While the British settlement erected the fort and the first buildings, including the church, the three ships which had carried them to the New World sailed upriver on exploratory missions. Commanded by Captain Christopher Newport (for whom Newport News is named) these ships were the Susan Constant, Discovery, and Godspeed. The voyages up the James River irritated the tribes not allied with the Powhatan Confederacy, one of which, the Paspahegh, claimed the land on which the Jamestown fort had been erected as their territory. The fort endured several attacks in late May 1607, before Powhatan intervened to end them in July.
By that time Newport and Susan Constant had sailed for England, carrying a cargo of rocks which the colonists believed were valuable metal ore, unearthed during explorations and the construction of the fort. The ore was pyrite, commonly known as fool’s gold. Newport was scheduled to return with additional settlers and supplies by the end of the summer, a cargo the colonists were relying on to help them survive the winter. The first summer in Virginia was hot, plagued with mosquitoes from the pestilential swamps, and a busy time as the settlers, led at first by Captain Edward Wingfield, strove to build their homes and fortify the young colony.
The first daily task of the Virginia settlers was the construction of the fort. Of the company of 105 settlers and about three dozen crewmen (all of whom were male) about thirty men claimed the rank of Captain, either from service in England or Ireland. Captains were supervisory leaders. The remaining men and boys took on the task of felling more than 500 trees of thirty feet or more in height. The trees were then trimmed of branches, cut in half, and erected perpendicular to the ground with one end in a hole excavated for the purpose. At the same time rationing of supplies began, although fish and game supplemented the settler’s diet.
Under the leadership of Wingfield and the captains, one of whom was John Smith, the fort was completed in just one day over one month. Once the palisade was completed and artillery from the ships installed in each of its three corners, work began on the church/meeting house, and a communal storeroom. The labor was completed without the assistance of livestock for hauling, in the heat and humidity of a Virginia spring and summer, with short supplies of drinking water and inadequate supplies of food. The men received a half pint of wheat and the same of barley per day, which was reduced if game or fish was available.
Captain Wingfield was elected as president of the council for the colony upon arrival in Virginia, supported by Captain Newport, whose command of the ships made him the de facto leader of the colony before his departure for England and supplies. The continuing drought, which dried up the colony’s crops and added to the shortage of drinking water, and poor food led to disease and inevitably death. Tensions among the dwindling number of settlers led to rebellion against Wingfield’s leadership by the end of the summer. In September he was deposed, arrested, and arraigned on charges which included allowing settlers to die of starvation. He was later sent to England for trial, where he was acquitted.
John Ratcliffe was selected by the colonists to be the second president of the council. Among the charges leveled against Wingfield was that he had conspired to weaken the colony with the Spanish, though Spanish had not up to then appeared to take advantage of the failing settlement. Another was that Wingfield had hidden supplies of food by burying them. Ratcliffe had his predecessor held in Discovery, Godspeed having accompanied Susan Constant on its return to England. In short order, Ratcliffe was found to be the cause of the colonies gradual starvation, and an attempt to depose him arose.
By September of 1607 just over 40 settlers in the James Fort were still alive, with more than half of the men and boys left ashore by Christopher Newport earlier that year dead from malnutrition, tainted water, disease, or simple exhaustion. There was no crop to harvest, the ongoing drought having ensured its failure. Goods to trade with the natives for food were exhausted, and the natives under Powhatan were not inclined to extend credit. A large portion of the day was spent gazing down the broad James River, hoping to espy a return of Newport bringing supplies to sustain the colony through the winter.
During the autumn and early winter of 1607, Captain John Smith used Discovery to sail up the James River and the Chickahominy River in search of food. It was during one such expedition that he was captured and the myth of his being saved by Pocahontas was born. In his later written account, Smith did not mention Pocahontas, and described a long meeting with Powhatan, in which the native chief attempted to persuade the English to relocate their settlement within the lands controlled by his confederacy. Smith claimed to have only met Pocahontas many months later. Smith was released and returned to James Fort in January 1608.
