20 Unsettling Events in the Life of the Settlers of Jamestown, Virginia
20 Unsettling Events in the Life of the Settlers of Jamestown, Virginia

20 Unsettling Events in the Life of the Settlers of Jamestown, Virginia

Larry Holzwarth - August 11, 2018

20 Unsettling Events in the Life of the Settlers of Jamestown, Virginia
An entirely fictional depiction of the baptism of Pocahontas in 1614. The Pocahontas legend is one of the oldest in American history. Wikimedia

The colony structure

Some of the colonists which came to Virginia were the scions of landed gentlemen of England and Ireland. With no appreciable prospects at home, where their elder brothers would inherit the bulk of their father’s estates, they paid for their transport to Virginia, where they established estates of their own. For labor, they could rely on the arrival of indentured servants, who signed contracts for several years of labor in return for payment for their passage to the colony, and housing upon arrival. Some artisans borrowed the money for their passage, in return for work for the colony itself in critically needed trades.

The clothes and footwear of Europe were unsuitable to the climate and conditions of the colony and the surrounding plantations. The colonists adapted some of the native garb and customs while working their fields, but maintained their European garb while conducting their other business, including attending church, which was mandatory for all colonists, under pain of fine and imprisonment in the stocks. The communal life of the earliest days of the colony, when all food was pooled and divided equally among the settlers, was replaced with a capitalistic society, with some planters amassing fortunes in land and money, and others having less success.

20 Unsettling Events in the Life of the Settlers of Jamestown, Virginia
Weroances – Great Chiefs – of the native Virginia tribes, drawn circa 1585 from the descriptions of explorers. Wikimedia

More tensions with the natives

In 1616 the Chickahominy tribe, which had previously agreed to pay tribute to the colonists in the form of bushels of corn as part of the peace treaty between them, discontinued their tribute and joined the Powhatan confederacy. Two years later Powhatan died and his younger brother, Opechancanough, became the leader of the confederacy, bringing with him a virulent anti-English policy. The new chief had long argued for the destruction of the English settlements and the permanent expulsion of the intruders from Virginia, and the expanding tobacco plantations gave his arguments more weight with the warriors of the native tribes.

Opechancanough used a campaign of deceit to bring his warriors into close daily contact with the settlements at Martin’s Hundred and elsewhere. The warriors in many cases pretended to become Christianized, and desirous of adopting the ways of the whites, living in the towns and hamlets rather than in those of their tribes along the tributaries of the James. While very few natives had firearms, due to both colonial policy and a perennial shortage of gunpowder, they were equipped with iron weapons which they traded for with the colonists, including tomahawks and knives, as well as heavy war clubs. They would soon use them.

20 Unsettling Events in the Life of the Settlers of Jamestown, Virginia
A 1628 woodcut depicting the 1622 massacre of settlers at Jamestown. Wikimedia

Massacre of 1622

Captain John Smith was not in Virginia at the time and did not witness the Massacre of 1622 in Virginia, but for centuries his writing on the matter was considered to be the authoritative account of the event. More recent history, including archaeological investigations, debunks Smith’s account. What did happen, on March 22, 1622, a Friday, was that natives led by the chief of the Powhatan confederacy launched a series of coordinated attacks to kill all of the English settlers they could find. Three hundred and forty-seven men, women, and children were killed by the natives, more than 25% of the population of the colony.

The small settlements of Henricus and at the Falling Creek Ironworks were wiped out, and most of Martin’s Hundred, a plantation on the James, was destroyed. The natives destroyed buildings and murdered settlers along the James River from near what became Richmond to the region of what is now Newport News. Jamestown was forewarned, and was prepared for the attack, which it repulsed. The massacre of 1622 marked the beginning of ten years of warfare between the colonists and the Powhatan confederacy, with expeditions against the native towns and villages conducted nearly every summer by the colonial militia.

20 Unsettling Events in the Life of the Settlers of Jamestown, Virginia
Captain John Smith, who promoted himself to Admiral in the title of his General History of Virginia, did not discuss slavery in the colony, though slaves were present as early as 1619. Wikimedia

The first slaves arrive

In the summer of 1619 the slave ship San Juan Bautista was bound for the Spanish port of Veracruz when it was attacked by British privateers, who captured several dozen of the Africans found aboard. The British vessels then made for Virginia. While at anchor off Point Comfort near Hampton Roads, the privateers sold 19 of the Africans to some of the wealthier planters of the Jamestown colony, in exchange for provisions for their ships, before sailing to Bermuda. There were no laws defining slavery in the Virginia colony at the time, but these were the first slaves to be brought to English North America. By the end of the following year, 32 slaves were recorded in the Virginia population.

Although the Africans were brought to Virginia as slaves some of them later acquired the status of indentured servants from their masters, and when the period of indenture was completed they became free men. In 1619 the colony established the first representative government in North America, which became the Virginia House of Burgesses, and established that only English born and their male descendants were eligible to vote. Thus neither the German and Polish artisans in the colony nor the Africans, nor women, were recognized as having voting rights.

