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Revision as of 18:26, 28 March 2008

Recreated Powhatan village at the Jamestown Settlement

The Jamestown Settlement was the first permanent English settlement in North America. Named for King James I of England, Jamestown was founded in the Virginia Colony on May 13, 1607. In modern times, "Jamestown Settlement" is also a promotional name used by the Commonwealth of Virginia's portion of the historical attractions at Jamestown. It is adjacent and complementary to the Historic Jamestown attraction at Jamestown Island.

Original settlement

Jamestown followed no fewer than eighteen earlier failed attempts at European colonization of North America, including the famous "Lost Colony" at Roanoke Island in what is now Dare County, North Carolina, and the ill-fated Spanish Ajacan Mission, established thirty-six years earlier by Jesuit priests less than fifteen miles from Jamestown, Virginia. The only successful settlement that preceded Jamestown was the Spanish settlement St. Augustine, Florida, established in 1565.

Late in 1606, English entrepreneurs set sail with a charter from the Virginia Company of London to establish a colony in the New World. After a particularly long voyage of five months duration, the three ships, named Susan Constant, The Discovery, and The Godspeed, under Captain Christopher Newport, made land in April 1607 at a place they named Cape Henry. Under orders to select a more secure location, they set up a cross and gave thanks for safe landing, then set about exploring what is now Hampton Roads and a Chesapeake Bay outlet they named the James River in honor of their sitting king, James I of England.

On May 14, 1607, Captain Edward Maria Wingfield, elected president of the governing council the day before, selected Jamestown Island on the James River, some 40 miles (67 kilometers) inland from the Atlantic Ocean, as a prime location for a fortified settlement. The island was surrounded by deep water, making it a navigable and defensible strategic point, qualities high in the minds of the Englishmen. However, the island was swampy and isolated, offered limited space, and was plagued by mosquitoes and brackish tidal river water unsuitable for drinking. Perhaps the best thing about it from an English point of view was that it was not inhabited by nearby Native American tribes, who regarded the site as too poor and remote for agriculture.

Although Native Americans may not have been living exactly on the spot upon which they settled, there were an estimated 14,000 Algonquian Indians in the surrounding Chesapeake area. They came to be known as the Powhatan Confederacy, after the name the colonists called their powerful chief, Wahunsonacook, and lived in several dozen self-governing communities. Soon the settlers started to take over the area, which they justified by saying that the indians were not Christians, but rather savages who had no rights over the land.

Powhatan welcomed the settlers, and attempted to form an alliance with them to take over some of the surrounding communities which he did not yet control, and to obtain new supplies of metal tools and weapons. He soon found out that the settlers were there not to live among them peacefully, but to invade and conquer. The resulting war lasted until the English captured his daughter Matoaka, later nicknamed Pocahontas, after which the chief accepted a treaty of peace.

Despite the inspired leadership of Captain John Smith early on, many of the colonists and their replacements died within the first five years. In 1608, arriving ships brought supplies and experts from Poland and Germany, who would help to establish the first factories in the colony. As a result, glassware became the first American product to be exported to Europe. After Smith was forced to return to England due to an explosion during a trading expedition, the colony was led by George Percy, who proved incompetent in negotiating with the native tribes. During what became called the "Starving Time" in 1609-1610, over 80% of the colonists perished, and the island was briefly abandoned that spring. However, on June 10, 1610, retreating settlers were intercepted a few miles downriver by a supply mission from London headed by a new governor, Lord De La Warr, who brought much-needed supplies and additional settlers. Lord De La Warr's ship was named The Deliverance. The settlers called this The Day of Providence, and the state of Delaware was eventually named after the timely governor. Fortuitously, among the colonists inspired to remain was John Rolfe, who carried with him a cache of untested new tobacco seeds from the Caribbean. (His first wife and their young son had already died in Bermuda, after being shipwrecked on the island during the voyage from England.)

Due to the aristocratic backgrounds of many of the new colonists and the communal nature of their work load, progress through the first few years was inconsistent, at best. By 1613, six years after Jamestown's founding, the organizers and shareholders of the Virginia Land Company were desperate to increase the efficiency and profitability of the struggling colony. Without stockholder consent, Governor Dale assigned 3-acre plots to its "ancient planters" and smaller plots to the settlement's later arrivals. Measurable economic progress was made, and the settlers began expanding their planting to land belonging to local native tribes.

The following year, 1614, John Rolfe began to successfully harvest tobacco. Prosperous and wealthy, he married Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, bringing several years of peace between the settlers and natives. (Through their son, Thomas Rolfe, many of the First Families of Virginia trace both Native American and English roots.) However, at the end of a public relations trip to England in 1616, Pocahontas became sick and died. The following year, her father also died. As the settlers continued to leverage more land for tobacco farming, relations with the natives worsened. Powhatan's brother, a fierce warrior named Opchanacanough, became head of the Powhatan Confederacy.

In 1619, the first representative assembly in America convened in a Jamestown church, "to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia" which would provide "just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting." This became known as the House of Burgesses (forerunner of the Virginia General Assembly, which last met in Jamestown in January, 2007). Individual land ownership was also instituted, and the colony was divided into four large "boroughs" or "incorporations" called "citties" (sic) by the colonists. Jamestown was located in James Cittie. Initially only men of English origin were permitted to vote. The Polish artisans protested and refused to work if not allowed to vote. On July 12, the court granted the Poles equal voting rights[1].

