Jamestown – First Successful English Settlement

Colonists Landing At Jamestown

On May 13, 1607, the Jamestown colonists came ashore of what would become the first permanent English settlement in North America. Painting by Sidney E. King, courtesy Colonial National Historical Park

Historic Jamestown is the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America and represents the very foundations of whom and what we are as a people and a nation. Although there were other European settlements in America before Jamestown, our language, the majority of our customs and our laws come from our English ancestry. Jamestown is the beginning of America.

Long before the English or any of Europeans arrived, Native Americans occupied the continent for many thousands of years and archeological evidence indicates that they utilized the Jamestown region for over 10,000 years. England was a latecomer to the American scene as far as exploration. North America had been explored as early as the 10th century by the Vikings, followed by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and numerous others.

The first attempt at settlement by the English was the fabled lost colony of Roanoke in 1587. Twenty years later, in 1607, through a joint venture company known as the Virginia Company, England would establish her first permanent colony called Jamestown.

It all began on December 6, 1606, when three ships: the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery left England bound for America. In early 1607, 104 English men and boys arrived in North America and began to search for a place to start a settlement. On May 13, 1607, they chose Jamestown, Virginia, which was named after their King, James I. The settlement became the first permanent English settlement in North America.

Jamestown, Virginia

Jamestown, Virginia

The site for Jamestown was picked for several reasons, all of which met criteria that the Virginia Company, who funded the settlement, said to follow. The site was surrounded by water on three sides (it was not fully an island yet) and was far inland; both of which meant it was easily defensible against possible Spanish attacks. The water was also deep enough that the English could tie their ships at the shoreline, and at the time, the site was not inhabited by Native Americans.

Once the spot was chosen, the instructions sent by the Virginia Company, which included a list of the council members chosen by the company, was read. The names had been kept in sealed boxes on the ships, not to be read until a site was chosen. The first President of the new Virginia colony was to be Captain Edward Maria Winfield and the other six council members included Bartholomew Gosnold, Christopher Newport, John Martin, John Ratcliffe, George Kendall, and Captain John Smith.

By June 15th a fort was completed. It was triangle shaped with a bulwark at each corner, holding four or five pieces of artillery. The settlers were now protected against any attacks that might occur from the local Powhatan Indians, whose hunting land they were living on. Prior to the Jamestown immigrants’ arrival, relations had already been mixed between the newcomers and the Powhatan Indians. On June 22nd, Captain Christopher Newport left for England to get more supplies for the new settlement.

Jamestown fort

The triangular fort at the Jamestown colony.

When the new settlers first arrived, they had been greeted by friendly Indians who had provided them with lavish feasts and supplies of maize. However, as the English, lacking the inclination to grow their own food, became hungry, they began to strong-arm the natives for more and more supplies. This immediately caused relations to deteriorate and eventually led to conflict.

Not long after the Captain had sailed, the settlers began to succumb to a variety of diseases. They were drinking water from the salty or slimy river, which caused the death of many. The death toll was high with the men dying from swellings, malaria, fever, famine, and sometimes, in altercations with the Indians. Food was running low, even though Chief Powhatan had started to send gifts of food to help the English. If not for the Powhatan Indians help in the early years, the settlement would most likely have failed.

Jamestown, Virginia Indians

Jamestown, Virginia Indians

By late 1609, the relationship between the Powhatan Indians and the English had soured as the English were demanding too much food during a drought. The winter of 1609-10 became known as the “Starving Time” and the English had become afraid to leave the fort, fearful they would be killed by Indians. As a result, they ate anything they could including various animals, leather from their shoes and belts, and even resorting to cannibalism after their fellow settlers died. By early 1610 most of the Jamestown immigrants, estimated at 80-90%, had died due to starvation and disease.

In May 1610, shipwrecked settlers who had been stranded in Bermuda finally arrived at Jamestown. Part of a fleet sent the previous fall, the survivors used two boats built on Bermuda to get to Jamestown. Sir Thomas Gates, the newly named governor, found Jamestown in shambles with the palisades of the fort torn down, gates off their hinges, and food stores almost non-existent. The decision was made to abandon the settlement. Less than a day after leaving, however, Gates and the Jamestown survivors were met by news of an incoming fleet. The fleet was bringing their new governor, Lord Delaware, and the men returned to Jamestown.

John Rolfe

John Rolfe

In 1612, John Rolfe, one of many shipwrecked on Bermuda, helped turn the settlement into a profitable venture. He introduced a new strain of tobacco from seeds that he brought and tobacco became the long-awaited cash crop for the Virginia Company, who wanted to make money off their investment in Jamestown.

On July 30, 1619, newly appointed Governor Yeardley called for the first representative legislative assembly. This was the beginning of representative government in what would become the United States of America. In that same year, the first documented Africans were brought to Virginia on a privateer Dutch ship. Some 20 Africans were traded by the Dutch for food stores from the English. These slaves provided the needed human resources for the labor-intensive tobacco.

