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The Establishment of Jamestown: Staving Off Death in England’s First Permanent American Settlement

Long before the mighty towers of New York, the glittering skyline of Las Vegas and the decadence of Beverly Hills – there was a small settlement called Jamestown. In 1607 this small patch of land located on what would be named the James River in Virginia became the first permanent English colony in the New World.

This was of course by no means the first settlement on what we now call the United States, with evidence of Native American presence on the continent stretching back 15,000 years. It was also not the first foray into the New World by colonists from Europe. Spanish Florida was first established as far back as 1513, though this tended to fluctuate over time.

But Jamestown has a special place in American history – a story of discovery, unimaginable hardship but ultimately, success.

The First Foreign Visitors

Possible portrait of Christopher Columbus is licensed
under CC-0

We all know the story well. Christopher Columbus and his merry men sailed gloriously across the high seas and discovered America. Except, that particular tale often told comes riddled with inaccuracies.

First and foremost, it’s difficult to “discover” a place when there was an indigenous population thought to number roughly around 60 million at the time. I know America is a vast land, but to put that in perspective, only around 3 million people lived in Britain at the time Columbus made his journey across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492.

We then come to the other glaring inaccuracy of this story. Christopher Columbus never actually set foot in what is today considered North America. Where he did land was in the Bahamas and on the shore of an island which he called Espanola, but is today split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. And despite many correctly believing otherwise, Columbus was convinced he had landed in Asia, a belief he held firmly until the day he died.

So who was the first European to land in North American? Who else but the Vikings, who had a habit of making epic journeys long before other European nations were even considering such escapades. Lief Ericson landed on the shores of modern Canada sometime around 1000 AD – almost 500 years before Columbus.

The Roanoke Colony

Remember how I said that Jamestown was the first English colony in the New World? Well, what I probably should have said was that it was the first colony to succeed – which brings us nicely to the darkly mysterious tale of the Roanoke Colony – also known as, The Lost Colony.

In 1585 a small group of English settlers landed on Roanoke Island, which is today Dare County in North Carolina, and established a small settlement but they lasted just a year before hightailing it back to England as a result of lack of supplies and run-ins with the local community.

Two weeks after their departure, a long-delayed resupply ship arrived at Roanoke Island and left a small detachment of men behind. The following year this number was further bolstered by fresh arrivals.

The plan had been to bring supplies back to Roanoke Island in 1588 but the Anglo-Spanish war delayed the ship’s departure until 1590. The boat arrived after nightfall on the 17th August with the crew choosing to go ashore the next morning rather than risk surprising senteries always on the lookout for native attacks.

As dawn broke, a small group rowed towards the island where they landed on the beach. One member noticed fresh tracks in the sand while another found a single word carved into a nearby tree, it read – CRO.

The men approached the Roanoke Colony. A deathly quiet hung in the air, no sentries called out, not a sound was heard. The settlement had been fortified with a stakewall but as they entered, the new arrivals must have known immediately that something was wrong.

The colony was completely deserted. There was no sign of an attack of any sort, it was as if the settlers had simply disappeared. Another carving was found, this time on a fence post, it read – CROATOAN.

There was an island close by with the same name and it was quickly assumed that the settlers had relocated. On further inspection, they found that several houses within the camp had been dismantled, three wooden chests left behind from 1587 had been dug up and moved, while the camp’s boats were also missing. It suddenly seemed perfectly logical.

The group returned to the boat intending to venture onto Croatoan Island the next day, but as luck would have it, the ship’s anchor broke that night and it was forced to return to England.

The colonists of Roanoke Island were never heard from again. Over time countless theories have been explored. Were they simply massacred by the local population? Did they assimilate into the local tribe and spend the rest of their days living with them? Did they make a failed attempt to return to England? Or was the Island attacked by the marauding Spanish? It is a mystery that has puzzled now for centuries and despite plenty of excavation in the local area, we are still no closer to discovering the fate of the Lost Colony.

The London Company

The disappearance of the colony from Roanoke Island may have been a setback, but these colonists were relentless. A series of visits across the area occurred in the subsequent years, but nothing permanent was established.

Then in 1606, the London Company (also referred to as the Virginia Company), an English joint-stock company established the same year and, which had been granted land on the eastern seaboard of the current U.S, commissioned three ships to sail west with the explicit intention of establishing a colony in the New World once and for all. The three ships, which carried roughly 100 men and boys, were; the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed, all under the command of Captain Christopher Newport.

The four-month journey included a stop on the Canary Islands and in present-day Puerto Rico but landed in what is now Cape Henry in Virginia on 26th April 1607. The crew immediately set about exploring the surrounding area and on 11th May, a site 64 km (40 miles) inland from the Atlantic was chosen as the location for the first fortified settlement.

