A Brief History of Jamestown
The founding of Jamestown, America’s first permanent English colony, in Virginia in 1607 – 13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in Massachusetts – sparked a series of cultural encounters that helped shape the nation and the world. The government, language, customs, beliefs and aspirations of these early Virginians are all part of the United States’ heritage today.
The colony was sponsored by the Virginia Company of London, a group of investors who hoped to profit from the venture. Chartered in 1606 by King James I, the company also supported English national goals of balancing the expansion of other European nations abroad, seeking a northwest passage to the Orient, and the creation of settlements in the New World.
The Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, carrying 105 passengers, one of whom died during the voyage, departed from England in December 1606 and reached the Virginia coast in late April 1607. The expedition was led by Captain Christopher Newport. On May 13, after two weeks of exploration, the ships arrived at a site on the James River selected for its deep water anchorage and good defensive position. The passengers came ashore the next day, and work began on the settlement. Initially, the colony was governed by a council of seven, with one member serving as president.
Serious problems soon emerged in the small English outpost, which was located in the midst of a chiefdom of about 14,000 Algonquian-speaking Indians ruled by the powerful leader Powhatan. Relations with the Powhatan Indians were tenuous, although trading opportunities were established. An unfamiliar climate, as well as brackish water supply and lack of food, conditions possibly aggravated by a prolonged drought, led to disease and death. Many of the original colonists were upper-class Englishmen, and the colony lacked sufficient laborers and skilled farmers.
Made up of townsmen and adventurers more interested in finding gold than farming, the group was unequipped by temperament or ability to embark upon a completely new life in the wilderness. Among them, Captain John Smith emerged as the dominant figure. Despite quarrels, starvation and Indian attacks, his ability to enforce discipline held the little colony together through its first year. His rule was for these people that were not used to doing physical labor, no work – no food. In other words you had to work to eat, if you refused to do your share you would not be fed.
In 1609 Smith returned to England, and in his absence, the colony descended into anarchy. During the winter of 1609-1610, the majority of the colonists succumbed to disease. Only 60 of the original 300 settlers were still alive by May 1610.
The years between are know as “Starving Time”. The initial small group of 104 men and boys chose the location because it was favorable for defensive purposes, but it offered poor hunting prospects and a shortage of drinking water. Although they did some farming, few of the original settlers were accustomed to manual labor or familiar with farming. They failed to plant crops early enough to ensure a successful harvest. Hunting on the island was very poor, and they quickly exhausted the supply of small game. The colonists were largely dependent upon trade with the Indians and periodic supply ships from England for their food.
At Jamestown, a drought earlier in 1609 during the normal growing season had left the fields of the colonists of Virginia barren. Between the lack of trade with the Indians, and the failure of the Third Supply to arrive with expected supplies, the colony found itself with far too little food for the winter. With the new arrivals, there were many more mouths to feed. Faced with impending disaster the colony attempted numerous attempts to break the Powhatan siege with armed foraging expeditions, diplomatic expeditions, and trading expeditions. All attempts were beaten back by the Powhatan’s, with most of the expedition personnel captured or killed.
There are few records of the hardships the colonists experienced in Virginia that winter. Arms and valuable work tools were traded to the Powhatans for a pittance in food. Houses were used as firewood. Archaeologists have found evidence that they ate cats, dogs, horses, and rats. In early 2007 at least three respected authorities concluded, based on some credible evidence, that the starvation conditions were so severe that corpses were dug up, and human flesh was eaten.