Why Was Jamestown Even Founded?

Many people realize and acknowledge that the Jamestown Settlement, originally founded in 1607 after a late December departure in 1606, was an English settlement. But most of those same people probably have no idea that the settlement was originally owned by the London Company — and not the Royal Crown — and was intended to be a for-profit business venture.

This venture led to a series of supply missions once the settlement was established. They lasted from 1607 until 1611. A secondary priority for the London Company was maintaining a garrison of James Fort, which was eventually constructed on Jamestown Island. 

These supply missions brought direly needed resources and additional settlers. Remember, scores of the original planters died during overly harsh winters, injury, disease, and dysentery. They had come to a dangerous place — and they were unprepared for the obstacles ahead. 

Because Jamestown was founded by a company whose members were rich, and had been intended to keep a military presence in Virginia, the location of the settlement was chosen primarily for its highly defensible position. This decision resulted in both positive and negative consequences. 

Over the following decades, the ability to hold the position turned into a boon due to innumerable Native American attacks. It should be noted, however, that the settlers brought the vast majority of these attacks on themselves.

The negative consequences, then, likely outweighed the positive a great deal. The water at the location was stagnant and bad. The land was not ideal for agriculture, and farming was a skill that would need to be employed eventually if the people were to survive. Most of the original settlers were wealthy. Because they lacked these skills or resisted manual labor, many died during the first full winter they experienced. Rumors of cannibalisms persist to this day.

Mostly, the settlement couldn’t fully support itself until those living in the vicinity began to encroach on Native American lands. When the English Crown took over much later, the potential for the settlement increased substantially.

Post-Establishment Jamestown (After 1610): Part V

In part four of our ongoing series on post-establishment Jamestown, we discussed the Third Anglo-Powhatan War of 1644. Shortly before this war, the Crown took over ownership of Virginia and was able to provide the colony with additional resources to fuel conflicts with Native Americans. After another attack by the Powhatan, Jamestown militarization occurred at a growing rate, leading to the construction of four forts. The war ended with a treaty that favored the Jamestown settlers and taxed the Native Americans.

The next chief of the Powhatan was named Neotowance, but he died only a few years later. His successor was a man named Totopotomoi and he took on the mantle of Weroance of the Pamunkey, an altogether different title than “Paramount Chief” of the Powhatan. His allegiances shifted from side to side to protect the peace, and eventually he died fighting Native Americans who had continued to fight their way past borders that the aforementioned treaty drew.

However, that’s not to say that those Native Americans were the “bad guys” in this historic tale. On the contrary, the colonists were once again the ones to cause conflict. Even after the treaty, they continued to push past the borders in an effort to obtain more land.

When Chief Wahanganoche patented tribal land to the colonists in an attempt to appease them, they accused him of murder. He was tried, found not guilty, and allowed to go free — after which, the colonists stalked and murdered him. The colonial government of Virginia increased tension even more when those in authority demanded the tribe sell every parcel of land to the colony. When the Native Americans rightly refused this demand, the colony declared war on the Patawomeck  in 1666.

What followed was nothing short of the complete genocide of the tribes residing in Northern Virginia. A new treaty would follow yet more violence, and that treaty would be followed by violence in kind. The beginning of each new cycle was nearly always catalyzed by the actions of Virginian colonists, however.

Post-Establishment Jamestown (After 1610): Part I

We spend most of our time exploring how early life in Jamestown would have worked and what it would have looked like from our perspective. Many of those who traveled overseas to settle Jamestown would have had a “romantic” notion of this adventure, the same way we might have a romantic notion of hurdling light years through space to settle a faraway place, never to see home again. But those notions are born to die — just like everything else.

Even six years after Jamestown was first settled (this is after the worst winters and starvation periods the colonists would ever know), life was still difficult. It was better, but not good. Production remained inconsistent and the future was uncertain. Those who had organized the Virginia Company had a lot riding on the venture. Imagine investing a ton of money into an expedition and watching it fall to pieces as Jamestown did! You would do anything to right the course.

Governor Sir Thomas Dale was known to have assigned 3-acre parcels of land to each of the surviving members of the original voyages. Those who would arrive later would be entitled to land, but smaller parcels. This allowed Jamestown to grow ever so slowly. When the investors noted the economic advancements, it was time for another gamble: they would begin to farm land that was inhabited by the neighboring Native Americans. They had been mostly peaceful up until that point, but these actions would guarantee new conflict in the future.