The site came with a few advantages, and several disadvantages, many of which would not become fully apparent until much later. Firstly, it was an easily defendable point because of the curve of the nearby river which had been named the James River in honour of the King of England and Scotland, James I. The result was an area surrounded by water on three sides – a great place to be a fort one would think. It was also thankfully free of the local population, the bad news being that it had been left specifically because of the poor quality of soil, lack of suitable drinking water, swampland and the torrent of mosquitoes that populated the area.


The first major construction was of a triangular fort with a storehouse, a church and a series of small wooden houses inside. The fort was completed on 15th June with a bulwark (a defensive tower) in each of the three corners along with four or five pieces of artillery.

A council was also established, with the names of 7 men picked beforehand back in England then placed in a sealed box until the colony had been established. The first president was Edward Maria Winfield, with Bartholomew Gosnold, Christopher Newport, John Martin, John Ratcliffe, George Kendall, and John Smith as the other six council members.

On 22nd June, Captain Newport set sail for England intending to bring back supplies to the fledgeling colony as well as further settlers to bolster numbers. In a likelihood, Captain Newport must have had an air of confidence in Jamestown as the small fort disappeared behind him. Sadly, life in the New World proved unspeakably difficult and within just a few months, almost 80% of those he had left behind had died.

A Harsh Reality

Perhaps the realities of settling a colony so far from home had not been completely examined, but the first few months in Jamestown were nothing short of hellish. There were so many problems it’s difficult to even know where to start.

Many of those who had sailed across the ocean were far from hardy adventurers. Most were upper-class Englishmen who no doubt probably knew how to carry oneself with great aplomb but knew next to nothing about farming – or work of any kind for that matter. Some had brought servants with them who were equally unprepared for such tasks.

Even if they had known how to farm, their efforts were hampered by two major obstacles. They had arrived too late in the year to plant crops, and the area was experiencing its worth drought for over 700 years. We know this because of the analysis of tree rings nearby which showed that between 1606 and 1612 the area received painfully little water.

Then there were the rampant diseases which tore through the colony. At that point, drinking water was being taken from the nearby river and swamp area, which invariably led to vomiting, swelling and on many occasions, death.

Now for some good news for our enthusiastic yet inexperienced settlers. The native population, which numbered roughly 14,000 and had joined together into a confederation of sorts under the control of Chief Powhatan, proved to be more friendly than had been anticipated. The settlers had been welcomed warmly with plenty of dancing, feasting and tobacco ceremonies and as the months turned colder, food supplied by Powhatan proved vital in keeping the remaining settlers alive. Though the tale that would eventually be framed as the first Thanksgiving didn’t happen until 1621 with the Pilgrims further north, the generosity of the native population towards the haggard settlers who survived at Jamestown over those first few months was quite remarkable – to begin with at least.

While the locals had formed a loose confederacy, it didn’t prevent cracks from eventually appearing with regards to how they should respond to the pale skinny-looking rags in the heavily defended fort. Between 27th May and 14th July, a series of attacks by the Paspahegh, Weyanock, and other groups tested the fort to its absolute limit. The settlers survived, but by the skin of their teeth.


Had the resupply ships arrived a couple of months, or even weeks later, its crew may well have found a similar scene to what was found on Roanoke Island. When the first resupply ships arrived on 2nd January 1608, just over thirty settlers remained in Jamestown. This number was boosted by the arrival of 120 further people, which in theory sounded great, but when food was a scarcity, the higher number proved to be a huge and immediate obstacle.

Things went from bad to worse for the young colony when a few days after the arrival of the supply ship, a fire broke out within the fort, destroying many of the buildings and much of the supplies that had just been brought from England. The settlers dutifully set about rebuilding and while spirits seemed to lift, conditions quickly deteriorated with half of the settlers perishing before further supply missions could arrive.

The second group of supply ships arrived on 1st October 1608 – and with them came the first two females to set foot in Jamestown – Mistress Forrest and her maid Anne Burras, who would become the first English woman to marry and give birth in the New World.

Also included in this new detachment were Polish and German craftsmen who set about establishing the first manufacturing at Jamestown, namely glassware and clapboard, both of which were later shipped back to England.

The Starving Time

Now, if you thought those first few years were bad, bear in mind that the period that came next has come to be known as the Starving Time. By this point, the presidency had passed to Captain John Smith, a no-nonsense leader who implemented a “no work, no food” policy at the settlement and who had been key to trading between the colonists and the native population. It appeared that Jamestown had a leader who would finally set it on the right path.

However, in autumn 1609, Smith suffered a serious injury thanks to some burning gunpowder and was shipped back to England. He would never return, and his departure coincided with the most harrowing period experienced in Jamestown. Yet while Smith’s guidance was painfully absent in the New World, his influence extended back across the Atlantic as he implored James I and the London Company to focus less on the search for gold and potentially lucrative crops and more on the basic survival of the colony. It worked, and the third supply ship was by far the largest and best-equipped yet.

