Jamestown Colony

Jamestown Colony

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On May 14, 1607, a group of roughly 100 members of a joint venture called the Virginia Company founded the first permanent English settlement in North America on the banks of the James River.

Famine, disease and conflict with local Native American tribes in the first two years brought Jamestown to the brink of failure before the arrival of a new group of settlers and supplies in 1610.

Tobacco became Virginia’s first profitable export, and a period of peace followed the marriage of colonist John Rolfe to Pocahontas, the daughter of an Algonquian chief. During the 1620s, Jamestown expanded from the area around the original James Fort into a New Town built to the east. It remained the capital of the Virginia colony until 1699.

English Settlement in the New World

After Christopher Columbus’ historic voyage in 1492, Spain dominated the race to establish colonies in the Americas, while English efforts, such as the “lost colony” of Roanoke, met with failure. In 1606, King James I granted a charter to a new venture, the Virginia Company, to form a settlement in North America. At the time, Virginia was the English name for the entire eastern coast of North America north of Florida; they had named it for Elizabeth I, the “virgin queen.” The Virginia Company planned to search for gold and silver deposits in the New World, as well as a river route to the Pacific Ocean that would allow them to establish trade with the Orient.

Roughly 100 colonists left England in late December 1606 on three ships (the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery) and reached Chesapeake Bay late the next April. After forming a governing council—including Christopher Newport, commander of the sea voyage, and Captain John Smith, a former mercenary who had been accused of insubordination aboard ship by several other company members—the group searched for a suitable settlement site. On May 13, 1607, they landed on a narrow peninsula—virtually an island—in the James River, where they would begin their lives in the New World.

Surviving the First Years

Known variously as James Forte, James Towne and James Cittie, the new settlement initially consisted of a wooden fort built in a triangle around a storehouse for weapons and other supplies, a church and a number of houses. By the summer of 1607, Newport went back to England with two ships and 40 crewmembers to give a report to the king and to gather more supplies and colonists. The settlers left behind suffered greatly from hunger and illnesses like typhoid and dysentery, caused from drinking contaminated water from the nearby swamp. Settlers also lived under constant threat of attack by members of local Algonquian tribes, most of which were organized into a kind of empire under Chief Powhatan.

READ MORE: What Was Life Like in Jamestown?

An understanding reached between Powhatan and John Smith led the settlers to establish much-needed trade with Powhatan’s tribe by early 1608. Though skirmishes still broke out between the two groups, the Native Americans traded corn for beads, metal tools and other objects (including some weapons) from the English, who would depend on this trade for sustenance in the colony’s early years. After Smith returned to England in late 1609, the inhabitants of Jamestown suffered through a long, harsh winter known as “The Starving Time,” during which more than 100 of them died. Firsthand accounts describe desperate people eating pets and shoe leather. Some Jamestown colonists even resorted to cannibalism. George Percy, the colony’s leader in John Smith’s absence, wrote:

"And now famine beginning to look ghastly and pale in every face that nothing was spared to maintain life and to do those things which seem incredible, as to dig up dead corpse out of graves and to eat them, and some have licked up the blood which hath fallen from their weak fellows."

In the spring of 1610, just as the remaining colonists were set to abandon Jamestown, two ships arrived bearing at least 150 new settlers, a cache of supplies and the new English governor of the colony, Lord De La Warr.

Growth of the Colony

Though De La Warr soon took ill and went home, his successor Sir Thomas Gates and Gates’ second-in command, Sir Thomas Dale, took firm charge of the colony and issued a system of new laws that, among other things, strictly controlled the interactions between settlers and Algonquians. They took a hard line with Powhatan and launched raids against Algonquian villages, killing residents and burning houses and crops. The English began to build other forts and settlements up and down the James River, and by the fall of 1611 had managed to harvest a decent crop of corn themselves. They had also learned other valuable techniques from the Algonquians, including how to insulate their dwellings against the weather using tree bark, and expanded Jamestown into a New Town to the east of the original fort.

A period of relative peace followed the marriage in April 1614 of the colonist and tobacco planter John Rolfe to Pocahontas, a daughter of Chief Powhatan who had been captured by the settlers and converted to Christianity. (According to John Smith, Pocahontas had rescued him from death in 1607, when she was just a young girl and he was her father’s captive.) Thanks largely to Rolfe’s introduction of a new type of tobacco grown from seeds from the West Indies, Jamestown’s economy began to thrive. In 1619, the colony established a General Assembly with members elected by Virginia’s male landowners; it would become a model for representative governments in later colonies. That same year, the first Africans (around 50 men, women and children) arrived in the English settlement; they had been on a Portuguese slave ship captured in the West Indies and brought to the Jamestown region. They worked as indentured servants at first (the race-based slavery system developed in North America in the 1680s) and were most likely put to work picking tobacco.

READ MORE: 5 Myths About Pocahontas

Powhatans After Pocahontas

Pocahontas’ death during a trip to England in 1617 and the death of Powhatan in 1618 strained the already fragile peace between the English settlers and the Native Americans. Under Powhatan’s successor, Opechankeno, the Algonquians became more and more angry about the colonists’ insatiable need for land and the pace of English settlement; meanwhile, diseases brought from the Old World decimated the Native American population. In March 1622, the Powhatan made a major assault on English settlements in Virginia, killing some 350 to 400 residents (a full one-quarter of the population). The attack hit the outposts of Jamestown the hardest, while the town itself received advance warning and was able to mount a defense.