20 Unsettling Events in the Life of the Settlers of Jamestown, Virginia
Smith recorded several different versions of his being saved by Pocahontas, thus saving the colony, which have long endured. Wikimedia

The General Assembly

Until 1619 the colony which by then consisted of numerous small towns, villages, hamlets, and plantations, was run under military authority. Control was in the hands of the governor, appointed by the commissioners in London. In 1619, following the instructions of the Virginia Company in London, the General Assembly was created, which met in Jamestown’s recently completed wooden church. The General Assembly oversaw the economic, legal, and religious affairs of the colony, and controlled negotiations with the natives of the Powhatan confederacy. It also assumed independent control of the colony’s military affairs. The assembly also sat as a court of law, adjudicating cases brought before it both civil and criminal.

By the middle of the following decade the Assembly managed the affairs of English settlements on the York peninsula, the Eastern shore of Virginia, and as far inland as present day Richmond. The area of the original Jamestown settlement became less populated as settlers moved inland, and the importance of James Fort as a means of defense grew less critical. Other fortresses were erected at strategic points on tributaries of the James River, which became a nautical highway connecting the settlements and the plantations along its banks. By 1630 Middle Plantation, which later became Williamsburg, was designated as the anchor for a wooden palisade across the peninsula separating native lands from those of the English. It was completed in 1634.

20 Unsettling Events in the Life of the Settlers of Jamestown, Virginia
England’s Charles I mandated how the Virginia colony would be divided into shires and governed. Wikimedia

Under English Law

In 1624 the Virginia Company was dissolved when its charter was revoked by order of King James. The colony continued to grow steadily, with those fleeing religious and political oppression in England choosing to relocate to the North American possessions. Virginia also received those unhappy with the growing Puritan colonies in the Cape Cod region of New England. In 1634, under the royal command of King Charles I, the colony of Virginia was divided into eight shires, with Jamestown designated as James City and located in James City Shire. The shires were the original eight counties of Virginia. Each shire was named by the Burgesses of the General Assembly, and had its own local officers.

The royal decree also established the cities of Elizabeth City, Charles City, and James City, though the settlement was still for the most part referred to as Jamestown in local parlance. The Virginia colony grew steadily during the next several decades, especially in the tidewater areas along Chesapeake Bay and the inland rivers of the Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James. Other conflicts with the natives led to the Powhatan Confederacy crumbling into its several tribes independently of each other, and wars between the tribes and the whites continued as English settlement pushed the natives back along the rivers and streams of inland Virginia.

20 Unsettling Events in the Life of the Settlers of Jamestown, Virginia
An illustration of Jamestown in ruins from 1878. Wikimedia

Jamestown fades away

During Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 Jamestown was overrun and burned, but the town was rebuilt and remained the capital of the colony, though the Burgesses met in Middle Plantation during the rebuilding of the statehouse. In 1698 the statehouse again burned to the ground, and the Burgesses again met in the new College of William and Mary at Middle Plantation. While there the Burgesses decided to permanently move the capital to the site, renaming Middle Plantation Williamsburg in honor of their sovereign. Work soon began on a home for the Assembly and the Governor in the thriving town, and Jamestown lost its last measure of importance to the colony.

By the time of the American Revolution most of the village of Jamestown was gone, its church abandoned by its congregation, the palisaded fort collapsed and overgrown, and most of the fields cultivated in tobacco and wheat. Jamestown itself gradually returned to the condition in which it appeared when the first English settlers arrived in 1607, minus the population of the Powhatan Confederacy. In the late twentieth century archaeological studies have located the sites of many of the early Jamestown buildings, including the first brickworks and ironworks in North America, which nature reclaimed from the early founders of what became the Commonwealth of Virginia.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“John Smith: English Explorer and Colonist”, by Arthur M. Schlesinger and Tara Baukus Mello, 2009

“A Land as God Made it: Jamestown and the Birth of America”, by James Horn, 2006

“Why Jamestown Matters”, by James Horn, American Heritage Magazine, Winter, 2008

“The Complete Works of John Smith”, by John Smith (1580-1631), ed. by Philip L. Barbour

“A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World”, by Tony Horwitz 2008

“Harwich: Remembering a hero”, by the Harwich and Manningtree Standard, August 31, 2007

“Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of a New Nation”, by David A. Price, 2003

“‘Proof’ Jamestown settlers turned to cannibalism”, by Jane O’Brien, BBC News, May 1, 2013

“Sea Venture: Shipwreck, Survival, and the Salvation of the First English Colony in the New World”, by Kieran Doherty, 2008

“Thomas West, 3rd Baron Delaware”, entry by Darryl Roger Lundy, The Peerage, February 23, 2011

“The Tempest”, by Avery Kolb, American Heritage Magazine, April/May 1983

“Letter of John Rolfe to Governor Sir Thomas Dale”, by John Rolfe, 1614, online

“Of Raleigh and the First Plantation”, by A. L. Rowse, American Heritage Magazine, June 1959

“Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History”, by Peter Wallenstein, 2007

“Finding the Real Jamestown”, by William M. Kelso, American Heritage Magazine, Winter 2008

“Beyond Jamestown”, by Terence Smith, Smithsonian Magazine, April 30, 2007

“1622 Three Hundred and Seventy-five Years Ago Massacre”, by Frederic D. Schwarz, American Heritage Magazine, February/March 1997

“Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America”, by Benjamin Woolley, 2008

“Digging Up Jamestown”, by Ivor Noel Hume, American Heritage Magazine, April 1963

“Rethinking Jamestown”, by Jeffrey Sheler, Smithsonian Magazine, January 1, 2005