After two failed colonization attempts at Roanoke a few decades before by the English, they tried again in December of 1606. This time, however, the colony would be set up in the Chesapeake Bay rather than on the Carolina coast. During this time, English companies were receiving large investments and with the permission to explore and profit off of certain parts of the world, these companies inevitably set about colonizing the coast of the modern-day United States, under the permission of the Crown, of course. The company that colonized Jamestown was the Virginia Company of London which had two branches, the London branch, assigned to settle the Chesapeake Bay, and the Plymouth branch, assigned to settle New England.
Originally the second expedition that settled on Roanoke Island was supposed to settle in the Chesapeake Bay but never did. The third English voyage to America would have that privilege. It began with three ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery, all carrying 104 men. Women would come later after the settlement was established. On May 13, 1607, the settlement was established in the middle of the Virginia Peninsula, on another small peninsula (it became an island later). The surrounding area was also sparsely populated with few Natives.
The surrounding waters were also deep enough to warrant a port for ocean-going ships. The voyage came under the rule of James I, prompting the settlement to be named “Jamestown”. Contact with Natives was established quickly as John Smith and Newport had explored upriver. By June 15, the fort was finished with artillery, an impressive feat. A ship under Captain Newport left on the 22nd. Defense was of great concerns to the first colonists as the Roanoke Colony disappeared less than 20 years earlier and it was unknown whether Natives, Spanish, or hardship were responsible. England at this time was going in and out of wars with the Spanish afterall, and relations with natives at Roanoke wasn’t too friendly.
The colony soon reached hardships like its Roanoke counterpart did decades earlier. The settlement was in an area with a high water table, making farming difficult. To make matters worse, the colonists that built the fort were not farmers but almost all soldiers and explorers that were better equipped to build an outpost for exploration, not the first settlement for the founding of the vast colony of Virginia. John Smith taught the settlers how to farm however, avoiding starvation, at least for a time. The settlement also lay in the middle of the Powhatan Confederacy, a sprawling Native empire that encompassed much of the Virginian coast and all of the Virginia Peninsula. This would cause many issues as well as a few wars in the future.
Shortly after Newport left for England, Jamestown was hit with a wave of sickness, leaving only forty men alive. The local water supply was salty and dirty, no doubt contributing to the health issues. The first supply ship arrived in 1608, just in time to save the colony from certain failure. Help from the local Natives also helped keep Jamestown afloat, though not all interactions were pleasant and peaceful. For example, John Smith, had been captured by the Powhatan and threatened with execution, though Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas saved his life. Once he returned to Jamestown, he was elected as the leader of the colony which had been contested since the founding. On the original voyage, a box with a list of men that would make up a council had been provided. From the box, a president was to be elected but a stream of unsatisfactory leaders caused instability until John Smith was elected. Smith put in place a policy of no food for anyone who did not work. One activity that the English were keen on doing was searching for gold. Prior to the founding of Jamestown, Virginia was rumored to burst with gold, having it come straight out of the ground; this of course, was not the case. In September of 1608, Captain Newport returned with supplies and the second group of settlers came and the first women along with them.
In May of 1609, a party of soldiers attempted to meet with the Nansemond Indians but attacked the settlement due to two of the soldiers going missing. Another party fought with the Powhatan after failed negotiations for rights to Powhatan village. These two conflicts combined to start the first Anglo-Powhatan war. The English were later ambushed after being invited to visit Powhatan’s new capital at Orapax and lost 33 men. The English leader, John Ratcliffe, was consequently captured and skinned alive.
In late 1609 several hundred more settlers arrived, swelling the population. John Smith was unfortunately injured in a gunpowder explosion shortly after, ceding the leadership of the colony to George Percy. The harsh behavior the English enacted on the Natives now began to haunt them as a siege was set upon them. Anyone found outside the fort was killed by the Natives, straining the food problem in Jamestown which only had enough to last comfortably halfway through the coming winter.
A supply ship, the Sea Venture, en route to the colony was shipwrecked in Bermuda, exasperating the food issue even more. The winter of 1609-1610 consequently came to be known as the “starving time”. In 2012, archeologists found the remains of a 14 year old girl whose skull had been damaged by cut marks in an attempt to get to the brain. She was already dead prior to the marks being made but the evidence proves that cannibalism did take place during these desperate times. The siege lifted in May of 1610 and the Sea Venture made it to Jamestown as well, relieving the colony from its hardships. When it did, the inhabitants of Jamestown numbered about 60 colonists, down from the 240 that were there at the beginning of the starving time.
George Percy even decided that the colony should either be abandoned or relocate. As the colonists ventured down river, planning to abandon the whole venture, a new governor, Lord De La Warr arrived to stop them. With new supplies and colonists, it was decided that the colony of Jamestown should continue. Lord De La Warr enforced much needed discipline, prompting conditions to improve. Since Powhatan had boasted to John Smith about killing the Roanoke Colony, the Virginia Company ordered Lord De La Warr to attack and a holy war was essentially declared. On July 9, 1610, the English counterattacked at Kecoughtan with the soldiers that had been stationed at Fort Algernon. After the attack the English expanded further at Point Comfort, building Forts Henry, Charles, George, and Monroe. They were less of a defense against the Spanish and more of an early warning system.