In an effort to take greater control of the situation, King James I dissolved the Virginia Company and made Virginia into an official crown colony, with Jamestown as its capital, in 1624. The New Town area of Jamestown continued to grow, and the original fort seems to have disappeared after the 1620s. Though the Powhatan people continued to mount a resistance (Opechankeno, by then in his 80s, led another great rebellion in 1644), the colony continued to grow stronger, and his successor Necotowance was forced to sign a peace treaty that ceded most of the Powhatans’ land and forced them to pay an annual tribute to the colonial governor.

Bacon's Rebellion

Bacon’s Rebellion was the first rebellion in the American colonies. In 1676, economic problems and unrest with Native Americans drove Virginians led by Nathaniel Bacon to rise up against Governor William Berkeley. Colonists, enraged at declining tobacco prices and higher taxes, sought a scapegoat in local tribes who still periodically sparred with settlers and lived on land they hoped to obtain for themselves.

A July 1675 raid by the Doeg tribe sparked retaliation, and when Governor Berkeley set up a meeting between the two quarreling parties, several tribal chiefs were murdered. In 1675, the General Assembly declared war on “hostile” tribes and forbid traders from working with them. Conveniently, trade was restricted to friends of Berkeley’s.

READ MORE: Why America’s First Colonial Rebels Burned Jamestown to the Ground

Bacon, a distant relative of Berkeley’s, led a volunteer militia and demanded that the Governor give him a commission to fight Native Americans. Berkeley refused, so Bacon raided and killed them on his own. Governor Berkeley named Bacon a rebel, but that didn’t stop Bacon from being elected as a burgess and returning to Jamestown to surround the statehouse with his army.

Bacon’s rallying cry was his “Declaration in the Name of the People,” which charged that Berkeley was corrupt and “protected, favoured and Imboldened the Indians against his Majesties loyall subjects.” Bacon’s forces drove Governor Berkeley from the capital and set fire to Jamestown on September 19, 1676. Bacon died of dysentery in October, and armed merchant ships from London, followed by forces sent by King Charles II, soon put down the resistance.

Jamestown Abandoned

In 1698, the central statehouse in Jamestown burned down, and Middle Plantation, now known as Williamsburg, replaced it as the colonial capital the following year. While settlers continued to live and maintain farms there, Jamestown was all but abandoned.

Jamestown Island housed military posts during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. In the 20th century, preservationists undertook a major restoration of the area. The National Park Service now administers it as part of the Colonial National Historical Park called “Historic Jamestowne.” The Jamestown Rediscovery archeological project, begun in 1994, examines artifacts uncovered at the settlement to gain a better understanding of daily life in the first permanent English colony in the New World.

The Tragic True Story Of The Jamestown Settlement

When it comes to the "discovery" of America, the storybook narrative you learned in elementary school is way off the mark. It's hard to dispute the arrogance — and hostility — of European powers laying claim to land that had been occupied by indigenous cultures for centuries, and real-life colonization definitely wasn't a fanciful tale of Pilgrims, Thanksgiving dinner tables, and handshake agreements: It was a brutal, bloody time where people like Christopher Columbus committed monstrously genocidal actions, wars broke out every decade, and disease was widespread. Ugly stuff.

Over a century after Columbus, though, and years before the Pilgrims sailed to Massachusetts in search of religious freedom, the story of the USA truly began with a rough little colony named Jamestown, Virginia, which would go down in history as the first successful English settlement of the New World. If you think camping in the woods is rugged, well . Jamestown's first settlers had to contend with harsh weather, fatal sickness, and starvation so bad that they (literally) started cannibalizing each other's dead bodies. Clearly, the true story of Jamestown wasn't anything like Disney's Pocahontas.

What Did Virginia’s Jamestown Colonists Eat?

In 2006, archaeologists in Jamestown, Virginia, uncovered a 17th-century groundwater well at James Fort, the site of the first permanent English settlement in America. Now, as Andrew Harris reports for the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily, they're digging through the well to see what they can learn about the the Fort’s history and the people who lived there.

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The team sorting through the well artifacts is part of a group archaeologists from Preservation Virginia, which has been at work since 1994, when the 1607 James Fort was uncovered.  The well was only operational for a short time before the colonists began filling it with trash and food waste. By sorting through such artifacts, the researchers are hoping to better understand what was on the dinner table hundreds of years ago.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to use this information to fill in an important missing piece of the puzzle of Jamestown’s history, which is what is going on in the sixteen-teens,” Jamestown Rediscovery Assistant Curator Hayden Bassett tells Harris. “We know a lot about 1607 through 1610, we know a lot about the 1620s on, but this has been a period that has been largely absent from our record to date.”

While the project is still in its early stages, archaeologists have already uncovered some 30,000 animal bones in just one of the six layers of soil. What were the colonists tucking into? They had a "taste for turkey," Harris writes.

The turkey is a native bird to North America, but the gobblers have a long history of domestication. Some of the earliest evidence of domestication goes back to the Four Corners region of the Colorado Plateau nearly 2,000 years ago and Guatemala between 300 B.C. to 100 A.D. Native Americans were also likely in the turkey taming business fairly early as well, with evidence of domestication as far back as 1200  to 1400 A.D., Grennan Milliken writes for Motherboard. But it's unclear exactly where the James Fort birds came from they could have been birds domesticated by Native Americans, or they could have been hunted from the abundant stocks of wild turkeys.

Times for colonists were not always easy, however. The well also harbors layers of soil with abundant remains of horses, rats and even venomous snake—less preferred meals for early Jamestown settlers. Archaeologists believe that these remains likely date back to a period known as the Starving Time, which took place between 1609 and 1610.  During this period, a drought and a lack of supplies nearly wiped out the colony’s population, according to Historic Jamestowne , and they were forced to turn to alternative food sources.

