The Jamestown settlement in Virginia became in 1607 the first permanent English settlement in North America. Who were its earliest settlers, and what were their reasons for building this outpost in the New World? What did they hope to accomplish? Describe the many difficulties they encountered, especially their relationship with the Powhatan Indians of the Chesapeake region. In your opinion, did Jamestown eventually prove to be a successful venture?
The earliest English settlers at Jamestown comprised of settlers sponsored by the Virginia Company. That is to say these settlers were recruited and sent by the Virginia Company to work in the new World on behalf of the company’s shareholders. 105 settlers in total and 35 sailors travelling in the Discovery, Godspeed, and Susan Constant, reached in Chesapeake Bay in 1607 and selected in a location on James Rives because of its excellent defensive position and deep water anchorage (Tucker, Arnold, & Wiener, 2011). These settlers were led by Captain Christopher Newport and mercenary John Smith. The Jamestown was founded by the Virginia Company of London in 1607 after being issued with a charter by King James I. The company had petitioned King James I for a charter to set up a colony in Virginia. The Virginia Company of London was a group of London entrepreneurs who expected to benefit from the venture.
One of the reasons the Virginia Company built Jamestown was to create a satellite English settlement in the Chesapeake region and to counterbalance the expansion of France, Spain and Dutch. The Virginia Company wanted to set up permanent English presence in Chesapeake Bay region, Virginia. The company shareholders hoped to receive enormous profits on their venture. These settlers expected quick wealth from precious minerals before they returned to England.
Another reason is the search for vital resources like gold and other wealth. England’s natural resources had been depleted after years of supporting English population. England sought to remedy the depletion by supplementing by trade and exploitation the unstable and volatile condition forced England to look for other options in North America. Jamestown seemed an ideal location for securing precious minerals needed back in England by London investors. Unfortunately, they would not find gold in the region (Loren, 2008).
The Virginia Company established Jamestown in order to secure Northwest route to India and the Middle East (orient). In addition to that, many company’s stockholders were religious and wanted to convert Indians to Christianity through education and European culture.
Hardships the Settlers Faced
The Virginia Company established Jamestown as a business enterprise. Company stockholders contributed funds to sponsor the start of a colony in the New World in hopes of generating quick riches. Because they were after quick riches, the settlers dedicated their time in searching for precious mineral and forgot about planting crops and constructing buildings (Fone, 2005). The struggles and difficulties faced by early English settlers in the initial years at Jamestown are well established. Spoiled provisions, unrest, disease and unfamiliar terrain devastated the settlers.
No sooner had colonists established outpost than serious problems emerged. The outpost was situated in the center of a chiefdom of Algonquian-speaking natives governed by Powhatan. The interactions between the local Indians and the settlers escalated into conflicts and tensions. The Powhatan warriors often attacked the newly established Jamestown and settlers, forcing the colonists to set up wooden fort to protect the settlement. Between 1607 and 1609, the Powhatan warriors launched seven attacks on Jamestown due to failure by the settlers to reciprocate the local Indians for land, and food (Loren, 2008). They even captured John Smith and took him into captivity. The warriors let Smith free after Pocahontas; Powhatan’s daughter requested his life to be spared.
The colony almost collapsed during Starving Time. The 1609 feminine claimed many lives of the settlers. Those who survived the famine turned to cannibalism, living on Dogs, Hogs, snakes, mice, rats and horses (Fone, 2005). Increased tension between the native Indians and settlers denied the latter access to food supplies because the two groups found it difficult to trade. As a result, the settlers had been cut short of food supplies. They were on the verge of returning back to England when ships loaded with new colonists and supplies arrived. The weary settled agreed to extend their stay and see if things could turn around.
Furthermore, the site in which Jamestown was built was largely isolated from the mainland. The location also provided no source of fresh water for drinking as it had polluted water. Infectious insects populated the location making it disease prone region. It also offered limited land for farming and game for hunting. These conditions were worsened by drought and famine (Blanton, 2000). In spite of attempts at growing silk, mining mineral, as well as exporting native tobacco, the settlement seemed at the verge of collapse. These exports proved less profitable to sustain the colony.