Newport had returned to London with his cargo of “gold” in August, 1607. He immediately began planning a mission to reinforce the Virginia settlement with additional colonists and supplies. Newport returned to Virginia with another 120 men, including the crews of his two ships, and some, but not enough, urgently needed supplies, arriving on January 2, 1608. Shortly after his arrival a fire destroyed much of the fort, including storehouses containing most of the supplies Newport had delivered to the settlement. This led several of the colonists, including Germans brought to the colony to establish a glass works, to defect to the natives, taking their weapon making skills with them.
By the spring of 1608, John Smith had become president of the council, and he responded to the messages of the investors in London demanding a return on their investment with a demand for skilled artisans for the colony. Newport returned to London and then back to the settlement, arriving in October 1608, with additional settlers, including the first English women to arrive in the colony. He once again arrived with inadequate supplies to sustain the colony through the winter. Late in 1608 dissenters among the settlers conspired with some of Powhatan’s men to assassinate Smith, a plan of which he learned, according to his account written years later, from Pocahontas.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1609, the investors in London recruited settlers for the colony at James Fort, and several hundred arrived in August. An earlier expedition bound for Virginia had been driven by storms to Bermuda, where their ships were wrecked. Some of them would make their way to Virginia the following year. The Virginia Company in London was burdening the colony with a population that it was unable to sustain. Smith insisted that all members of the settlement work in some form or another, militarized the colony, and demanded support from the natives under threat of military action.
In the late summer of 1609 Smith was injured when a supply of gunpowder in a canoe he was using to explore accidentally exploded, and he was forced to return to England for treatment of his injuries. He left Virginia in October, and never returned to James Fort. After arriving in England he wrote several accounts of his adventures in the colony, most of them self-serving, and all of them conflicting in details and sequence. Meanwhile the settlement continued to suffer, from overcrowding, inadequate food, and conflicts with the natives. The drought continued. Crops continued to fail. It was the beginning of what became known as the starving time.
When John Smith departed for England in October, 1609, about 500 settlers occupied James Fort and its surrounding environs (it would not be known as James Towne for another decade). The spring of 1610 found only 60 settlers still alive. Once Powhatan learned of Smith’s departure from the colony he ordered his confederacy to stop trading with the English, and to not provide them with any food. John Ratcliffe, who assumed the leadership of the colony, attempted to meet with Powhatan and negotiate a trade agreement. Powhatan had the Englishmen tortured to death, and his warriors began attacking English hunting parties.
With the supply expedition shipwrecked in Bermuda, the failure of the crops due to the drought, and the attacks of the natives, the colony simply did not have enough food. The colonists, according to archaeological evidence, butchered dogs, cats, horses, and any other animals they could find. Some evidence suggests that they may have resorted to cannibalism. With Smith gone and Ratcliffe dead, few written records were kept. Unable to enter the woods to obtain firewood due to the threat from the natives, the settlers gradually tore down the settlement, burning the wood obtained for warmth.
The members of the expedition who had survived the storms which shipwrecked them in Bermuda spent the winter of 1609-10 building two small ships, using the recovered materials from the ships they had lost as well as native Bermuda timber. They named the small vessels Patience and Deliverance. In the spring of 1610 these vessels sailed for Virginia, under the command of Thomas Gates. When they arrived at James Fort in May they found the nearly destroyed settlement and the few survivors, many of whom were dying from starvation and disease. The decision was made to abandon the Virginia settlement and return to England.
In June the remaining settlers left the settlement and sailed down the James towards Cape Henry, whence they would sail for England. About ten miles below James Fort they encountered three English ships, carrying supplies, additional settlers, and a new governor for the colony, Thomas West, Baron de la Warr. The governor ordered the small ships departing the colony to return to James Fort, an order which was obeyed reluctantly. Known to history as Lord Delaware, West had no intention of abandoning the colony nor allowing it to fail. Among the Bermuda survivors who turned back to James Fort was an English carpenter named John Rolfe.