By correlating their food finds with historical documents, archaeologists hope to gain insight into events figure out the events that took place during this period, reports Josh Lowe at Newsweek. “When that diet changes, that should indicate that something is going on,” Bassett tells the  Williamsburg Yorktown Daily . "People don’t just randomly change their diet, particularly in a setting like this.”

For example, researchers found cattle bones in a layer of soil that dates to 1610. From historical documents, the team discovered that early colonists rarely ate beef before that time. Live cattle were not shipped from England until 1610 or 1611.

Researchers hope their findings will help them figure out when precisely the well the was constructed—and garner further insights into the lives of these early settlers.

About Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. She has written for Columbia Journalism Review, BBC Future, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and Pacific Standard.

What Is the Historical Significance of the Jamestown Settlement?

The Jamestown settlement in present-day Virginia was the first settlement under the charter granted to the Virginia Company by King James I. The Virginia Company settlers made land on Jamestown Island on May 14, 1607. The settlement grew and eventually held the first English representative assembly in North America.

Captain Bartholomew Gosnold led the settlers to build a colony on Jamestown Island because it was in a position where Spanish ships would be unable to attack easily however, Indians attacked the settlement within days of the landing. After surviving the attack, the people began to build a rudimentary fort.

In 1609, the fort suffered a gunpowder explosion, which injured Captain John Smith, the man tasked with helping to supply the settlement with goods from England. The settlement barely made it through the following winter due to a lack of supplies, Indian raids and the harsh weather only 60 settlers survived into the spring of 1610. In June, a ship from England finally arrived, bringing with it fresh supplies and a new governor, Lord De La Warr.

Additionally, the colony was known for being associated with the Native American Pocahontas and her father Chief Powhatan. She married the tobacco farmer John Rolfe in 1614.

Jamestown Colony of Virginia

The Jamestown Colony in Virginia was the first permanent English settlement in North America founded in 1607 CE. It was the third attempt of the Virginia Company of London to establish a permanent trade center in the Americas following the failures of the Roanoke Colony (1587-1590 CE) and the Popham Colony of 1607-1608 CE. The primary objective of the Jamestown Colony was profit for the shareholders who financed the expedition, and at first, it seemed a failure. Those who had been selected to establish it turned out to be unfit for the task except for Captain John Smith (l. 1580-1631 CE) who was able to negotiate with the native Powhatan tribe and assume leadership of the colonists.

After Smith left the settlement for England in 1609 CE, however, the colony seemed doomed, enduring the harrowing winter of 1609-1610 CE which killed off most of the colonists. A supply ship in May 1610 CE brought two of the men who would reverse their fortunes: John Rolfe (l. 1585-1622 CE) and Sir Thomas Gates (l. c. 1585-1622 CE) and another, in June 1610 CE would bring the third, Thomas West, Lord De La Warr (l. 1577-1618). Rolfe had a novel idea for a new blend of tobacco which became the colony's cash crop, Gates organized the colony as governor, and De La Warr prevented its desertion and directed Gates. In 1611 CE, Sir Thomas Dale (l. c. 1560-1619 CE) arrived who would initiate the founding of the Henricus Colony of Virginia and begin the removal of the indigenous Powhatan tribes from the surrounding lands.


Tobacco was a labor-intensive crop, which led to the policy of indentured servitude and, eventually, slavery. In 1619 CE, the first Africans arrived in Jamestown and, at first, seem to have worked in the same capacity and under the same policies as indentured servants.

That same year, the assembly of the House of Burgesses was convened, the first English representational governing body in the Americas and, also, the Jamestown Brides program was launched. In 1622 CE, the Powhatan Confederacy launched a united attack to drive the settlers out and, in 1624 CE, King James I of England (r. 1603-1625 CE) took direct control of Jamestown through a royal charter.


The settlement continued to thrive until 1699 CE when it was abandoned in favor of Williamsburg as the colonial capital. The site was purchased by a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Barney, in 1892 CE to prevent development, and preservation efforts began in 1900 CE with archaeological efforts continuing to the present day in the area, now a national park.

Early Colonization Efforts

European colonization of the Americas began with Christopher Columbus (l. 1451-1506 CE) who colonized the islands of the Caribbean for Spain between 1492-1504 CE. The success of these early colonies and the wealth they generated inspired Spain to send others to search for gold and expand its colonial presence until, by the end of the 16th century CE, Spain held lands ranging from the Caribbean through South, Central, and southwestern North Americas. France and the Netherlands had also claimed lands in the region during this same time. England, therefore, was a latecomer.

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Initially, England contented itself with funding privateers like Sir Francis Drake (l. c. 1540-1596 CE) and Sir Martin Frobisher (l. c. 1535-1594 CE) to seize the cargo of Spanish ships returning from their colonies or raid Spanish port cities, but eventually, Queen Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558-1603 CE) understood it would be more efficient to establish their own bases in the Americas where ships could be built and launched against the Spanish. She gave the job of organizing a concerted effort to Sir Walter Raleigh (l. c. 1552-1618 CE) who sent the Amadas-Barlowe Expedition to claim suitable land, not already claimed by a European nation, in 1584 CE.

Receiving a good report from his captains upon their return, Raleigh named the region they had mapped Virginia after Elizabeth, the virgin queen, and sent another expedition, under Ralph Lane (d. 1603 CE) who established a short-lived colony at Roanoke (in modern-day North Carolina). Lane's colony would not survive, mainly owing to Lane's mistreatment of the natives and betrayal of their initial hospitality, and neither would a second one established by John White in 1587 CE, the so-called “lost colony”.