The Virginia Company of London chose to establish its first colony in James River because the site met many of the necessary conditions. Although the location lacked reliable source of water and other supplies, it was easily defensible from any attack. The English feared that their rivals (Spanish and French) might launch an attack from the sea and therefore saw Jamestown location as easily defensible. Additionally, the location contained a deep harbor near to the shore for anchorage.
The settlers equally experienced high rate of mortality due to outbreak of diseases and starvation. Chesapeake Bay region was populated by diseases, bacteria, and germs that colonists had never experienced before. The location of Jamestown was situated in a swampy area which contained insects that carry diseases (Fone, 2005). The settlers dumped their feces into James River thereby increasing the risk of dysentery. This disease caused many settlers to have chronic diarrhea because of intestinal infection. Dysentery combined with malaria and typhoid to claim many lives. More than half of the earlier settlers at Jamestown succumbed to dead due to these diseases (Fone, 2005).
The interactions between the Indians in Chesapeake Bay region and the settlers had begun well until the colonists became selfish and only longed for more supplies without reciprocating. The leadership of John Smith who was made the Council’s president had saved the settlement by establishing trade relationship with the local Indians. The locals offered food supplies and hospitality in hope to absorb the visitors. The settlers became more dependent on the locals for most of their supplies and needs. Instead of reciprocating, the English settlers began to condemn the Indians to slavery, work and drudgery. This aroused anger among the natives who registered their disappointment of the colonists. Over time, the relationship began to deteriorate after the settlers started mistreating the natives.
The Jamestown colony nearly collapsed due to many hardships that confronted the settlers. In fact, the remaining settlers had planned to return home and consider the exploration a failure. It took two ships loaded with supplies and new colonists, and self-imposed improved organization in terms of self-discipline and food supplies to learn to grow crops that fended off starvation. Life slowly started to gradually improve after the settlers started to organize defense in order fend off attacks from local Indians (Enas, 2011). The settlers began to plant crops, build houses and work in order to survive. The settlers introduced exotic tobacco that thrived well than native tobacco. The crop became the gold of Virginia. Exporting the crop to England made the colony self-sustaining.
Despite the rocky beginning, Virginia colony soon experienced rapid expansion the Powhatan Indians demanded and received glass beads, iron tools, and copper items from English settlers in exchange for hospitality, knowledge of the Chesapeake region and food supplies.
The marriage between Pocahontas and Rolfe sealed the peace agreed between the two groups. The truce saw Powhatan returning all of the English captives, firearms and tools in his possession (Tucker & Arnold & Wiener, 2011). With the Virginia’s success, expansive settlement became practical option and English leaders and officials used various methods and approaches to encourage colonization in the New World. From 1610 thousands of English people relocated to North America.
The earliest English settlers at Jamestown were Virginia Company stockholders who hoped to make quick wealth and return to England. Therefore, the primary goal of establishing Jamestown was to set up business enterprise. The settlers came to seek precious minerals like gold. Many challenges confronted English settlers at the site that the colony nearly collapsed. Some of these challenges included shortage of fresh water sources and food supplies that led to Starvation Time, famine, diseases, and serious tension with the local people. The difficulties the settlers faced while dwelling in Jamestown greatly affected them. In addition to famine, starvation, diseases, and hostility from the locals, the settlers watched as many of their loved ones die. They came to conclusion that life at Jamestown was not what they had hoped for.
Blanton, D. B. (2000).Drought as a Factor in the Jamestown Colony, 1607-1612. Historical Archaeology, 34(4): 74.
Enas, G. (2011). America Secret Miracles. Pennsylvania: Red Lead Press
Foner, E. (2005). Give Me Liberty!. An American History, 1(4): 57-8.
Loren, D. D. P. (2008). In contact: Bodies and spaces in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century eastern Woodlands. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
Tucker, S., Arnold, J. R., & Wiener, R. (2011). The encyclopedia of North American Indian wars, 1607-1890: A political, social, and military history. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO.