Quill and Ink Jamestown, Virginia
First permanent English settlement in North America

May 6, 1607




Jamestown, Virginia, was the first permanent English settlement in North America. On May 6, 1607, three ships stopped at Cape Henry, at the southern entrance to Chesapeake Bay, after more than four months at sea. The day was April 26, according to the calendar then in use. Captain Christopher Newport commanded the ships, the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery.

The ships carried 105 adventurers, who saw "faire meddowes and goodly tall trees" along the Virginia coast. They had been sent out by a group of London merchants and other interested people known as the Virginia Company of London (later shortened to Virginia Company). They came to America mostly to search for treasure and also to spread Christianity among the Indians. Few of the men were able or willing to do manual labor or to raise farm products that could not be grown in England.

The three ships sailed up the James River from Cape Henry for about 60 miles. The adventurers landed on a little peninsula on the river on May 24 (then May 14) and established their settlement there. They named both the river and their settlement in honor of King James I of England. The site turned out to be a bad choice. The ground was swampy, and the drinking water impure. A meager and unwholesome diet weakened the men, and about two-thirds of them soon died of malnutrition, malaria, pneumonia, and dysentery. Sharp contrasts of climate added to their problems.

The Jamestown settlement suffered one dreadful disaster after another. Captain John Smith held the group together when he took control from mid-1608 to mid-1609. He forced the adventurers to stop searching for gold and silver and to start working for their survival, and he bought corn from the Indians. But an accident in 1609 forced Smith to return to England for treatment.

Fire, drought, Indian attacks, disease, starvation, and lack of another strong leader brought the settlement to its lowest ebb in the winter of 1609-1610. Later colonists called that winter "the starving time." The arrival of Governor Thomas West, Lord De La Warr (Delaware), in 1610 with settlers and supplies saved Jamestown from abandonment.

About 18,000 Indians lived in Virginia during the early 1600's. More than 30 of the tribes in the area united to form a confederacy under the mighty chief Powhatan (Wahunsonacock). His daughter, the Indian princess Pocahontas, was reported to have saved the life of John Smith. In 1614, Pocahontas married John Rolfe, one of the settlers. This marriage was treated as a diplomatic alliance. It brought about a few years of uneasy peace between the settlers and the Indians.

Jamestown's agricultural and industrial activities began slowly. The early settlers failed in attempts to produce silk, grapes, and other items unsuited for the Virginia climate. Early industries included glass blowing, iron smelting, the making of potash, and shipbuilding.

The first farm products to be raised successfully were hogs and Indian corn. In 1612, John Rolfe introduced a new type of tobacco to the colony by bringing seed from Trinidad. Rolfe also improved the method of curing the leaves. This new kind of tobacco was sweeter than the native Virginia plant, and the settlers found a ready market for it in Europe. Tobacco, corn, and hogs provided a solid basis for Jamestown's economy.

In 1619, the first representative legislative assembly in the Western Hemisphere met in Jamestown. This assembly, called the House of Burgesses, served as a model for many of the lawmaking bodies in the United States. In 1619, when the population was about a thousand, the Virginia Company tried to encourage young men to make permanent homes in the colony by sending a number of "young, handsome and honestly educated maids" to become the bachelors' wives. Before 1619, only a few married women and female servants lived in Jamestown. Another important event of 1619 was the arrival of a Dutch ship at Jamestown with 20 blacks for sale. These Africans, and the thousands who followed them, would in time become slaves. Their labor helped make the colony prosperous.

In 1622, the Indians, afraid of losing their lands forever, unexpectedly attacked the settlements around Jamestown, and killed about 350 people--one-third of the colonists. The town itself was warned of the uprising and was able to resist the attack. The Indians rose again in 1644 and killed about 500 people, mostly in outlying settlements. Both times, the colonists struck back, killing many Indians and destroying their food supplies and villages.

Two of the main reasons for the survival of the Jamestown settlement were that (1) the colonists learned to produce their own food, and (2) tobacco proved to be a highly marketable cash crop. But tragedy struck Jamestown in the late 1600's. The town was burned to the ground in 1676 during Bacon's Rebellion, a revolt against royal governor William Berkeley led by planter Nathaniel Bacon. Fire again destroyed the settlement in 1698. These disasters caused the people in Virginia to transfer their capital to Williamsburg in 1699. Jamestown fell into decay.

The site of the Jamestown settlement no longer stands on a peninsula. It now lies on an island, having been cut off from the mainland by water. Much of the original land has been washed away by tidal currents of the James River. For many years, only a few foundation stones and the ruined tower of a brick church stood as reminders of the settlement. But archaeologists have now found many relics of the original town. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities controls the land around the ruined church. The National Park Service manages the rest of the area. It operates its area as part of the Colonial National Historical Park.

In 1957, Virginia celebrated the 350th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. The state built Jamestown Festival Park (now Jamestown Settlement) about 1/2 mile from the original site of Jamestown. The park has a reproduction of the area's first fort, Powhatan's lodge, and replicas of the ships that brought the first adventurers. Thousands of tourists visit these sites each year.

John Smith's account of Jamestown


SOURCE: IBM 1999 WORLD BOOK

Contributor: James Kirby Martin, Ph.D., Prof. of History, Univ. of Houston.

Additional resources

Bridenbaugh, Carl. Jamestown, 1544-1699. Oxford, 1980.

Lemay, Joseph A. L. The American Dream of Captain John Smith. Univ. Pr. of Virginia, 1991.

Smith, C. Carter. The Jamestown Colony. Silver Burdett, 1991. Younger readers.

Vaughan, Alden T. American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia. 1975. Reprint. Scott, Foresman, 1987.