Founding of Jamestown

by Ben Johnson

Contrary to popular belief, it was the year 2007 that marked the 400th anniversary of the founding of the first permanent British settlement in the New World, or what is now called the United States, and not 2020.

It appears that many people on both sides of the Atlantic seem happier with the association between the Pilgrim Fathers arrival in 1620 aboard their ship the Mayflower, rather than the band of entrepreneurial adventurers that arrived some thirteen years earlier and included one serial adventurer, Captain John Smith.

Virginia State Quarter WKPDThis would not be the first time that English feet had stepped ashore in the New World. The adventurer and courtier to Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh had organised three expeditions in the 1580s in an attempt to colonise North America. He had even named the area Virginia in honour of his Virgin Queen.

In was however, in June 1606 that King James I of England (VI of Scotland) granted a charter to a group of London gentlemen and merchants known as the Virginia Company, to establish a British settlement in the Chesapeake area of North America. They had been issued with three clear objectives; to discover gold, a water route to the South Seas and to find the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

Adverse weather conditions initially affected their departure, however the expedition finally set sail in three small ships, the Discovery, Susan Constant and Godspeed in December 1606, with around 140 colonists bound for Virginia.

Apparently John Smith and Christopher Newport, the captain in charge of the three ships, clashed during the voyage and Smith only escaped being hanged for mutiny when sealed orders were opened that named him one of the leaders of the new colony.

The search for a suitable site for the new colony ended on May 14th 1607, when the Virginia Company explorers landed on a small peninsular of land on the banks of a river some 45 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. They quickly constructed defences for themselves in the form of a triangular fort and named their new settlement Jamestown, after their king.

Jamestown colony in 1607 PD

Soon after landing, the colonists discovered that perhaps they had been a little hasty in selecting Jamestown as their new home. The swampy, confined site was plagued by mosquitoes, the tidal river water proved unsuitable for drinking and space for farming was limited. Extreme weather conditions and the unwelcome attention of the local Native American tribes compounded to further test their endurance.

Disease, famine and continued attacks by the neighbouring Algonquian tribe took a heavy toll on the population and it appears that only the strong and inspired leadership of Captain John Smith kept the colony from dissolving during its early months and years.

In December 1607, while on an expedition to gather food for the colony, Smith and his men were attacked by Indians; his men were killed but he was captured and taken before the chief of the local Powhatan Confederacy. Although he feared for his life, Smith was eventually released without harm. Smith attributed his narrow escape in part to the chief’s daughter Pochahontas whom he claimed had shielded and protected his body with her own.

John Smith WKPDIn the months that followed the colony survived thanks mainly due to periodical visits to the fort by Pochahontas with food aid, and via the timely arrival of two supply ships from England. As well as delivering valuable supplies, the ships also brought more colonists and ultimately more mouths that required feeding.

In 1609, all appeared more positive when the Third Supply Relief Fleet of 9 ships set off from England loaded with fresh supplies and colonists with which to reinforce Jamestown. Optimism was short lived however, when the fleet encountered a massive hurricane on the way, and after being tossed in a storm for four days, the flagship Sea Venture was eventually driven onto a reef off the coast of Bermuda. All 150 on board were landed safely on the then uninhabited island of Bermuda, effectively castaways.

The remaining ships of the fleet limped into Jamestown in August 1609, with many of the passengers suffering injuries and sickness from their journey, thus adding a further 400 hungry mouths to feed.

Just a few weeks later the emerging colony was struck a further devastating blow when John Smith suffered serious injury in a gunpowder explosion. The decision was made to transport him back to England to better treat his wounds. Without his inspirational leadership, the colony quickly fell into chaos.

The freezing winter that followed Smith’s departure was particularly harsh and the colony entered what was later termed the Starving Time. Trapped within Jamestown by hostile Indians, the settlers first ate their way through their livestock; their pets were next on the menu, shortly followed by the resident rats and mice and then apparently the residents themselves!

Meanwhile in the paradise that proved to be Bermuda, the castaways from the Sea Venture led by the likes of Admiral Sir George Somers, Sir Thomas Gates and John Rolfe, had not only established a thriving community, they had managed to keep themselves busy as well. During their ten months on the island they had found food to be plentiful and they were able to build a church and houses. From the wreckage of the Sea Venture they built two further ships, the Deliverance and the Patience, aboard which they set sail set for Jamestown in May 1610.

What greeted them when they arrived at the Virginia Colony however, was not a pretty sight. Almost destroyed by famine and disease, only 60 settlers had survived that Starving Time winter.

Lord Delaware WKPDSome weeks later in July 1610, the Fourth Relief Fleet commanded by Lord Delaware arrived. Loaded with supplies from England, the total abandonment of Jamestown was narrowly avoided. The colony was now at least able to survive, although it was as yet far from being economically viable. The Virginia Company had poured people and resources into the venture with a zero return on its investment.

Fortunes however started to change quite dramatically in 1612, when John Rolfe, who had introduced a new strain of tobacco into the colony, started to export it. The taste of Virginia tobacco proved very much the flavour of the day throughout the taverns and streets of London and the demand for the new cash crop rose exponentially.

Two years later the tobacco farmer Rolfe married the Powhatan chief’s youngest daughter Pocahontas, and a period of relative peace with the Indians followed. During a period of captivity with the colonists, Pocahontas had previously converted to Christianity and changed her name to Rebecca.

In 1616, the Rolfes made a public relations trip to England, where Pocahontas’ exotic looks and regal bearing brought her instant adoration; she was presented at the court of Queen Anne as a visiting princess.

“Rebecca” would never return to America. Shortly after the ship that she had boarded for her journey home had slipped its moorings, it was realised that Pocahontas was seriously unwell and after sailing just a few miles down the Thames it docked again at Gravesend. It was here that she died in 1617, aged just 22, possibly of influenza, pneumonia or smallpox. She was buried in the nave of the nearby St.George’s Church. John Rolfe returned to Virginia later that year.

Tobacco planters house CC

Tobacco quickly became the rage throughout Europe and by 1619 Jamestown was a boom town, exporting more that 10 tons of the precious leaves. More workers were urgently needed to help bring in the tobacco crop. Later that year a solution presented itself when a passing Dutch slave trader willingly exchanged his cargo of 20 Africans for food. These Africans became indentured servants, similar in position to many poor Englishmen who traded several years of labour in exchange for passage to America. The race-based slave trade as we now know it would not start until the 1680’s.

It appears that the Jamestown colonists had failed in their original mission to find a route South Seas, and failed to locate the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, but they had at least found gold. Well gold of a type …Golden Virginia Tobacco!

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