The History of Jamestown: What Happened?

Savvy scholars of early colonial history will know that “Jamestown” exists today only as an archaeological site where travelers can go if they’re in the mood for a quick lecture. Most of the information on this website is devoted to Jamestown, its settlers, and its early history — which is why we’ve received so many questions about what happened to Jamestown. Why isn’t the area still inhabited today?

When the region was settled in 1607, it was considered permanent by those who lived there. But not all “permanent” settlements work out for the best. Perhaps the best example of a permanent colony that didn’t quite work out the way everyone wanted was Roanoke. What went wrong there is still a mystery to this day, although there are dozens of theories — some good and some nonsense.

The beginning of the end for Jamestown occurred in 1676, when the town was burned to the ground during Bacon’s Rebellion.

Bacon’s Rebellion was an uprising designed to overthrow Governor William Berkeley, who chose to keep a man named Nathaniel Bacon far removed from certain business ventures and political insights that would have perhaps prevented the whole mess from ever occurring. The settlement at this time was already under attack by several outside forces. Bacon took advantage of these to plan his own revolt.

One of those outside forces, the “Doeg,” were a constant threat — but Berkeley would not allow traditional retaliation. Bacon went after them anyway, continuing on to slaughter members of the Pamunkey Native American tribe. Afterward, Bacon and his followers returned to Jamestown to depose Berkely and burn it to the ground. The rebellion was ultimately squashed, but not before the damage was done.

Jamestown was rebuilt, and remained the capital for English settlement for another 23 years. In 1699, the powers that be decided to move the entire settlement to Williamsburg. This was the definitive end to Jamestown. Not quite as climactic as you thought? That’s often the way history is!

Were There Any Major Epidemics In The Early Jamestown Settlement?

Historians have responded to the current coronavirus pandemic in a number of ways. For most, the furthest back we look is the Spanish flu, which represented the deadliest pandemic in modern history. It killed as many as 100 million people in a world with a much smaller population than we have today. But what was it like in the early 17th century for the settlers of Jamestown, Virginia?

We already know caucasian settlers colonizing the New World brought back a ton of germs, viruses, and diseases to which the Native Americans had no immunity. Those illnesses killed around 90 percent of the native population. 

While COVID-19 won’t kill 90 percent of us, it does inspire other questions that need answering: what could a disease like this do in an ancient society with little medical knowledge? The ancient planters didn’t have respirators, for example. 

Truth be told, there is little information on record to support the idea that dangerous epidemics wiped out a large percent of the early settler population — although we can infer that they probably did occur and that they probably did kill many, many people.

We can infer this because around 80 percent of the population was wiped out in the early years of Jamestown settlement — from about 1607 to about 1625. They died from disease and starvation during long, brutal winters, but also from Native American attacks and conflict from within. Because so many perished during this timeframe, exact records are difficult to find. They died from disease in large numbers to be sure, but we don’t know how large.

An easier epidemic to nail down occurred between 1679 and 1680. During the long winter that year, smallpox roared through the Jamestown settlement. Another smallpox epidemic occurred in 1696. 

Smallpox was characterized by fever, vomited, and terrible sores around the mouth in addition to a skin rash. What made it so deadly, though, was simply the numbers of people it could infect.

A reproduction rate gives us an idea of a virus’s potential to spread throughout the population. For example, the reproduction rate of the seasonal flu is about 1.3; the Spanish flu, 1.8; and the coronavirus, 2.3. This means that those infected with each ailment are likely to infect 1.3, 1.8, and 2.3 others on average, respectively. By comparison, smallpox had a reproduction rate of 3.5 to 6, making it massively more infectious than most diseases. It could rip through a population and kill very quickly — which is what it did to the Native Americans.

What Did Marriage Mean To The Powhatan Native American Inhabitants Near Jamestown?

Marriage was a complex subject in Native American culture, as was sexuality. These concepts were perhaps more “liberated” for Native Americans. Marriage wasn’t always something that occurred through ceremony. A man and woman might simply decide to couple with one another one day — and they would be considered married by their tribe. Sexuality was viewed much differently as well — and with more normalcy — which may have contributed to the common colonist viewpoint that Native Americans were savages. 

For the Powhatan Native Americans living near Jamestown, marriage was still very important. Or insofar as we know. Most of the information we have on their views of marriage come from the observations of Jamestown settlers.

Marriage in Powhatan culture wasn’t all that different from what we would recognize today. A man might find himself interested in a female member of his tribe or another tribe, and then decide to “court” her. He would do this by offering food or gifts. What made a Powhatan woman desirable? Those who managed to provide the way they were supposed to according to typical roles and tasks. Or beauty. Typical.

He might eventually decide to propose. The woman’s parents could either support the marriage or forbid it, much as in European culture. Should they support the marriage, they might offer some of their wealth. The primary difference between Powhatan culture and Puritan settlers was that men would often take more one wife — women, after all, were associated with wealth through family units. No matter how many wives a man took, he would need to support them all.

