104 settlers set sail from London. The experienced privateer Christopher Newport captained the flagship Susan Constant, Gosnold the Godspeed, and John Ratcliffe the Discovery. A combustible and belligerent bunch by any standard, these original colonists included a proportion of gentlemen six times higher than could be found in England, many of them soldiers by occupation, all of them accustomed to leading, not following. While still at sea, they pounced on the yeoman's son John Smith and accused him of plotting to "usurpe the governement, murder the Councell, and make himselfe kinge." The next month, when the fleet reached the West Indies, Newport built a gallows and only spared Smith after Gosnold's intercession.
The ships dropped anchor at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on April 26, 1607, and twenty to thirty men spent the day ashore before, at dusk, being attacked by Indians. Captain Gabriel Archer, an old comrade of Gosnold's, was wounded twice and might have hoped to be rewarded with a leadership position in the colony. Remarkably, the Virginia Company had not yet informed the men who would sit on the Council, the seven-man body charged with carrying out the company's orders in Virginia. Instead, that night Newport opened a sealed box containing the relevant names; to his horror, in addition to himself, Gosnold, Ratcliffe, Wingfield, Captain George Kendall, and Captain John Martin, the Council included Smith. Still in shackles, the prickly Lincolnshire native was not allowed to take his seat until the following June. In the meantime, the Council elected Wingfield president; on all matters he had two votes, but otherwise no significant power. As for Archer and George Percy—another high-ranking colonist denied a council seat—they resorted to grumbling about the council's decisions.
The colonists planted a cross at Cape Henry, and on May 13 they situated their camp on a marshy jut of land fifty miles up the James River. They called it Jamestown. Although the Indians did not find the spot particularly habitable, it satisfied the Englishmen's instructions by allowing them easy access to the shore and a good defensive position in case of Spanish attack. The historian J. Frederick Fausz has argued that because the land was not being used and so did not immediately threaten any of Powhatan's people, the location was accidentally brilliant: "the only site along the James and York rivers where they had any prospect of surviving more than a few days." By June 15, having explored the river up to the falls, having made contact with the Kecoughtans, the Paspaheghs, and the Quiyoughcohannocks, and having fought off a furious assault by the same (and others), the settlers finished their fort.
A week later, Newport sailed back to England full of wishful stories of gold mines. Only then did the men begin to die: "of the bloudie Flixe," according to Percy, "of the swelling," "of a wound given by the Savages," or, in one instance, just "suddenly." Gosnold died on August 22, and by the end of September, half of the other colonists had followed him, probably victims of polluted drinking water. In the shadow of all this, Ratcliffe, Smith, and Martin accused Wingfield of hoarding food, and replaced him with Ratcliffe. Wingfield accused Smith of planning to steal a ship and strike out for Newfoundland. And a blacksmith sentenced to hang for striking Ratcliffe confessed his knowledge of a plot to rebel by Captain Kendall. The blacksmith lived, while Kendall, who many historians suspect was a Spanish spy, was executed.
In Powhatan's presence Smith had insisted on his allegiance to King James, but it hardly mattered to the surviving thirty-eight men back at the fort. The Council, now including Archer, accused Smith of causing his companions' deaths and, citing the book of Leviticus, sentenced him to hang the next day. All that saved him this time was the arrival of Newport and the first resupply: 100 to 120 additional settlers and a store of provisions. Five days later, a bit of spark turned into a fire and Jamestown burned to the ground. While others cleaned up, Smith and Newport met with Powhatan, presenting him with a hat and a greyhound, and exchanging young men—Thomas Savage for Namontack—who would learn the other's customs and language in order to serve later as interpreters. Newport took the Indian to England with him in April.
In September, with his competitors largely dead or gone, Smith was finally elected president. After arriving with the second resupply in the fall—more than twenty-five additional gentlemen, plus assorted laborers and craftsmen, and even two women—Newport scolded Smith for dealing too harshly with the Indians. Company policy emphasized the gentle hand, but in September, in an attempt to symbolically submit the chief to King James's rule, the two awkwardly crowned Powhatan at his capital Werowocomoco. The mamanatowick's dignity was offended and relations, already shaky, only worsened.