After several years of strained coexistence, Chief Opchanacanough and his Powhatan Confederacy attempted to eliminate the English colony once and for all. On the morning of March 22, 1622, a Good Friday, they attacked outlying plantations and communities up and down the James River in what became known as the Indian Massacre of 1622. The attack killed over 300 settlers, about a third of the English-speaking population. Sir Thomas Dale's progressive development at Henricus, which was to feature a college to educate the natives, and Wolstenholme Towne at Martin's Hundred, were both essentially wiped out. Jamestown was spared only through a timely warning. There was not enough time to spread the word to the outposts.

Despite such setbacks, the colony continued to grow. In 1624, King James revoked the Virginia Company's charter, and Virginia became a royal colony. Ten years later, in 1634, by order of King Charles I, the colony was divided into the original eight shires of Virginia (or counties), in a fashion similar to that practiced in England. Jamestown was now located in James City Shire, soon renamed the "County of James City", better-known in modern times as James City County, Virginia, the nation's oldest county.

Another large-scale "Indian attack" in 1644 resulted in the capture of Chief Opchanacanough. He was murdered while in custody, and the Powhatan Confederacy was decimated. Most survivors assimilated into the general population, or began living on two reservations in present-day King William County, Virginia, where the Mattaponi and Pamunkey reservations continue in modern times.

A generation later, during Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, Jamestown was burned, eventually to be rebuilt. During its recovery, the Virginia legislature met first at Governor William Berkeley's nearby Green Spring Plantation, and later at Middle Plantation, which had been started in 1632 as a fortified community inland on the Virginia Peninsula. When the statehouse burned again in 1698, this time accidentally, the legislature again temporarily relocated to Middle Plantation, and was able to meet in the new facilities of the College of William and Mary, which had been established after receiving a royal charter in 1693. Rather than rebuilding at Jamestown again, the capital of the colony was moved permanently to Middle Plantation in 1699. The town was soon renamed Williamsburg, to honor the reigning monarch, King William III. A new Capitol building and "Governor's Palace" were erected there in the following years.

Jamestown As a Rural Outpost

Originally, the first people of Jamestown were reluctant to work, as they were used to the luxury of having servants and possibly even slaves back in England.[citation needed] This was until Captain John Smith ordered that if the people did not do their share of work, then they would not get their food (for that day at least).

Early on in Jamestown's history, there was no known method of purifying the river water they drank, and many settlers unwittingly died from resulting diseases.

By the early 18th century, Jamestown was in decline, eventually reverting to a few scattered farms, the period of occupied settlement essentially over.

During the American Revolution, a military post was set up on the island to exchange American and British soldiers. During the American Civil War, Confederate soldiers erected a fort near the town church in 1861, but it later fell to Union troops.

A site of historical interest

View of Jamestown Island today looking toward the statue of John Smith which was erected in 1909. The Jamestown Church, circa 1639, is in the left background.

Late in the 19th century, Jamestown became the focus of renewed historical interest and efforts at preservation. In 1893, a portion of the island was donated to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) for that purpose. A seawall was constructed, which preserved the site where the remains of the original "James Fort" were to be discovered by archaeologists of the Jamestown Rediscovery project beginning in 1994, a century later.

In 1907, the Jamestown Exposition to celebrate the settlement's 300th anniversary was held at a more convenient location at Sewell's Point, near Norfolk. By the 1930s, all of the island was under protective ownership, and the Colonial National Historical Park was created by the National Park Service.

In 1957, the Jamestown Festival, a celebration of its 350th anniversary, was held at the original site (and nearby). The renovated "settlement" now linked by the bucolic Colonial Parkway with the other two points of Virginia's Historic Triangle, Colonial Williamsburg, and Yorktown, the festival was a great success. Tourism became continuous after 1957.

Jamestown Settlement in the 21st century

The stern of the replicated Susan Constant, which is at port in Jamestown Settlement.

The name "Jamestown Settlement" currently is used to describe the Commonwealth of Virginia's state-sponsored attraction, which began in 1957 as Jamestown Festival Park, created for the 350 anniversary of the original settlement. The actual location of the settlement is partially underwater, so officials built this attraction near the entrance to Jamestown Island. It includes a recreated English Fort and Native American Village, extensive indoor and outdoor displays, and features three popular replicas of the original settler's ships. It was greatly expanded early in the 21st century.

On Jamestown Island itself, the National Park Service operates Historic Jamestowne. Over a million artifacts have been recovered by the Jamestown Rediscovery project with ongoing archaeological work, including a number of exciting recent discoveries.

Early in the 21st century, in preparation for the upcoming Jamestown 2007 event commemorating America's 400th Anniversary, new accommodations, transportation facilities and attractions were planned. The celebration began in the Spring of 2006 with the sailing of a new replica Godspeed to six major East Coast U.S. cities, where several hundred thousand people viewed it. Major corporate sponsors of Jamestown 2007 include Norfolk Southern Corporation, Verizon Communications, and Anheuser-Busch. Late in 2006, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip announced their intentions to pay another state visit to Jamestown in May 2007.


Further reading

  • Lepore, Jill. "Our Town". The New Yorker, 2 April 2007, pp. 40-45.
  • Price, David A., Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of a New Nation (New York: Knopf, 2003)
  • Wingfield, Jocelyn R., Virginia's True Founder: Edward Maria Wingfield and His Times, 1650-1631 (Athens, GA: WFS, 1993)
  • A. Bryant Nichols Jr., Captain Christopher Newport: Admiral of Virginia, Sea Venture, 2007
  • Matthew Sharpe's third novel, Jamestown, reimagines the events of the settlement in the post-apocalyptic future, where New York City is in turmoil and send down men for food and oil.
  • Hoobler, Dorothy, Thomas Hoobler., Captain John Smith: Jamestown and the Birth of an American Dream (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2006)


External links

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