Marriage wasn’t always forever. For Powhatan Native Americans, the second wife — and each wife thereafter — was likely “negotiated” for a set period of time. Sometimes it lasted only until the new life provided a child. Like Christian marriage, this was a way to bring families together and forge lasting bonds within a greater community. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it did not.

Another major difference between the two cultures? Men were expected to remain faithful to their wives, but not the other way around. As long as a wife received permission from her husband, she was allowed to take as many lovers as she wished. This permission was commonly given.

The age of consent did not exist in the 17th century. Young women were married as soon as they were able to mother children. Men could marry as soon as they could provide food for their family.

Did The Jamestown Settlers Really See The Native Americans As Nothing More Than Savages?

By now, we’ve properly established that the Native American societies already living in the New World were far more culturally advanced than we ever give them credit for. Some of these civilizations had cities of tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. They had complex trade routes and a robust economy. But they were also much different.

For example, Native Americans weren’t writers. Most of their history was passed down through stories and song in a primarily oral tradition. They were artists. 

Perhaps it was because the Native American civilization was simply so much different than the European settlers were used to. They were not as technologically advanced, of course, but they had a deep respect and commitment to nature and all things that stemmed from it. In the next couple of centuries, settlers would continually rape and pillage the very land, pushing Native Americans from their ancestral homes. Who wouldn’t have a problem with that? War was inevitable. 

Those settlers would often hunt buffalo not for meat, but for hide. This kind of activity was considered barbaric — by the Native Americans. They were appalled that anyone could be so disrespectful of nature, which was where their gods were derived from. 

The Native Americans tried to steer clear of the settlers at Jamestown, but eventually everything came to a head in 1622. John Smith wrote in the History of Virginia: Powhatan “came unarmed into our houses with deer, turkeys, fish, fruits, and other provisions to sell us.”

But that changed.

Eventually, Opechancanough of the Powhatan Confederacy attacked the settlers in a surprise raid, killing hundreds. They spared no one, including women and children. About a quarter of the entire colony was wiped out during this 1622 attack. But the attack was revenge. A European settler had murdered the chief’s adviser. He responded by attacking at least 31 settlements. 

But Jamestown actually escaped the brunt of the attack because of one of those Native Americans. 

Opechancanough believed that the settlers would decide to leave after he finally withdrew his forces. He believed this because that’s what any Native American tribe would do. When you were defeated, you moved. Instead, they consolidated their settlements to increase defenses and request reinforcements from overseas. And that’s exactly what happened thereafter. The English fought back every chance they could get.

It was likely in part due to the brutality of attacks like these that settlers would describe Native Americans as barbaric and savage. But those settlers were little better. This was as true then as it was throughout the 18th and 19th centuries during campaigns that essentially genocided the Native American populations. 

Did The Native Americans Keep Slaves? The Story of Herman Lehmann

Settlers coming to the New World were slow to adapt to the people found there, and sometimes these meetings didn’t always go well. It wasn’t unusual for settlers to trade with one group within a certain tribe of Native Americans only to clash with another the next day. Native Americans were sometimes held captive — but Native Americans also held others captive. Slavery was present on both sides.

Native Americans were known to keep captives taken after a battle as slaves. We know this occurred frequently even before settlers came from Europe. Some slaves were sold or traded among tribes, while some others were bought back by colonists. Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became more common practice for Native Americans to purchase slaves that were brought over from Europe as part of the slave trade.

The practice of selling slaves to colonists caused a great deal of civil strife and fighting between Native American tribes, who constantly raided one another to acquire more to sell. 

Native Americans took children on occasion. Sometimes for slaves, but sometimes to raise as their own. Herman Lehmann, for example, was caught by the Apache when he was just a child. He lived with the Comanche as well before he was eventually returned to his family (his mother had never given up hope that he would return, and continued to ask about him until he finally was).

Lehmann had only been 10 years old when he was captured in the fields near his home. His 8-year-old brother Willie was captured alongside him. Willie escaped during a subsequent rescue attempt, but Herman was held still by the Apaches, who told him they had killed his family. They did this to reduce or eliminate any inclination he might have to escape. Eventually they migrated to a village in New Mexico, where Herman was adopted by Native American parents.

He was named “En Da,” which meant “White Boy.”

Over the next six years he was fully assimilated into their culture, and even rose to the rank of petty chief within the tribe. He was almost shot during one clash with Texas Rangers — but they realized he was white at the last moment. Although they tried to reacquire him at a later time, he was assimilated enough that he attempted to return to the tribe rather than seek shelter with the Rangers.