Establishment of Jamestown

Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 CE and was succeeded by James I who reignited colonization efforts. Unlike Elizabeth I, James I had no need to fear intervention from Spain as the Spanish Armada had been crippled and largely destroyed in 1588 CE through the efforts of Drake, Frobisher, and a sudden storm. James I granted charters to two joint-stock companies (business ventures in which investors buy shares expecting a return), the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth.

Both charters allowed them to establish settlements in North America as long as they did not infringe on the other's territories. The Virginia Company of London sent the expedition which would found Jamestown in Virginia the Plymouth company's expedition founded the Popham Colony in present-day Maine. The Popham Colony would only last 14 months before it was abandoned.


The site of the Jamestown colony was selected based on the Amadas-Barlowe Expedition charts of 1584 CE, but in order to protect it from passing Spanish ships, the captains navigated up an inlet which they named the James River and claimed a peninsula in a swampy region as their site. The success of the Spanish had led the English to believe that the Americas were a land of plenty, teeming with gold, silver, and precious gems just waiting to be found, and a large percentage of the colonists were upper-class noblemen who signed on believing they would just pocket whatever gold was found lying about and return home. The reality of the situation was that there was no ready-at-hand gold to be found, the colonists had arrived too late to plant crops, and many did not even know how to do so, and the marshlands – which the indigenous people avoided – was a breeding ground for mosquitoes most of the colonists were dead within a few months of their arrival.

John Smith & Pocahontas

Captain John Smith came from a working-class, agricultural background, and he relates in his journals and other works how completely useless the upper-class colonists were in sustaining themselves and had to force them to build a stockade for protection (later known as Fort James). Newport explored up and down the James River in one of the smaller ships to find a site more conducive to agriculture while Smith initiated friendly relations with the Powhatan tribe's leader Chief Powhatan (also known as Wahunsenacah, l. c. 1547 - c. 1618 CE).

The initial friendly relationship with the local natives would deteriorate due to abuses by the colonists. Newport left for England to bring back more supplies and, as food grew scarce and the colonists could not – or would not – produce their own, they took to stealing from the Powhatans. The situation grew worse when Newport returned with the supplies and 100 new colonists who found no housing, food, nor anything approaching what they had been promised back in England. Newport left on another supply run, and Smith instituted his policy of “those that will not work, will not eat”, forbade stealing from the Powhatans, and set chores for the settlers.


According to an early version of his account of relations with the Powhatans, he first met Pocahontas (l. c. 1596-1617 CE) when she was ten years old and was sent by her father to Fort James to negotiate the release of some Powhatan warriors who had been captured after an altercation. Neither party spoke the other's language, but the Powhatans were released with gifts for the chief, and Smith presented Pocahontas with “such trifles as contented her” (Smith, 35).

In a later account, he relates how, while on a scouting mission of the wider area, he was captured by the half-brother of Wahunsenacah, Opchanacanough (l. 1554-1646 CE), who treated him like an honored guest and brought him to the chief. Wahunsenacah ordered him thrown to the ground to be executed, but Pocahontas intervened, saving his life. Modern-day scholars usually dismiss this story as a later fabrication or as Smith misunderstanding a ritual in which he would be “killed” and reborn as a member of the Powhatan tribe. The debate on the meaning and accuracy of this account continues, but it is clear that Pocahontas was at least 16 years younger than Smith, and nowhere in any of Smith's accounts is there any evidence of the romantic relationship between the two, which has become so much a part of the Jamestown mythology.

The Starving Time & Prosperity

Smith's discipline and organization of the colony enabled the settlement to survive but he was frustrated at the influx of even more people on Newport's return with a second supply ship. By August of 1609 CE, there were over 500 settlers at Jamestown who required food, clothing, and shelter all of which were in short supply. Smith was injured by a gunpowder explosion and left the colony to return to England in October of 1609 CE, and the settlers were left to fend for themselves. At the same time, Chief Powhatan refused to allow the colonists to drain anymore of his people's supplies.

This did not go well as the colonists, which by now included women and families, could not make a living from the land and were vulnerable to the diseases encouraged by the damp marshy locale and crimes perpetrated against each other. The winter of 1609-1610 CE is known as the Starving Time because, as supplies ran out, people ate rats and other vermin, then dogs, then horses, and finally the corpses of the dead. One colonist - who was later executed - even killed and ate his wife.

A third supply ship, commanded by Sir George Somers (l. c. 1554-1610 CE) was supposed to have reached them before they ran into any trouble but his ship, the Sea Venture, was wrecked in a hurricane off the coast of Bermuda. Somers and his crew - which included Newport, John Rolfe, Sir Thomas Gates, and Stephen Hopkins (l. 1581-1644 CE, later of the Mayflower expedition) - built two new ships on Bermuda and arrived in Jamestown in May of 1610 CE. Gates assumed control of the settlement – whose population had fallen from around 500 to less than 150 – but felt the colony was simply unsustainable. He ordered the people to board the ships and abandon Jamestown and they were navigating their way up the James River when another ship, carrying Lord De La Warr, arrived and countermanded the order all ships would return to the colony and the passengers disembark.

De La Warr, Rolfe, & Dale

In a letter to the Virginia Company composed shortly after his arrival, De La Warr writes that they found the colony in a sorry state, appearing “rather as the ruins of some ancient fortification than that any people living might now inhabit it” (Neill, 39). De La Warr ordered Somers to return to Bermuda for fresh supplies and then reorganized the colony and turned the administration of its operation over to Gates. Lands were surveyed and parceled out for cultivation and John Smith's policy regarding working for one's food was maintained. De La Warr departed from Smith's policy regarding the natives, however, and instituted harsher measures, igniting the First Powhatan War (1610-1614 CE) which would kill over 400 colonists.