However, before we can get to the third supply ship, we have the painful matter of the Starving Time. Smith had been replaced as President by George Percy who proved to be an unreliable leader in almost every way. Under his leadership relations with the local tribes deteriorated to the point that the settlers feared leaving the safety of the fort. Those inside, racked with hunger, resorted to eating snakes, boiling and eating the leather of their shoes and belts and finally, to cannibalism. Percy, often too weak to lead, chose instead to leave the decision to the deeply unpopular John Ratcliffe – if you’ve seen Disney’s Pocahontas you may well remember this greedy, ruthless antagonistic.

The third supply mission consisted of seven ships and was by a mile the best-equipped voyage yet. It left England on 2nd June 1609 but just three weeks later it ran into a raging hurricane which sank one of the ships and forced the flagship Sea Venture to run itself aground on Bermuda. All onboard survived and remarkably built two ships and eventually made it to Jamestown.

The remainder of the ships limped in Jamestown but were greeted by an apocalyptic situation. Exact numbers here are a little sketchy, but it’s generally considered that 80-90% of the settlers had died. When the two ships arrived from Bermuda on 23rd May 1610, they found only 60 survivors (they had been expecting over 500). One man who wasn’t there was the hated Ratcliffe who had agreed to meet Chief Powhatan only to discover it was a trap. He died a truly agonisingly death as his skin was slowly flayed with mussel shells before being burned at the stake. I’ve left out some of the more nightmarish details of the man’s death, but needless to say it was a terrible way to go.

Hope had dropped to a terminal level and it was agreed that those remaining at Jamestown should abandon it and return to England. The weary settlers clambered into the boats that had come from Bermuda and set sail for home. But they didn’t get far.

Fortunes Improve

As the two ships sailed down the James River, with those onboard no doubt dreaming on England’s green and pleasant land, they were greeted by the fourth resupply mission. Onboard was Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr (his surname would later be joined together and given to an area north of Jamestown, today known as Delaware) who was to become Governor of Jamestown.

He ordered that the two ships turn around and return – you can only imagine how well that was received by those who had lived in terrible hardship in the colony for several years. It may not have been a popular decision, but it was one that eventually changed the fortunes of Jamestown.

But before we can get to the better times, there was the small matter of the First Anglo-Powhatan War which lasted between 1610 and 1614. West took a far more belligerent approach to the native people than any leader before him. A band of settlers attacked the Paspahegh capital on 9th August 1610, killing 65-75 and taking with them the Paspahegh Queen along with her two children – all of which were later killed. This set off a bloody tic for tac which slowly saw the settler’s sphere of influence grow as they managed to establish several small nearby outposts.

The fighting ceased with the capture of one of Chief Powhatan’s daughters – Pocahontas. A peace treaty was soon signed which included the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe, a man who had established a tobacco plantation on the James River about 50 km (30 miles) upstream from Jamestown which was now thriving.

The union led to several years of peace between the settlers and the local population, but with the death of Chief Powhatan and the transfer of power to his younger brother Opchanacanough, violence once again flared up. In 1622, he led a raid designed to eliminate the settlers once and for all in what came to be known as the Indian Massacre of 1622. Over 300 Europeans were killed in outlying forts or plantations, but thanks to a tip-off from a local worker, Jamestown itself was ready for the attack and repelled the assault. In response, the settlers took to raiding villages each summer, slowly wearing down the local population. In 1646, Chief Opchanacanough was captured and executed by an overzealous guard. The local confederacy was crumbling and numerous tribes around this time simply disappeared. It’s not known whether they were all annihilated or were assimilated into other tribes as their numbers dwindled. While sporadic violence would continue, it was becoming clear that the settlers had won.

Bacon’s Rebellion

bacon's rebellion
The meeting of Nathaniel Bacon (left) and William Berkeley (right) after the governor denied Bacon a commission, 1676.

As you would have it, the destruction of Jamestown came not from the indigenous population, but by disgruntled settlers. In 1676, a group of settlers led by Nathaniel Bacon demanded changes in taxation, the way that tobacco was being sold, and above all, an end to the “Indian problem”. The group’s attacks on friendly tribes led to Governor Berkely declaring Bacon a rebel but in response, these ‘rebels’ marched on Jamestown, drove the Governor and his men from the fort and burnt it down.

Bacon himself died of dysentery shortly after, but 23 men were hung for their role in the first rebellion on American soil. Much of the town was rebuilt, but fire again razed it to the ground in 1698, after which the government and capital were moved to Middle Plantation – later renamed Williamsburg – the following year. Though people continued to live on the island itself, the town was completely abandoned.

92 years after the original settlers had come ashore and chose this spot, on the curve of the James River, the first permanent English settlement in the New World was no more. It’s difficult to imagine the atrocious circumstances in the colony, especially in those early years, but the settlers had just about clung on. We all know how the story goes from this point. Seventy-eight years after the abandonment of Jamestown, a new nation emerged from the ashes of war – the United States was born.

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