Lehmann killed an Apache medicine man in 1876, and decided to escape lest someone retaliate. After an entire year in solitude, he sought out a Comanche tribe. He would have been killed on the spot if one of their youngest warriors hadn’t spoken the Apache language. He stayed with them until their relocation to a reservation a year later and was discovered by his family shortly thereafter.

What To See When Visiting Jamestown: National Historic Site

Interested in learning about the history of some of the earliest European settlers in North America, our friends the ancient planters? The first place you will want to go is the Jamestown National Historic Site in Virginia, which is itself a segment of the larger Colonial National Historic Park. These locations are important because of the events that occurred there — Jamestown is where the first permanent settlement was established. It wasn’t easy.

Jamestown is also an important reminder of early legislative successes and failures. This is where the first legislative body in North America was hosted. It is also where the first Africans set down. 

The Jamestown National Historic Site teaches visitors about historical events that occurred in Old Towne, where an English fort was built in 1607, and New Towne, where the city expanded later that same century, primarily after the 1620s. Each site has a corresponding visitor center where guests can ask the informed mentors questions about what they see or experience while there. The sites also convey what these locations were like before settlers first arrived.

Jamestown Island had been home to dozens of Powhatan tribes for thousands of years. Unlike the European settlers who came later, the Native Americans were able to sustain and live in harmony with the natural environment. When John Smith arrived in 1607, he thought it would make an adequate spot for long-term trading.

Smith was worried about the possibility of additional settlers from Spain, though. Not only that, there were conflicts with the Algonquin Natives nearly upon arrival. That’s why he decided to move slightly inland in order to construct the fort at Old Towne. Park visitors can explore a reconstructed fort for an idea of what it was like. Those early years of settlement and exploration were devastating, and many who arrived perished.

It wasn’t until the 1620s that a man named William Claiborne decided that it would be sensible to expand. He developed the land that would be named New Towne. This became the official port of entry, and began to grow.

Park visitors will find much of the 17th century settlement available for viewing. Archaeologists have found a number of interesting artifacts that American history lovers might like to see, including: “A clay oven, a gun shop, a jail, and warehouses, which give insight into the colonists’ experience on the island. A gunsmith suggests the importance of gun ownership to colonists who used firearms for protection, while warehouses are evidence of expanding trade and the need for more storage space for increasing imports.”

There is a lot to see and do, so make your vacation plans today!

Things You Didn’t Know About The Maniac Christopher Columbus

Before the ancient planters, there were the very first people to visit — or almost visit — the New World. When Columbus was attempting to find another route to India by sea, he instead stumbled upon islands in the Caribbean. Later, he ventured to Central and South America. Curiously, we’ve named a holiday after the guy even though he never stepped foot in what would eventually become the United States.

But that’s just getting started, of course.

If you hadn’t already heard, Columbus wasn’t the nicest guy in the world. When he dropped anchor after finding the Caribbean islands, he made first contact with a number of natives who were living there. Naturally, he took some of them captive and made his way back home. But the worst ones always return, and so he did. 

But before we get into how terrible he really was, let’s discuss some history. Ever heard of Leif Eriksson Day? Neither had we. But all the same, it is a day of national observance, celebrating a man who had stepped foot in North America some 500 years before Columbus had the pleasure of not stepping foot there. Eriksson was a viking who likely made his way to Newfoundland.

Columbus was a slaver. When he wasn’t taking the natives captive, he was outright killing them. A combination of genocidal intent and European diseases and illnesses led to the almost complete obliteration of the Taino population in the Caribbean islands.

Here’s what he had to say about his newly enslaved subjects:

“They…brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…They would make fine servants….With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

In other words, they were really, really, really nice people — and as a good Christian man himself, his first thought was how easily they would do his bidding. Of course it’s not all about potential! You have to find out how to turn potential into reality!

He later said, “As soon as I arrived in the Indies, in the first island which I found, I took some of the natives by force, in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts. And so it was that they soon understood us, and we them, either by speech or by signs, and they have been very serviceable.”

Oh but here’s where it gets really dark: “…I was filled with a desire to take my pleasure with her and attempted to satisfy my desire. She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. But — to cut a long story short — I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears.

“Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought that she had been brought up in a school for whores.”

Yeah, he was a rapist. And it didn’t seem to bother him.

How Dangerous Was The Threat Of Fire In The New World?

Settlers hoping to colonize the New World had a long road ahead of them — from beginning to end, it was a difficult life. Many would not make it through the first years of the Jamestown settlement. Most of us already envision the obstacles to obtaining food or building shelter, especially during the long winter months. But how many of us think about the issues that were relevant only to the time period? 

Residents of 1607 Jamestown had to use the resources that were available, and that meant everything was built from trees they cut down themselves. It also meant that the threat of fire was a constant reality.