Rolfe had brought with him a hybrid seed blend he had cultivated from Spanish tobacco which he felt would do well in Virginia soil. By 1611 CE, Rolfe successfully harvested his first crop which would become a commercial success in Europe. Jamestown was not only saved by the tobacco crop but flourished. That same year, Sir Thomas Dale arrived with more supplies, colonists, and cattle and instituted further laws. De La Warr fell ill in 1613 CE and turned over his authority to Sir Samuel Argall (l. c. 1580-1626 CE), afterwards leaving for England.

Dale was tasked by the Virginia Company with establishing a colony to defend against the Spanish and understood that more, and better, land was required for the tobacco crop. He established a new colony, Henricus (named after his benefactor, Henry, son of James I), upriver from the old colony. Concurrently, evangelical efforts were underway to convert members of the Powhatan Confederacy to Christianity, and Dale established a college outside of Henricus to further their education as well as a hospital - the first English school and medical institution in North America.

By 1614 CE, John Rolfe was a wealthy man with a large plantation and married the newly converted Pocahontas (who took the Christian name Rebecca) which ended the First Powhatan War. As more land was cleared for tobacco, cattle, and settlement, the Powhatans were pushed further and further inland from the waterways which had always been their traditional means of livelihood and of travel, but the marriage of the wealthy Rolfe to the noble Pocahontas maintained good relations between the indigenous tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy and the immigrants.

In 1616 CE, Rolfe took Pocahontas and their young son, Thomas Rolfe (l. 1615- c. 1680 CE), to England on what amounted to a public relations tour for the Virginia Company to encourage further investment in the colony. Pocahontas was well received and became a national celebrity but died in 1617 CE just prior to their return. Chief Wahunsenacah died shortly afterwards, and Opchanacanough assumed leadership of the Powhatan Confederacy at about the same time the House of Burgesses was convened to pass laws regarding the colonizers of the former Powhatan lands.

Powhattan Wars, Servitude, & Rebellion

The Powhatan Wars can be understood as periodic engagements beginning in 1610 CE, when Jamestown began to expand, and concluding in 1646 CE, when Opchanacanough was shot in the back, while a prisoner, and killed. The most significant encounter is the so-called Indian Massacre of 1622 CE when Opchanacanough organized the confederacy in a coordinated attack that killed over 300 settlers and destroyed the colony of Henricus. James I rescinded the Virginia Company's charter afterwards in 1624 CE and took direct control through a royal charter. A long palisade was constructed by the settlers marking a boundary between their lands and those of the Powhatans and a truce was called in 1626 CE, establishing an uneasy peace.

Shortly after Rolfe's first tobacco crop proved successful, indentured servants began arriving in Jamestown. These were people who could not afford to book passage to the New World and so signed a contract known as an indenture so called because it was torn or cut with “teeth” indentations across the center and each party kept one half the two could be put together later to prove authenticity. Indentured servants agreed to work for a period of time (usually seven years but sometimes four) and would then receive a tract of land. The first Africans arrived in the colony in 1619 CE but, as slavery was not institutionalized in North America at this time, they seem to have been treated the same as indentured servants. Scholar David A. Price clarifies:

Although it is tempting to assume that these first recorded Africans in English America were also the first slaves, there is evidence to suggest they were not. They may instead have had the legal position of indentured servants, like many of the white newcomers, eligible for freedom after completing a period of service. (197)

This dynamic changed in 1640 CE when a black indentured servant named John Punch refused to fulfill his contract and left his master's service along with two white servants. The three were caught and returned and, while the two white servants only had their terms of servitude extended by four years, Punch was condemned to continue as a slave for life. By 1661 CE, slavery would be institutionalized in Virginia and black settlers no longer seen as the equals of whites.


As per the terms of indentured servitude, more and more former laborers had become landowners themselves. The lands of these later owners were further inland and considered of less worth than those on the coast, however, and more vulnerable to attacks by natives whose traditional homes were being overrun by more and more settlers. One of these later landowners, Nathaniel Bacon (l. 1647-1676 CE), raised a revolt (Bacon's Rebellion) in 1676 CE, demanding the slaughter or relocation of Native Americans in the region and the overthrow of Governor William Berkeley (l. 1605-1677 CE) whose administration he claimed was corrupt in favor of the older, coastal landowners and the natives.

Bacon and his followers burned Jamestown, forcing Berkeley and his supporters to flee the town, but before he could do more, he died of dysentery and the rebellion failed. The revolt ended indentured servitude, the increased need for laborers encouraged the slave trade, and Native Americans were further denied land and civil rights. Jamestown was rebuilt but, when the statehouse accidentally caught fire again in 1698 CE, the colonial capital was moved to the area known as the Middle Plantation, later Williamsburg, and Jamestown was eventually abandoned. Its legacy continued, however, as more slaves were brought from West Africa and more of the Native Americans were forced from their land into reservations to make room for more colonists pursuing the same American dream that had drawn the first to the land of plenty.

It would also be useful if they could stay fit, healthy and alive

No small undertaking for a group of people whose number was not much above one hundred.

They were not a group of people chosen at random, many came with specific skills suited to the purpose. About a third of them were skilled workers who would be needed both on the voyage and when they arrived. Carpenters such as William Laxon or blacksmiths such as James Reed. Who would cut your hair or amputate your leg if need be? Why that would be barber Thomas Couper. A priest was needed to say prayers for the dead and Robert Hunt stood up for this role. A labouring force would also be required. The rest of the settlers were made up of gentlemen, one wonders how the aptly named Captaine Archer fared? Find out more names in the list here.

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. The ships left the Port of London but due to adverse weather conditions they were delayed. The River Thames often froze in the winter during this period.

Christopher Newport was the captain in charge of the three ships, he and John Smith clashed during the voyage and lucky for him, 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 named their new town Jamestown, in honour of King James I.

Of the first colonists who landed in April 1607, only thirty-eight survived the winter. They struggled on all fronts, shelter, food and disease.

They were not defeated though and more and more colonists crossed the seas. In the first fifteen years, 10,000 settlers left England but it is thought only 20% of these survived. They first months of the colony were chronicled by John Smith, Edward Wingfield and George Percy.

Jamestown Colony

1854 image of the ruins of Jamestown showing the tower of the old Jamestown Church built in the 17th century

Joint-stock companies in England had tried numerous times to establish a colony in North America. It was no sure thing that Jamestown would be the first.

Jamestown was a settlement founded by the Virginia Company of London, a joint-stock company named for Elizabeth I – the “virgin queen” – that had been given a monopoly by King James I. They departed England in 1607 with three ships, stopping in the West Indies before proceeding on to the Chesapeake Bay. They first made their settlement on an island, but found it too swampy and soon moved up the river they named the James. Their goal was to find silver and gold as the Spanish had done.

Early Troubles

They constructed the settlement of Jamestown, but many of the 500 colonists were “gentlemen” who were unaccustomed to physical labor. On top of that they had arrived too late in the year to put in a crop. Many of the original colonists “went native,” joining with the indigenous peoples of the region in order to survive. About ten percent of them died in the first few months and up to half were dead the following spring. By the “starving time” of the winter of 1609-10 only about 60 colonists remained alive and living in Jamestown.

The military leader of the original group was Captain John Smith who had instituted martial law the second year to get the settlers to put in a crop., but suffered a wound to the knee and was forced to return to England. The 1610 remnant population actually abandoned Jamestown briefly but soon encountered relief ships coming from England with supplies and more settlers. Among the replacements were Polish artisans whose skills included glassblowing, the first product exported by English colonists.


On a pass through the West Indies on the way to Virginia, John Rolfe had acquired a few pounds of tobacco seed. Europeans had had adequate time to become addicted to tobacco since the early Spanish colonists had sent the dried leaves back from the New World. This demand proved to be the lifeblood of the new English colony and new lands for the crop were needed. Further colonial expansion into the Indian lands exacerbated the rather tense relations between the two groups.

In order to alleviate these tensions, arrangements were made between the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy, the Algonquian-speakers who lived in the region, and the English colonists. Wahunsenecawh, the leader of the Confederacy whom the colonists called Powhatan, had a daughter known to the colonists as Pocahontas. This daughter was married to John Rolfe in order to cement relations between the English and the Confederacy in the Chesapeake.

During this period, the colony continued to grow its tobacco economy. Labor was obtained through the importation of indentured servants, usually indigent young men from England who had no prospects in the Mother Country and were willing to sign themselves into servitude, usually for a period of between three and seven years. To attract Englishmen of some means who were able to outfit a tobacco plantation, the Virginia colonists created the Headright System. For every member of a gentry’s household, the Virginia Company promised 50 acres if he could afford to set up a plantation. In this way, the colony expanded further onto Indian lands.

1619: A Significant Year

By the year 1619, the colony was established enough to form a governing body. They formed the House of Burgesses for the purpose of self-governance in this country far from the organizing forces of King-in-Parliament. Also in this year, it was acknowledged in the Mother Country that the ratio of men to women in Virginia had reached 5:1. In response, a ship with a “cargo” of women was dispatched to Jamestown where they were sold for 120 pounds of tobacco each. Also in 1619, a Dutch slave ship sold over 20 African slaves at the dock, the first in English North America.

Conflict with Indians

Members of the Powhatan Confederacy, of which the main group were the Pawmunkeys, had saved the lives of the colonists in the early days. Since then, the John Rolfe – Pocahontas marriage had maintained an uneasy peace. Pocahontas, whose real name was Matoaka, had gone to England with Rolfe, where she was trussed up in English clothing and shown about the Court and aristocratic circles of London. During this trip she contracted an Old World disease and died in England at the age of 17. Her father, Wahunsenecawh, died soon afterward.

The leadership of the Confederacy fell then to Opechancanough, the brother of Wahunsenecawh. The new leader did not care for the English and wanted to see them driven into the sea. The expansion of the plantations and the dismissive way many of the English treated the Indians wore on Opechancanough and his followers. In 1622, the Indians attacked the outlying plantations and villages that had only recently been built. Several hundred English were killed and the remainder had to retreat to the garrison at Jamestown.

The English, however, were very good at warfare, and their counter-attack drove the Indians into the woods. The English sacked and burned their villages, killing many of the Confederacy and destroying their winter stores. In the broader view, this conflict began what has been called the “Indian Wars,” a centuries long conquest of North America by the English, their colonists, and subsequent generations of immigrants. King James I, fearful of losing control of the now-profitable Virginia Colony, declared it a Royal colony in 1624, thus ending the private venture. The colony grew as a part of the “plantation complex” of the British Empire, where staple crops were produced by slaves to create wealth for the planters.

Jamestown Colony - HISTORY

I write this especially for our Maoist brothers. While the US is commonly vilified as the bastion of capitalism, it is little known that the US too has tried communism. It was only when communism failed that property rights and capitalism took hold.

Let us go back into history and see what lessons America learned from its relatively short dalliance with Maoism much before the ‘great leader' himself was born.