One of the most important events in these years occurred in 1614, when a man named John Rolfe brought tobacco seeds from Bermuda. He had harvested them in the wild (tobacco wasn’t native to Bermuda, but it had been planted there years earlier by the Spanish), and no one knew how they would fare in Jamestown. Soon, they had a harvest!

It was these two events — tobacco farming and encroaching on land owned by the Native Americans, that paved the way for what would happen next.

Jamestown In Popular Culture

The first settlement here in the present-day United States was, of course, an English one: Jamestown. Over four hundred years have gone by since the first men landed on the shores of the James River (undoubtedly called something different by the people who actually lived and thrived here before the English showed up to do a poor job of just surviving), and it should be no surprise that the settlement has received a great deal of attention in popular culture. Books, films, and music have all been adapted to explore its rich history and the iconic location.

To Have and to Hold was a 1900 best-selling novel set in Jamestown, later adapted to popular films in 1916 and 1922. 

Although the history obviously runs askew of actual events, Disney brought the 1995 animated film Pocahontas to the big screen. It was followed by a direct-to-video sequel no one cares about in 1998. 

Colin Farrell starred in The New World in 2005, a movie directed by Terrence Malick. This was another attempt at the Jamestown story — and certainly they pulled off the albeit dramatized romance between John Smith and Pocahontas better than Disney’s animated movie. Christian Bale starred as well; notably, this was the same year Batman Begins hit theaters.

First Landing: Voyage from England to Jamestown was released in 2007 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement. It features documentation related to the initial landing of settlers.

A 2018 musical called To Look For America was co-written by Richard Digance and Eric Sedge. It covered the first days of Jamestown through the eyes of Bartholomew Gosnold.
Channel Sky 1 launched a Jamestown series in 2017, most notable because it was produced by those responsible for the PBS hit classic Downton Abbey. Because the first boats to arrive in Jamestown carried men, this series explores the obvious “changes” that occurred when the first women crashed the party. And what a party it must have been *wink wink nudge nudge*.

A Brief History Of Bad Decisions In Early Jamestown

We’ve already discussed what injury and disability procedures may have looked like in early Jamestown when the settlers arrived in 1607. John Smith was the man in charge when power was handed to him in 1608 — but only one year later, he returned home to England following an accident involving a gunpowder explosion. It was a dangerous world these people had found! And an unforgiving one. In Smith’s case, he had the option to go home. But not everyone had that option. Most had to stay, facing the consequences head on.

Disability was uncommon in the Jamestown settlement only because a serious accident would usually result in death. This wasn’t really so surprising when you look at who these men were and why they were there to begin with. The settlers weren’t like others who would follow them hoping to escape religious persecution. No, these were 108 men who were hoping to strike it rich or make a productive home for themselves. Most were upper class men who didn’t want to work. 

Reading in between the lines? That means they were book smart, but didn’t necessarily have the real-world skills they would have needed to thrive. That’s why so many died.

Jamestown was built near a swamp, which was one of the first bad moves the settlers made. This left them with little sanitary drinking water, which they used for cooking and washing as well. And what happens when you drink or expose yourself to bad water? Illness and disease become even more common. Many settlers came down with dysentery or typhus. These problems only amplified during the first winter, when many died — not only because of disease, but of starvation.

Because these were people with book smarts, they mistakenly believed they would find a way to live off the land almost as soon as they found it — which is why they had barely more food than what was needed for the voyage. There are even rumors that the colonists may have resorted to cannibalism in order to survive the winter (but take those with a grain of salt). It took a while for settlers to build a relationship with the Native Americans (and even then it was a rocky road), so they couldn’t trade for enough food to keep fed.

Believe it or not, summer was another problem that rarely gets mentioned. They were from England, where temperature extremes were much more mild. They may not have been prepared for the freezing temperatures of winter, but not were they for the overbearing heat of summer. More died from dehydration (again, bad water) or from heat stroke.

Two-thirds of the settlers by the time the next batch were delivered. We’re sure the men were happy to finally receive some women. But instead of moving to find a better location, they stayed, built, and made yet more bad decisions. Soon, conflict with the Native Americans would escalate into full blown war. But that’s a topic for another day.

The History Of Commemorating Jamestown

Jamestown was first settled in 1607 — and it’s come a long way since then. Whereas only 108 men first arrived to colonize the land around the James River, today there are over 15,000 people who live there. It is a wonderfully preserved part of American history, now over four centuries old. And because it’s that old, there have already been a number of commemorations.