Fire was a bigger deal in 1607 than it is today, because there were no fire hydrants that could be tapped to extinguish a blaze. In fact, no one was trained with how to deal with such a threat in the first place. In 1607 the best you had was a group of your fellow residents helping you put out the fire one bucket of water at a time. Because this was the best they could do, most fires completely demolished the buildings where they began.

This was a particularly big problem when the building in question was the fort that helped keep everyone safe.

In 1608 the fort at Jamestown was almost completely lost due to fire. Worse than that, it was winter when the blaze broke out. This left them almost completely defenseless. Thankfully, Native Americans in the area supplied them with food and clothing to help them through the winter — but only in exchange for some of their friends and family members who had been captured by the Jamestown colonists, who they had previously raided. The Native Americans were interested in the new weapons.

The fort would have to be rebuilt or salvaged quickly, because relations with these Native Americans would become more tense over the next few years — especially during the “Starving Time” from 1609 into 1610. It seemed almost every winter brought a new catastrophe, which makes it a wonder that any of the colonists managed to survive long enough to strengthen the community as much as they did.

During the same time period, the Native American chief, Powhatan, moved their capital further inland to better avoid contact. Perhaps this was one of the first examples of European settlers pushing Native Americans from their home territory, even though realistically the Native Americans could have wiped out the colonists if they wanted.

What Type Of Legal Authority Ruled Over Jamestown To Enforce The Law?

Jamestown in 1607 would seem an entirely foreign place if a person from the year 2019 were to visit the newly established colony. This is not only because the residents’ way of life were so different, but because the rule of law was much more strict. It was assumed there was no other choice for it but to be strict: the people who lived there believed that only harsh laws would help maintain the level of order they would require to survive.

Sir Thomas West was the first governor of Jamestown. Sir Thomas Gates was his lieutenant governor, and the job of writing these strict laws was his. He did this in 1610, but Sir Thomas West eventually rewrote them to better reflect his rule. They were later known as the “Laws Divine, Moral and Martial.” 

These newly codified laws were far more than speed limits or moral obligations for the residents who lived there: they also detailed exactly what their jobs were and how they would be fulfilled. For example, those who were assigned an officer were expected to attend church service at least twice a day.

Let’s see how you feel about this one: Anyone who was caught in the midst of blasphemy or heresy, or talking back to a preacher, would be subject to harsh punishment. Church was a part of your life whether you liked it or not — because the law made it so. 

One might ask what kind of laws carried the death penalty. The answer might surprise you. Simply fraternizing with Native Americans might result in hanging. Capital punishment was common, too. Perhaps this was because people were starving in the early days of the settlement, when stealing food or slaughtering a chicken was punishable by death.

The laws were transformed again by authorities from afar in 1618, when the residents of Virginia were set to follow the Great Charter. This document was established to increase investment and immigration to the New World. As a result, Governor-elect Sir George Beardsley had two councils created: a Council of State, and the General Assembly.

These new councils actually reduced the power of the governor because decisions were made only after a vote was cast. The majority ruled. 

Thankfully laws have become much more “just” over time! If you live in the Houston area, then you’ll need to search for a criminal defense law firm to handle your case.

What Were The Religious Practices Of The Ancient Planters?

Although traditional historical understanding of early American settlers is pretty clear that they crossed the sea to escape persecution back home, their beliefs were fairly traditional and had been well established by the Anglican Church (or Church of England) for a long time. It shouldn’t be very surprising; after all, the first settlers would have wanted to seek comfort in familiarity, especially during the cold, harsh winters the New World had to offer.

What might be a bit more surprising are the agnostic bits of Virginia culture. Many residents of Jamestown and other early settlements in Virginia, men especially, were none too happy about the amount of authority that the church held over the direction of society. In order to counteract this centralized power, the settlers were more likely to integrate into vestries and courts to transfer power in another direction.

Church attendance in Jamestown resulted from the need for socialization, and not from a devout belief in God or obligation. The residents may have had a strong faith to lean on during the hard times, but it was a private belief shared with close family members more than anyone else. 

That said, the aristocracy and those on lower social rungs seemed to integrate with a dulled acceptance when enjoying church activities. The ruling elite did, however, establish its own control over matters of religion (perhaps that’s why so many residents kept faith within the family). There was no bishop when the settlement was established, which is why control fell to them.

There were members of other religions living side by side with Jamestown residents, but they were legally restricted in how they could practice. Many members of Protestant sects lived there, and for the most part they were tolerated if not accepted.

The same could not be said of Native American rituals and beliefs. When slaves were eventually brought over from Africa, residents of Jamestown failed to recognize or accept them either. Although attempts were made to assimilate the outsiders into the Anglican Church, they were half-hearted at best and most always resulted in failure. 

The church was protected by law. Conformity was key to living the high life; one could not hold office if one were not Anglican. Laws also determined how much ministers were paid and how new parishes were constructed. Separation of church and state was certainly not a core tenet of Virginia law or Anglican faith.