Starting in 1611, further settlements were established along the James River. In 1613 the resource the Virginia Company seeked so long finally arrived in the form of tobacco, brought by John Rolfe. Rolfe went on to marry Pocahontas a year later, establishing a temporary non-aggression treaty. Expansion of the colony continued and in 1616, five settlement areas were listed on the shores of the James River with some of the small villages growing to outnumber Jamestown. Two years later the headright system was established. The system awarded settlers already in Jamestown and surrounding settlements with two tracts of land with 50 acres each. “New settlers who paid their own passage to Virginia were granted one headright. Since every person who entered the colony received a headright, families were encouraged to migrate together.” This system began the tradition of large plantations in the South as well as a distinct aristocracy. The apportionment of land also ensured the settlers that their efforts would benefit their family, not just the company or crown. More headrights were given out to people who paid for the passage of indentured servants who worked until they had accumulated or earned enough wealth to pay for said passage. They were not the same as slaves and usually had a fair amount of rights.
In 1617, Pocahontas died after taking a trip to England. Uttamatomakkin, who was with her, portrayed the English in a bad light after he returned to the Powhatan. Now with no relationship to keep the peace, the Powhatan and English began showing their grudges against each other.
In 1619 the new governor, George Yeardley, called for a representative assembly to make laws in the colony, setting the foundation for independent colonial governments in the Americas. In 1619 the first African slaves also arrived from Angola, having been captured by the Portuguese. Around 90 women also arrived to become wives and start families in Jamestown. The population at that time was estimated to be 700. In the next three years it’s estimated that 3,000 colonists arrived in the colony but the colony had only 1,200 people in 1622. The low survival rate for the new arrivals was mostly because of disease.
In 1622 the peace between the Powhatan and English finally ended as chief Opechancanough organized a surprise attack on the English settlements. The Natives descended upon the English farmhouses as guests, pretending to visit. Due to the sparse population, the English had no idea how many Natives had visited them. “The houses generally set open to the Savages, who were alwaies friendly entertained at the tables of the English, and commonly lodged in their bed-chambers.” The Natives were commonly treated with common courtesy by the English but that did not stop them from slaughtering the English. At one moment the Natives drew their weapons and slew whomever they found. 300-400 settlers were killed in the attack, a fourth of the colony’s population.
From Edward Waterhouse’s account of the attack: “and not being content with taking away life alone, they fell after againe upon the dead, making as well as they could, a fresh murder, defacing, dragging, and mangling the dead carkasses into many pieces, and carrying some parts away in derision, with base and bruitish triumph.”
Given this, it’s amusing anyone could pretend the Natives were peaceful. Due to a warning by a young Powhatan boy, Jamestown itself was spared. After the attack the Powhatan waited to see what the English would do, hoping they would abandon the fort. But hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way and so the English endured, recovered, and rebounded, hitting the Powhatan back.
Immediately after the attacks the English consolidated and pulled back to more secure settlements like Jamestown. In hindsight, the Natives intent seemed to be to put the English in a subordinate position to the Powhatan but the English understood the attacks as an attempted genocide — who can blame them? The English, now understandably enraged, saw the perfect casus belli for conquest of Powhatan lands and soon set about gaining allies to make such a land grab. The coming war would be fought through a series of raids between the Powhatan and English settlers. In May of 1623, a truce was established and during a meeting; the English poisoned the drinks and killed the Powhatan delegates, even falsely believing they killed Opechancanough. In 1624, 60 Englishmen fought the Natives from the Pamunkey tribe to a standstill then burnt their crops. In 1624 the Virginia Company was dissolved as well with James I taking control. The Second Anglo-Powhatan war continued until 1632, characterized by raids that stole the enemy’s food. The peace treaty that came in 1632 was not harsh for the Powhatan but more or less just made peace. A White peace, if you will. Jamestown continued growing throughout Virginia, expanding into the Middle Peninsula, across the York river. In the 1630s counties were made to better organize the colony and the population surged above 5,000. In 1644 the Powhatan attacked again, just like they when starting the previous war with a similar number of casualties. By this time however, the English were reliant on Native food to survive. Because of this fact they authorized special agents to trade with the Powhatan despite being at war. In 1646 the English captured Opechancanough; he was subsequently shot in the back by an Englishman who disobeyed orders. The treaty that came not long after forced the Powhatan to be restricted to land north of the York river, an extreme land grab but one the English had the power to make. The Third Anglo-Powhatan was the last of such wars as it broke the Powhatan Confederacy by fracturing it into much smaller tribes. The Powhatan would never again challenge the English supremacy of the region or any region for that matter.