The History of Jamestown
In 1607 a three-ship flotilla of Englishmen set sail for America: the Susan Constant guided by a privateer captain, Christopher Newport with seventy-one passengers and crew, the Godspeed with fifty-two men aboard led by another experienced fighter Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, and the tiny Discovery with twenty-one men in the charge of John Ratcliffe. A third to a half the men on board were considered gentlemen; they eschewed physical labor. The Virginia-bound company also included a pastor, twelve artisans, a blacksmith, a mason, two bricklayers, four carpenters, a tailor, two barbers, and a surgeon; the rest of the men were unskilled laborers or ship’s crew. All of them were seeking their fortunes and fulfilling the mandates of their sponsor, the London Company: to locate sources of precious metals, find a river route to the Pacific, and make contact with and bring the Christian Gospel to the native population. The querulous ship’s company included several pirates (“privateers”) and veterans of European wars, one of whom was a practical and tough freebooter, a man not to be trifled with, John Smith.
Unknown to the Englishmen, a confederation of twenty-eight native tribes, led by chiefs known as weroances, occupied the land around the site they would choose for settlement. A paramount chief, Wahunsenacah, exercised powerful control over those Algonquian tribes living along the great rivers of the Chesapeake region. His storehouses and temples were filled with the natural abundance exacted from his tributaries. Perhaps as many as fifteen thousand people dwelt in the Tsenacomacah—the land of the Powhatans. Their warriors were excellent marksmen with bows and arrows and knew from experience the lethal use of knives, clubs, and hatchets in close combat.
To the arriving Englishmen, however, a greater danger lay in the possible attack by Spanish warships which defended their huge South American empire and who jealously guarded all approaches to their territory. With this thought in mind, on May 7, 1607, the first president of the governing council Edward-Maria Wingfield and Captain Newport chose for settlement an unoccupied marshy peninsula, which they named for His Majesty, King James I. The encampment was fifty miles up “King’s” river (soon known as the James), a location that gave the English strategic advantages for defense should their European enemies approach from the south. A deep-water channel came up to the shore of James Town, and fish and game were abundant.
Relations with the Indians were continuously challenging. After establishing friendly relations with some of the native tribes, the clans nearest the settlement attacked unexpectedly. The two hundred or so warriors were repelled by cannon-fire from the ships, but a dozen Englishmen were wounded and two killed. The settlers reacted by building a palisade for defense and breaking out the firearms, which had been crated until then. Survival would henceforth call for defensive diligence as well as trade with their antagonists. By the winter of 1607, more than one hundred of the settlers had died from drinking polluted river water, murder by Indians, and starvation-related diseases. The majority of the remaining Englishmen refused to work or take steps to ensure their own survival. The council members deposed President Wingfield and placed John Smith in charge of securing supplies, building of houses, and developing favorable relations with the “naturals.” The new president, John Ratcliffe, ordered Smith to establish trade relations with down-river tribes, and his efforts met with great success. Smith learned enough Algonquin to strike hard bargains with the weroances for food. He also forced the colonists to work hard at keeping up their gardens, homes, and the fort. In December of 1607, Smith was seized by warriors during a river expedition and was brought face-to-face with the great chief of the Powhatans at the native’s capitol, Werowocomoco. According to Smith’s own poignant account of this event, he was saved from execution by one of Wahunsenacah’s young daughters, Pocahontas.
The following year of 1608 brought several infusions of new settlers to the struggling colony and saw the election of John Smith as president. Smith spent months exploring and mapping the Chesapeake region and conducting both diplomacy and hard bargaining with the Powhatans. During the one year that he served as leader of the colony, John Smith brought order and discipline to Jamestown, implementing the policy, “he who will not work, shall not eat.” In late summer, a new charter arrived from England and George Percy became president; another gentleman whose incompetence resulted in the horrible “Starving Time” which saw many die from hunger. After suffering a gunpowder injury, John Smith returned to England in October of 1609 leaving five hundred Virginia colonists behind. Within six months, only sixty men were still alive.