At about the same time, the company issued its Crown-appointed governor, Sir Thomas Gates, confidential instructions on Virginia's priorities. The instructions still emphasized discovering gold, silver, and a passage to the Pacific as the primary purpose of the colony, but also included finding other natural resources; extracting tribute from the Indians; manufacturing various items for sale, such as wine, tar, iron, steel, hemp, and silk; and converting the native people to Christianity. Powhatan should be captured if at all possible and the capital city should be moved farther inland, away from disease-ridden Jamestown to the falls of the James, perhaps, and out of reach of the Spanish, who the English feared wanted to destroy the colony—rightly, as these letters between Spanish officials, from 1607–1608 and 1609–1610, suggest.
During the previous summer, sickness had arrived anew to Jamestown. It was the product of malnutrition caused by hunger and poor conditions that, in turn, had bred lower resistance to various diseases, including those brought by the colonists themselves. In an effort to lighten the burden on Jamestown, Smith sent two groups of men to live off the land and, by extension, off the Indians. To the north, he sent a rival, Francis West, to occupy the town of Powhatan at the falls of the James River. After fighting there cost West about half his men, George Percy claimed the whole affair amounted to a conspiracy to have West killed. To the south, meanwhile, Smith sent Percy and John Martin, who ended up battling the Nansemond Indians and also lost about half their men. The Indians, they discovered, suffered during the drought like anybody else and had no interest in relinquishing their precious food supplies. Nansemond warriors even stuffed bread in the mouths of some English dead "in Contempte and skorne," according to Percy.
The Virginia Company published A True and Sincere Declaration that tried to make the best of a real mess, but when Gates arrived in May 1610, he soon decided the colony must be abandoned. In fact, having packed everyone aboard ship, he was sailing down the James en route to Newfoundland when by chance he encountered the new company-appointed governor, Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, who was entering the James River with supplies and reinforcements.
A few months short of a year after he arrived, De La Warr left Virginia because of illness. A third of the colony's population was dead, mostly from disease. Miners, brought to Virginia to search for gold, silver, and copper, had planned a mutiny and seen their ringleader hanged. The governor's nephew, Captain William West, had been killed in battle, while the Paspahegh weroance Wowinchopunck, fell, like his wife and children, at the hands of Percy's soldiers.
Arrival of Sir Thomas Dale
The arrival of Sir Thomas Dale on May 19, 1611, marked a turning point in the history of Jamestown. Already in England the colony's fortunes were rebounding thanks to a public struck by the miraculous survival of the Sea Venture. Perhaps the Reverend Symonds had been correct all along: rather than God's curse, Virginia was God's calling. In Dale, who served as acting governor in the absence of De La Warr and Gates, the colony found a leader with the stubborn ruthlessness to make it work. (Smith, undoubtedly, shared that quality, having once declared that "he that will not worke shall not eate," but the Virginia Company would not allow him to return.) On Dale's first day, the colonist Ralph Hamor later wrote, the governor "hastened" to Jamestown only to find his charges at "their daily and usuall works, bowling in the streetes." Archaeologists such as William M. Kelso and historians such as Karen Ordahl Kupperman have countered frequent charges that the colonists were lazy with the observation, in Kupperman's words, that malnutrition and disease "interacted with the psychological effects of isolation and despair and each intensified the other"—producing behavior that could be mistaken for idleness.
In June Dale's men faced down a Spanish reconnaissance ship at Point Comfort at the mouth of the James. They managed even to capture three of its men, including the commander, Don Diego de Molina, and a turncoat Englishman, Francis Lembry, who in 1588 had piloted a ship in the Spanish Armada. The Spanish seized one of Dale's men, John Clark—he later served as master's mate on the Mayflower—increasing the fear that Spain might return in force and finish off a colony that seemed perpetually to be on the verge of the abyss. But the Spanish never came, and in August Sir Thomas Gates did, along with 300 new colonists who boosted the population to about 750. In September, Dale and Edward Brewster led an expedition to the falls of the James where they managed, finally, to found a settlement outside of the by-now cramped Jamestown. They called it the City of Henrico, or Henricus, in honor of Dale's patron and the king's heir, Henry, Prince of Wales. In December, Henrico became the launching point for an attack on the nearby Appamattucks, whose defeat allowed for the founding of another settlement, Bermuda Hundred.