Also in 1619, the Virginia Company recruited and shipped over about 90 women to become wives of the English immigrants so that families could be started. Though more than a hundred women had arrived in prior years, it was not until 1619, that establishing families became a primary focus of the colony.

Pocahontas marries John Rolfe,by Joseph Hoover, 1867

Pocahontas marries John Rolfe, by Joseph Hoover, 1867. Click for prints, downloads and products.

Peace between the Indians and Pocahontas and John Rolfe ended in 1622. In March of that year, the paramount chief, Opechancanough, planned a coordinated attack against the English settlements. He was tired of the English encroachment on Powhatan lands. Jamestown escaped being attacked, due to a warning from a Powhatan boy living with the English; however, some 350-400 of the 1,200 area settlers were killed. After the attack, the Powhatan Indians withdrew, as was their way, and waited for the English to learn their lesson or pack up and leave. Once the English regrouped they retaliated and there was fighting between the two peoples for the next decade until a tenuous peace was reached in 1632.

On May 24, 1624, the Virginia Company’s charter was revoked by King James I due to overwhelming financial problems and politics, and Virginia became a royal colony, which it remained until the Revolutionary War. This shift in control did not change the English policy towards the Indians. Despite peace being declared in 1632, English encroachments on Powhatan lands continued undiminished as more settlers arrived.

In April 1644, Chief Opechancanough planned another coordinated attack, which resulted in the deaths of another 350-400 of the 8,000 area settlers. The attack ended when Opechancanough was captured in 1646, taken to Jamestown, and shot in the back by a guard – against orders – and killed. His successor would later sign the first treaties with the English, which made the Powhatan Indians subjects of the English.

Bacon's Rebellion

Bacon’s Rebellion

Bacon’s Rebellion, in 1676, saw more struggles in Jamestown. The settlers were unhappy about their tobacco being sold only to English merchants due to the Navigation Acts, high taxes, and attacks on outlying plantations by American Indians. As a result, Nathaniel Bacon recruited about 1,000 settlers to join him to take care of the “Indian Problem.” Bacon forced Governor Berkeley to give him an official commission to attack the American Indians who were responsible for the attacks on the outlying plantations. However, Bacon and his followers did not differentiate between those tribes responsible for the attacks and those who were loyal to the English. As a result, Governor Berkeley declared Bacon a rebel and civil war erupted in the colony. In September, Bacon and his followers set fire to Jamestown, destroying 16 to 18 houses, the church, and the statehouse. Not long after, in October, the Rebellion began its end with the death of Nathaniel Bacon. Eventually, many of the rebels were captured and 23 were hanged by Governor Berkeley.

After Bacon’s Rebellion, another treaty was signed between the English and the Virginians. More tribes were part of this treaty than the one of 1646. The treaty set up more reservation lands and reinforced a yearly tribute payment of fish and game that the tribes had to make to the English.

In 1698, fire struck Jamestown again when a blaze was started by a prisoner awaiting execution in the nearby prison. The fire destroyed the prison and the statehouse, though many of the public records were saved. In 1699, the government and capital were moved from Jamestown to Middle Plantation, which was renamed Williamsburg in honor of the reigning monarch, King William III. A new Capitol building and “Governor’s Palace” were erected there in the following years.

Jamestown, Virginia Today

Jamestown, Virginia Today

Due to the movement of the capital to Williamsburg, the old town of Jamestown began to slowly disappear, though farmers continued to live on the island. Those who lived in the general area attended services at Jamestown’s church until the 1750s, when it, too, was abandoned.

Today, Jamestown Island is a National Historic site, where visitors can walk in the steps of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, and the other early settlers of the first successful English colony.

Preserved by the National Park Service and Preservation Virginia, the National Historic Site features an archaeological museum called the Archaearium, as well as guided and self-guided tours. Sites include the place where the original 1607 James Fort once stood, the 17th-century church tower and the site of the 17th-century town. The Jamestown Glass House can also be visited, which continues to make glass much like it was done centuries ago at Jamestown. It is part of the Colonial National Historic Park, which provides views of both Old Towne, as well as New Towne, east of the fort, which was first surveyed in the 1620s.

Because of its strategic location, Jamestown was utilized during the American Revolution. The battle of Green Spring took place only a short distance from Jamestown. During the Civil War, Confederate forces occupied Jamestown and fortified it with five earthworks.

More Information:

Jamestown ships

Replicas of the three ships which carried settlers to the Virginia settlement in 1607 are docked in the harbor.

Jamestown National Historic Site
P.O. Box 210
Yorktown, Virginia 23690

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated January 2020.

Also See:

Nathaniel Bacon — First American Rebel

New England Settlements

The Proprietary Colonies

Settling of America – The Old Dominion

Source: National Park Service