The colonists’ struggles continued. The new Lt. Governor, Thomas Gates, arrived at Jamestown in May of 1610. After viewing the wretched and apparently hopeless condition of the settlement, he soon resolved to return to England. Upon their departure, the colonists buried their cannon and set out for the mother country on June 7. As the dispirited colonists sailed for home, they were providentially met by the arriving relief expedition led by the new Governor Thomas West, Lord De La Warr. This merciful Providence of God was obvious for all to see and was even recorded in a tract published later that year in England by the Virginia Company, which read:
”...for if God had not sent Sir Thomas Gates from the Bermudas within four days, they had been almost famished; if God had not directed the heart of that noble Knight to save the Fort from firing at their shipping, for many were very importunate to have burnt it, they had been destitute of a present harbor and succor; if they had abandoned the Fort any longer time, and had not soon returned, questionless the Indians would have destroyed the Fort, which had been the means of our safety amongst them, and a terror. If they had set sail sooner and had launched into the vast ocean, who would have promised that they should have encountered the Fleet of Lord La Ware, especially when they made for New found land, as they intended, a course contrary to our Navy’s approaching. If the Lord la Ware had not brought with him a year’s provision, what comfort would those souls have received, to have been relanded to a second destruction?” (From John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia)
Governor West ruled with resolve, as well as with occasional violence, and eventually restored Jamestown to a healthy condition. He, however, was forced to leave nine months later due to ill health. The new Lieutenant governor, the uncompromising Thomas Dale, arrived in May 1611 with three hundred more settlers. The English were there to stay.
Thomas Dale’s influential four-year tenure brought about economic stability based on tobacco production and exportation. Entrepreneur John Rolfe successfully cultivated various strains of the noxious leaf, and by 1617 the plant was grown all around, even in the streets of Jamestown. By the year 1618, the colonists were shipping forty thousand pounds of tobacco to England.
In 1613, Pocahontas was kidnapped by the ruthless ship captain Samuel Argall and held hostage for the return of English captives and stolen goods. Even this unexpected Providence worked to the glory of God, for the English-speaking princess responded in faith upon hearing the Gospel, and eventually married John Rolfe in April 1614. She later bore a son whose numerous descendants today look with thanksgiving upon their perspicacious and heroic grandmother.
The year 1619 proved to be one of the most important in the history of the colony and for the future of America. In April of that year, Governor Thomas Yeardley brought the Virginia Company’s most recent charter which called for a legislative assembly and allowed for the private ownership of land. Also in that year, the company wisely sent a ship of maidens to Jamestown to provide wives for the colonists, thus ensuring its survival through births rather than constant male immigration. By 1620, the English population in Virginia stood at around 2,200. Additionally, in 1619, a Dutch ship left twenty Africans to work the plantations, perhaps as indentured servants. By the end of the century, slavery had become institutionalized in Virginia and all the colonies.
Though the colony was growing, conflict between the tribes and the settlers seemed endemic. In 1618, the great chief of the Powhatans died. Over the previous eleven years, few, if any of the original goals of the Virginia Company had been met, including successful evangelization of the native peoples. The two cultures remained separate and at odds as the Englishmen moved further inland. In 1622, the new paramount chief, Opechancanough, led a murderous colony-wide attack in an attempt to annihilate all the settlements and plantations along the James and York Rivers. More than three hundred people were massacred. The counterattack by the English was just as ferocious and to add to everyone’s woes, plague and famine broke out among both antagonists. Finally, in April 1623, the Powhatan chief sued for peace saying, “blud enough had already been shedd on both sides.”
The English founders of Virginia were men of flesh and blood. They faced tremendous hardships and most of them died within a year of landing. Nonetheless God in His wisdom had ordained that they succeed at great cost and establish free, representative government in North America. Through the sacrificial efforts of a tough but wise soldier of fortune in John Smith, a gifted and persistent Christian businessman in John Rolfe, an extraordinary Indian princess in Pocahontas, and a diverse company of other folk, Providence secured a future nation.
William E. Potter
Vision Forum Staff Historian