Jamestown

In June of 1606, King James I granted a charter to a group of London entrepreneurs, the Virginia Company, to establish a satellite English settlement in the Chesapeake region of North America. By December, 104 settlers sailed from London instructed to settle Virginia, find gold and a water route to the Orient. Some traditional scholars of early Jamestown history believe that those pioneers could not have been more ill-suited for the task. Because Captain John Smith identified about half of the group as “gentlemen,” it was logical, indeed, for historians to assume that these gentry knew nothing of or thought it beneath their station to tame a wilderness. Recent historical and archaeological research at the site of Jamestown suggest that at least some of the gentlemen and certainly many of the artisans, craftsmen, and laborers that accompanied them all made every effort to make the colony succeed.

On May 14, 1607, the Virginia Company explorers landed on Jamestown Island, to establish the Virginia English colony on the banks of the James River 60 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. By one account, they landed there because the deep water channel let their ships ride close to shore; close enough to moor them to the trees. Recent discovery of the exact location of the first settlement and its fort indicates that the actual settlement site was in a more secure place, away from the channel, where Spanish ships could not fire point blank into the Fort. Almost immediately after landing, the colonists were under attack from what amounted to the on-again off-again enemy, the Algonquian natives. As a result, in a little over a month’s time, the newcomers managed to “beare and plant palisadoes” enough to build a wooden fort. Three contemporary accounts and a sketch of the fort agree that its wooden palisaded walls formed a triangle around a storehouse, church, and a number of houses. While disease, famine, and continuing attacks of neighboring Algonquians took a tremendous toll on the population, there were times when the Powhatan Indian trade revived the colony with food in exchange for copper and iron implements. It appears that eventual structured leadership of Captain John Smith kept the colony from dissolving. The “starving time” winter followed Smith’s departure in 1609 during which only 60 of the original 214 settlers at Jamestown survived. That June, the survivors decided to bury cannon and armor and abandon the town. It was only the arrival of the new governor, Lord De La Ware, and his supply ships that brought the colonists back to the fort and the colony back on its feet. Although the suffering did not totally end at Jamestown for decades, some years of peace and prosperity followed the wedding of Pocahontas, the favored daughter of the Algonquian chief Powhatan, to tobacco entrepreneur John Rolfe.

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