The year was 1607. The first 104 settlers had arrived from Europe in Jamestown in the Virginia Tidewater region of the US in May. They found soil which was fertile beyond what they had seen in the lands which they had left. Fruits were abundant. Wild game such as deer and turkey were everywhere. There was no shortage of fish and other seafood. And yet within six months 66 of the original Jamestown, Virginia settlers had died. Only 38 survived.

Another 500 settlers were again sent to settle in Virginia in 1609 and within six months 440 of these too died by starvation and disease. This was called ‘starving time' and one eyewitness described it in English of those times, ‘So great was our famine, that a Savage we slew and buried, the poorer sorte took him up againe and eat him and so did divers one another boyled and stewed with roots and herbs.'

How could this be? How could there be such death and starvation amidst so much plenty of meat, fruits, and fish. The fault as the witness said lay not in the ‘barrenness and defect of the Countrie' but in the ‘want of providence, industry and government'.

What caused this lack of ‘industrie'? Were the Virginian settlers lazy and indolent? It could not be. People who were sent there were the chosen ones – the very best of men.

The problem was that all the men who were sent were bonded labourers. They had no stake in what they produced. They were bound by contract to put all they produced into a common pool to be used to support their colony as a whole. This was communism in its purest form. Everyone was supposed to work according to ability and take according to need.

As so frequently happens with present day government policies, the results were the opposite of what was intended. Since hard work was not personally beneficial for the settlers they responded by stopping work.

Phillip A. Bruce, a late 19th century US historian, wrote of the Jamestown immigrants, “The settlers did not have even a modified interest in the soil … . Everything produced by them went into the store, in which they had no proprietorship.” The result as Bruce wrote would be what anyone who has any knowledge of human nature would expect, men, even the most energetic, refused to work.

This is what happened in Mao's China and in Soviet Russia on a grand scale. In America a few hundred deaths stopped the communist experiment, in China and Russia, millions had to die before these nations abandoned the principles of Marx, Lenin, and Mao.

Jamestown changed course just two years later in 1611 with arrival of the ‘high marshall' Sir Thomas Dale from the UK. He understood the problem, freed the settlers by abrogating communal ownership. Each man received three acres of land and, other than a lump sum tax of 2 ½ barrels of corn, did not have to contribute anything to the common pool. The colony immediately began to prosper. It prospered because each individual directly benefited by his labour and knew that he would also bear the full consequences of any reduction in output. Private ownership and capitalism worked.

Communism doesn't work because it destroys the reward and work nexus. Communism doesn't work because the absence of property rights heralds the end of all incentive to produce. Communism doesn't work because humans do no wish to sacrifice themselves to the common good.

I do not know or care about the political philosophy of the Maoists. I would, though, like to know what their economic policies are going to be. Do they want to take back Nepal to what America experimented with almost 400 years ago? Nepal lags behind the US in economic development, but is it to be put back by four centuries?.

Key Facts & Information


  • The Jamestown Colony was founded on the eastern banks of the James River.
  • While its location was chosen for being highly defensible against potential attacks, Jamestown was settled in a poor location the land was marshy and difficult to work on.
  • The Jamestown Colony was established in the middle of Paspahegh (a tributary of the Powhatan tribe) territory, leading to conflict with Native Americans during the time.


  • The first group of settlers arrived in Jamestown in May 1607.
  • Having arrived at their destination so late into the summer, the colonists were unable to plant crops to support themselves in their first year. This caused many of the first colonists to starve.
  • If starvation didn’t get to the Jamestown colonists, disease did. Because the colony was founded on a marsh, mosquitos carrying deadly diseases, like malaria, were rampant in their settlement, causing many colonists to get sick.
  • By the winter of 1607, only 39 of the 100+ colonists to originally settle in Jamestown were left alive.
  • The Virginia Company, still expecting to find gold in Jamestown, was disappointed with the lack of progress made by the colonists. They sent a list of outrageous demands with their first supply ship to the colonists, demanding the colonists pay for the expenses of their trip and supplies with gold and information.
  • John Smith, an early leader of the colonists, stood up to the Virginia Company and its investors, insisting they needed additional supplies and skilled workmen for the colony.
  • Between 1609 and 1610, the Jamestown Colony fell to chaos when John Smith was injured in a gunpowder explosion, leaving the colony to George Percy. Percy was unable to form stable relationships with the Native Americans, causing turmoil.
  • In addition to Percy’s incompetence, several supply ships bound for Jamestown became lost or wrecked in a hurricane on their trip to the colony, leaving the colonists without necessary supplies. This became known as the “Starving Period,” killing over 100 colonists.
  • During the Starving Period, many colonists began boiling shoe leather to eat it for food – some even resorted to cannibalism.


  • The Jamestown colonists had a strained relationship with the local tribes, having encroached on the land of the Powhatan Confederacy.
  • Members of the Native community attempted to move the Jamestown settlement off their land, but had little success.
  • In 1607, the Powhatan Confederacy captured the colonial leader John Smith and threatened to kill him over the land dispute between the natives and the colonists. Having survived this encounter, Smith attributed his safe return to the colony to the Chief’s daughter, Matoaka (better known by her nickname – Pocahontas), who he stated saved him from execution.
  • By 1610, the tensions between colonists and natives grew exponentially, initiating the Anglo-Powhatan War. The first part of the war would go on for 4 years.
  • During the Powhatan Wars, the Powhatan’s beloved princess, Pocahontas, was captured by the British and held hostage. She was never allowed to see her family again and was forced to convert to Christianity.
  • Pocahontas would later marry one of her captors, John Rolfe, bear him a son, and move back to England two years later only to die from illness.