Until the arrival of Lord Delaware and his additional settlers, daily life in James Fort had been one of constant hunger, frequent thirst, dissension among the settlers, unending labor, and fear of attack by the natives under Powhatan, as well as attack from the sea by the Spanish. The labor of planting and husbanding crops had gone without much in the way of reward, as the ongoing drought prevented them from growing much in the less than fertile soil. The English settlers were little prepared for the Virginia climate, which in the summer was much hotter than in England, in the winter colder, and in all seasons more humid.
There was little in the way of value being yielded by the colonists to the investors in London. Daily life was instead a constant struggle to survive. Fish from the James River and its tributaries became a staple in the warm months, and efforts to smoke and salt fish for preservation were ongoing, requiring first the manufacture of salt. While men struggled in the fields and at their other occupations, hunting parties entered the woods and forests, looking for game which was also under pressure from the natives. Despite the efforts of John Smith and John Ratcliffe to make all work, some men still considered themselves to be above manual labor, and were determined to exist as landed gentlemen.
The forced return of the surviving settlers and the additional settlers under Lord Delaware began to restore the fort and the settlement, and Powhatan, concerned over their increasing numbers and encroachment on his lands, decided to destroy the English once and for all. At the same time Lord Delaware decided to eliminate the threat from the natives and ordered Powhatan to return any captured English property and prisoners he held. When Powhatan failed to answer, Lord Delaware dispatched a party of 70 men to attack and destroy a native village occupied by the Paspehegh.
The opening salvo of the war was a success for the English, who killed about 75 natives, including men, women, and children, and burned most of the settlement. During the first Anglo-Powhatan War the English expanded the colony by establishing new settlements, and an expedition led by Captain Samuel Argall captured Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas. A forced peace was imposed, followed by the marriage of Pocahontas to the English settler John Rolfe, who had established a crop of what would become the economic backbone of the Virginia colony, tobacco. Powhatan agreed to the marriage because under native tradition, Rolfe became his son, beholden to his father.
When John Rolfe joined the resupply fleet to James Fort which ended up shipwrecked in Bermuda, it was with the intent cultivating tobacco from seeds of a strain grown by the Spanish colonists in Trinidad. Spain at that time monopolized the tobacco trade in Europe. Rolfe’s arrival in Virginia was delayed by the events in Bermuda and subsequent battles in Virginia, but by 1614 he had successfully cultivated a sweeter strain of tobacco leaf in Virginia which was popular in England, due to its milder taste. Rolfe called his strain Orinoco tobacco, and the crop made him one of Virginia’s earliest successful planters.
Growing tobacco was labor intensive, especially during the harvest, and Rolfe used indentured servants to manage his fields and harvest and cure his crop. He was soon joined by other planters in the James Fort area and at the expanding Virginia settlements. Tobacco made the Virginia colony a financial success, and its growth led to expanding industries in the colony to support the new product, including cooperages, armorers and blacksmiths to make tools, brick makers, and pipe makers. The demand for tobacco in Europe grew, with the Virginia leaf found superior to the tobaccos of the Spanish colonies, and England’s overseas trade expanded.
As Rolfe’s tobacco operations expanded and competitors joined him in producing the crop, lands were claimed and cleared for planting along the James River, navigable well inland. The tobacco planters built docks which allowed ships to moor along their plantations, rather than transport the tobacco in barrels known as hogsheads to the settlement at James Fort. The original settlement began to dwindle in importance to the Virginia colony, though it remained the colony’s center for government. Following Rolfe’s marriage to Pocahontas, Powhatan granted him thousands of acres of land west of the James River, though Rolfe did not occupy it.
Rolfe achieved sufficient wealth to return to England with his wife and their young son in 1615, where Pocahontas became ill and died in 1617. At the time of his visit to England the legend of Pocahontas saving the life of John Smith had not yet been written by John Smith, and she was received as the regal daughter of a native American chieftain, rather than as the mythical heroine she became after her death. The death of Pocahontas removed a stabilizing factor in the relations between the colonists and the Powhatan confederacy, which soon became strained yet again due to the insatiable need for more land upon which to grow tobacco.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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