A Permanent Foothold
Tobacco provided a staple crop fed by an abundance of land and labor, the latter in the form of indentured servants and, eventually, African slaves. Despite the growth of the tobacco trade, though, the organization of the Virginia Company prevented settlers from having a personal stake in the colony's success. The so-called Great Charter of 1618 changed that, creating the headright system, which awarded 50 acres of land for each person who paid his or her own way or any other person's passage into Virginia. In addition, the General Assembly was established in 1619, with elected burgesses sitting in its lower house and members of the governor's Council in the upper. The Virginia Company treasurer Sir Edwin Sandys saw the assembly as a way of building personal and political investment in the colony, while also, perhaps, muting growing criticism of the Virginia Company at home. But this diffusion of power and influence into the greater James River Valley had another effect: it diminished the primacy of Jamestown. It would remain the often-bustling capital of Virginia until 1698, but its influence was already on the wane.
December 20, 1606 - Three ships carrying 104 settlers sail from London bound for Virginia. Christopher Newport captains the Susan Constant, Bartholomew Gosnold the Godspeed, and John Ratcliffe the Discovery.
December 1607 - Late in the month, John Smith is brought before Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco. He later tells of his life being saved by Pocahontas; in fact, Powhatan likely puts Smith through a mock execution in order to adopt him as a weroance, or chief.
December 1608 - Christopher Newport returns to England from Jamestown accompanied by the Indian Machumps. John Smith, meanwhile, attempts to trade for food with Indians from the Nansemonds to the Appamattucks, but on Powhatan's orders they refuse.
Mid-December 1609 - The Virginia Company of London publishes A True and Sincere Declaration defending its colony in the wake of the apparent loss of the Sea Venture and reasserting the company's desire to maintain the settlement.
August 10, 1610 - At night, George Percy attacks a Paspahegh town, killing fifteen to sixteen, burning houses, and taking corn. The wife and two children of the weroance, Wowinchopunck, are captured and executed.
December 1611 - Sir Thomas Dale and his forces attack the Appamattuck towns near the City of Henrico on the James River and later found on the Indians' land the settlement known as Bermuda Hundred.
March 12, 1612 - King James I grants the Virginia Company of London a third charter, which extends the colony's boundaries to Bermuda, grants more power to common investors, and institutes a public lottery to attract investment.
April 1613 - Samuel Argall uses his extensive knowledge of the Potomac River–northern Chesapeake area and its Indian population to kidnap Pocahontas while she is with the Patawomeck—an event that ultimately helps to bring the devastating First Anglo-Powhatan War to a conclusion in 1614.
April 5, 1614 - On or about this day, Pocahontas and John Rolfe marry in a ceremony performed by Richard Bucke and assented to by Sir Thomas Dale and Powhatan, who sends one of her uncles to witness the ceremony. Powhatan also rescinds a standing order to attack the English wherever and whenever possible, ending the First Anglo-Powhatan War.
1619 - At the first meeting of the General Assembly in Jamestown, the members agree to assess each person in the colony a tax of one pound of tobacco to compensate the legislature's speaker, clerk, and sergeant at arms.
May 24, 1624 - Following a yearlong investigation into mismanagement headed by Sir Richard Jones, justice of the Court of Common Pleas, the Crown revokes the Virginia Company of London's charter and assumes direct control of the Virginia colony.
1662 - The Crown revokes Jamestown's privilege as the mandatory port of entry, helping to transfer the colony's economic, and therefore political, power westward.
1699 - Williamsburg is designated capital of the English colony.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B. Early Jamestown Settlement. (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Jamestown_Settlement_Early.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Early Jamestown Settlement." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 11, 2011 | Last modified: May 30, 2014
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.