The 200th anniversary occurred in 1807, when there was a festival with 3,000 attendees called the Grand National Jubilee. It opened on May 13. There was a procession leading the way to the old church and its graveyard, where there was a prayer service. Many of the attendees would then dance and dine at the Travis Mansion. The College of William and Mary was up and running at this point, and many students delivered speeches to mark the occasion.

The 300th anniversary in 1907 was marked by the erection of the 103-foot tall Jamestown Tercentenary Monument on Jamestown Island. There was a general feeling of concern related to the oncoming festivities because the American population was now much larger and the Jamestown area was actually smaller — some areas having been eroded and swallowed by the James River. Therefore, the Jamestown Exposition was held in 1907 but in Norfolk County. President Theodore Roosevelt attended.

Mistakes were not repeated as 2007 (the 400th anniversary) was noted to be just around the corner. New accommodations and facilities were planned and constructed in anticipation of the festivities in order to have them on location at Jamestown. The Jamestown 2007 Commission planned and executed a whopping 18 months of state, national, and even international events, beginning in 2006. 

Queen Elizabeth II visited, as did Prince Philip, in early May when the anniversary was finally commemorated. The royal family had also paid the honor of a visit in 1957 during the 350th anniversary celebration.

What Happened When An Ancient Planter Was Old Or Disabled?

The New World probably wasn’t as you imagine it. What the ancient planters discovered would have been much more refined than expected. What does that mean? There were massive herds of grass-eating animals that would have put our lawn mowers to shame. There would have been empty fields and game paths that would have made the Jamestown area somewhat navigable — especially since the area was already inhabited by Native Americans. Both the animals and the natives would present a certain level of danger.

Then there were simple accidents when things were built. There was a lack of food which could lead to malnutrition and mental and physical consequences. There was winter, which brought frostbite or hypothermia. All of these obstacles could lead to disability.

The ancient planters didn’t have access to esteemed Los Angeles disability lawyers or social security benefits. They didn’t have personal injury lawyers to hold everyone else accountable. This was the bush. For the most part, only a few men would write the laws and decide what to do when an unexpected event occurred. But aging and injury were two very foreseeable circumstances. What did their laws say should be done? 

After only one year of settling Jamestown, the colonists were already feeling like garbage. They were lethargic, malnourished, and missed home. The morale situation led John Smith to suggest a new rule: “He that will not worke shall not eate (except by sicknesse he be disabled).”

This is the reason we have any evidence at all that they would take care of the sick or disabled. But then again, the settlement at large produced very little. The Jamestown settlers would have to rely on their Native American “friends” for food. They didn’t know how to live off this new land. Hunting only provided so much, and they didn’t know what could be foraged for until the Native Americans taught them. It took them many years to establish a good crop — and even then, much of it was tobacco and used to further trade interests.

Jamestown would have been like any other 17th century society as far as retirement was concerned (i.e. there wasn’t one). You worked until you were too old or too frail to work anymore — and then you relied on your children for support. You probably died young from disease or accidents. 

The “good news” is this: even though many Jamestown settlers would certainly have been disabled through the daily grind — i.e. accidents or warfare — most would die from their injuries. Medicine in 1607 might have allowed someone who suffered an amputation to survive, but it certainly isn’t advanced enough to provide for everyone. Most people who were seriously injured simply succumbed to their injuries. 

But for those who lost loved ones (i.e. everyone), there was a better support group than most of us would enjoy today. Everyone knew everyone, because the community was smaller and tighter-knit. They used church, for example, to grow their bonds.

The Legacy And Preservation Of Jamestown

One can go visit Jamestown to explore the lasting legacy of the first English settlement in the New World — and what a legacy it is. The storied past of the Jamestown settlers might not be remembered at all, were it not for the exploits of many historians who, over the years, have taken great pains to preserve and protect its place in history books. The first real test came during the American Civil War. 

Jamestown was quickly occupied by Confederate troops early in the war in 1861. The goal was to keep the James River (they were very creative people back in the 1600s) blockaded so that Union ships could not use it to transport supplies or reach Richmond. At the height of its power, the occupation managed to garrison about 1,200 men. It was the site of battery tests when Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones joined Confederate William Allen, whose force first occupied the town. 

Thankfully, there was never any fighting in or around Jamestown. The Confederate forces hastily abandoned Jamestown once it was clear that their position would quickly be overrun if they stayed. And it became clear after battles at Yorktown and Williamsburg turned into failures for the Confederate side. 