  • After the Anglo-Powhatan War, the Jamestown Colony would strike it rich by finding a cash crop they could grow for profit: tobacco.
  • Having found a successful money-maker for the colony, the Virginia Company began advertising for people to move to the colony under the headright system, promising them 50 acres of land if they were to move to Jamestown to begin farming.
  • Hundreds of people traveled to Jamestown as indentured servants, promising to work the land for a rich farmer for an agreed upon amount of years before earning their freedom to work independently.
  • Jamestown would later set up the first representative government in the colonies – the House of Burgesses, in 1619, to set up a colonial economy and preserve peace between the colonists.

Jamestown Colony Worksheets

This is a fantastic bundle which includes everything you need to know about Jamestown Colony across 20 in-depth pages. These are ready-to-use Jamestown Colony worksheets that are perfect for teaching students about the Jamestown which was the first successful British colony to be established in North America.

Complete List Of Included Worksheets

  • Jamestown Colony Facts
  • Jamestown: The Not-Lost Colony
  • Jamestown Cause and Effect
  • Scrapbook Snapshot
  • Wanted: Indentured Servants
  • Pocahontas v. Disney’s Pocahontas
  • Letter Home
  • Wedding Bells
  • Picture Notes
  • Jamestown Colony: Fact or Fiction
  • Love, or…. Essay

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Meet Real Women From Jamestown’s History

If you’re a big Jamestown fan like we are, you know that women played a significant role in colonial Virginia. Over the past three seasons, we’ve seen Alice, Verity, Jocelyn and other women of the colony navigate all sorts of political and personal challenges in the New World. But the Jamestown we see on the screen – with witch trials, assault, and some serious plotting – is still a romanticized version of the truth. So what was life really like for women in Jamestown? We dug into the history books to find out more.

Patsy Ferran as Mercy and Naomi Battrick as Jocelyn. Mercy and Jocelyn share a last moment together before the wedding

We know the show is based on true history. After the first group of male colonists landed in Virginia in 1607, the gender imbalance started to become a problem. Women were in high demand, so Jamestown’s leaders set up a marital immigration process to bring wives to the colony.

Leaving England for Jamestown allowed working-class Englishwomen to avoid a life of domestic service in their home country. It turns out that female colonists enjoyed freedoms that they probably would have never gotten back in England. Unlike on the show, women were usually given the honor of choosing their husband after they arrived. Once a woman chose her new husband, the man would pay back the Virginia Company and cover the costs of getting her to the New World in the form of “good leaf” tobacco – leading to the term “tobacco wives.”

Women who came to the colony could become landowners themselves, and if they become widows – as we've seen with Jocelyn – they were allowed to inherit substantial amounts of land which made them economically independent and gave them the option of choosing not to re-marry. What a novel idea!

Of course, English women were not the only women in Virginia at this time. Colonists encountered Native Americans, and captured Africans arrived in 1619 and were forced into servitude.

Here are some stories from real-life women in colonial Virginia.

Temperance Flowerdew Barrow Yeardley West
Temperance is one of the only characters from Jamestown based on a real person. Now, this was one tough woman! She arrived in Jamestown after a treacherous voyage from England, just ahead of the “Starving Time,” a harsh winter in which 80 percent of Jamestown’s colonists died. But Temperance survived – and thrived. Her husband from England died in 1613 and she went on to marry George Yeardley, future governor of Virginia. And (possible spoiler alert!) when George died and left her land in his will, Temperance became one of the wealthiest women in all of Virginia.

Claire Cox as Temperance and Jason Flemyng as Governor Yeardley and Kalani Queypo as Chacrow

Cockacoeske, “Queen of the Pamunkey”
One of the reasons we love Jamestown is its inclusive representation of Native Americans on screen. After her husband died, Cockacoeske became the leader of the Pamunkey, one of the remaining Powhatan tribes. Playing a crucial role in political negotiations between the English colonists and Indians, Cockacoeske managed to protect her tribe from future attacks. She met with colonial leaders, including Governor William Berkeley, and signed the Treaty of Middle Plantation, which gave the tribes legal protections under Virginia’s Royal government.

Anne Burras
Anne was venturing into the unknown when she arrived in Jamestown in 1608 at just 14 years old. Like Mercy, she came as a maidservant – but that all changed when her mistress died. Just two months later, Anne took part in the first known marriage in the colony when she married laborer John Laydon. Along with Temperance Flowerdew, her resilience helped her survive the deadly winter of 1609, and go on to flourish – she had four daughters in the colony.

Abiola Ogubiyi as Maria and Abubakar Salim as Pedro

Angelo was the first documented African woman in the Jamestown settlement. Like Maria and Pedro, she arrived in 1619 from the Portuguese colony of Angola, and was originally bound for Mexico before her ship was intercepted in the Caribbean. The Africans were taken to Virginia and bought by wealthy English planters. Sadly, not much else is known about Angelo's life, aside from her being listed in official documents as a servant in the household of Capt. William Pierce in 1625.

Sarah Harrison
Sarah Harrison’s story shows that the independent streak of many of Jamestown’s women is surprisingly accurate. According to records, Harrison refused to comply with a key part of a marriage ceremony. When the officiant asked for her promise to “obey” her husband, Harrison supposedly said “No obey.” She repeated the response two more times, until the clergyman skipped over that part of the ceremony. We don't know about you, but we could see Verity doing the same thing!

Ann Jackson
Ann Jackson’s quest for a new life did not go as planned. She sailed for Virginia in 1621 in a group of 56 skilled women, hoping to join her brother, who was already living in the colony. Along with 17 other women, she was captured by Powhatan Indians in an attack on the settlement in 1622. She survived six years in captivity – but after her experiences in the new world, she would eventually return to England.

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Watch the video: Jamestown Settlement. Jamestown Colony. Educational Story for Kids. Kids Academy