That’s not to say there wasn’t any damage to the historic town. Jamestown became a haven for runaway slaves. Not surprisingly, they took to damaging or destroying icons of slavery, such as the old Ambler (plantation) house. 

Following the war, the town was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Edward Barney, who eventually donated over 22 acres of land to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. This helped pave the way to keep many of the artifacts from being destroyed or the buildings from being demolished. Mother nature has since done her share of damage (the river eroded the island’s shore over the years), but this donation is a big part of the reason we still have much of Jamestown’s history intact.

Accidents In Early Jamestown

Pain and suffering is part of life. We’re all just trying to survive — and sooner or later we all fail. Some will make it to old age, while some won’t. In 1607 Jamestown, pain and suffering were even more severe. Death was common. What they went through trying to obtain a slice of the New World would be nothing short of traumatic for everyone there. The number of accidents and missteps were extraordinary. Perhaps even more extraordinary is the fact that — after all was said and done — they managed to obtain what they were looking for.

You might see plenty of car accidents Southern California if you lived in that region. Traffic makes it nearly guaranteed. But what if you lived in 1607 Jamestown? What type of accidents would you see? 

We know a lot based on what John Smith wrote down. Take one letter’s opening: “Kinde Sir, commendations remembered, etc. You shall understand that after many crosses in the downes by tempests, wee arrived safely upon the Southwest part of the great Canaries: within foure or five daies after, we set saile for Dominica, the 26. Of Aprill: the first land we made, wee fell with Cape Henry, the verie mouth of the Bay of Chissiapiacke, which at that present we little expected, having by a cruell storme bene put to the Northward…”

Let’s set aside for a moment the trauma done to our own readers by early seventeenth century grammar and spelling, which was a long way from being standardized. Even in the first paragraph we can infer that many mistakes were made during travel. The new settlers had trouble navigating due to storms, which they could not predict as well as the Native Americans could.

The letter continues: “anchoring in this Bay twentie or thirtie went a shore with the Captain, and in comming aboard, they were assalted with certaine Indians, which charged them within Pistoll shot: whereupon Captaine Archer and Mathew Morton were shot: whereupon Captaine Newport seconding them, made a shot at them, which the Indians little respected, but having spent their arrowes retyred without harme.”

Conflict with Native Americans was inevitable, but the extent to which it happened may not have been. These settlers had a largely different mindset relating to the land and its use than the Native Americans did, and they also had little respect for the people, who they most saw as savages. In fact, it could largely said that the biggest accident Jamestown residents made was their inability to fully integrate with Native American communities, which could have helped them survive.

That’s not to say that they didn’t sometimes get along. Native Americans were critical in helping the settlers survive the first winters. But the constant conflict, instances of disease, slavery, and death ensured that there would be “accidents” for a long time coming. And there were. Settlers couldn’t find enough food and drank sea water when they were already dehydrated. Truth be told, it’s a wonder they survived at all.

The modern Jamestown accident:

Was Captain George Kendall Truly A Mutineer?

We recently spoke about the rocky road embarked upon by the first settlers of Jamestown in 1607. Not only did the settlers — the first of whom were all male — have to deal with harsh winters, sickness, and starvation, but they also had to deal with threats amongst themselves. Captain George Kendall was blamed for a mutiny in the early days of the settlement, but he was ultimately put to death by firing squad.

Historians wonder if this was the full story, though.

Captain John Smith had laid extraordinary praise at the man’s feet before his death. Smith said that Kendall was diligent, a gentleman, but one against whom “hainous matter” had been proved. Interesting how a mutineer can be such a gentleman! 

In 1996, the remains of an assumed early 17th-century settler were unearthed near the Jamestown fort. Historians believed they had found Kendall.

Bly Straube, curator of the Jamestown Rediscovery team, said, “It would be absolutely wonderful if we could tie these remains to a real, live person. But it’s going to take a lot more work.”

The detectives responsible for identifying the body quickly discovered how violent his death had been. There were several wounds made by musket balls, which would have been fatal. The diggers also believed that amongst the artifacts found with the body inside a coffin was a pin for a blindfold — maybe.

It should be mentioned, of course, that the historical details surrounding the supposed mutiny are nonexistent. We really have no idea what happened. 

But some believe his execution occurred after he was found to be a Catholic spy. Historian Philip L. Barbour said, “There is no clear-cut evidence. Captain George Kendall: Mutineer or Intelligencer.”

The team hopes to, in the future, gain more DNA evidence to prove that the body is Kendall. The investigation into whether or not Kendall was a spy or mutineer remains ongoing.