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.

Did The Ancient Planters In Jamestown Believe In Witchcraft?

Many of us associate witchcraft with United States history; Salem, Massachusetts in particular. But the phenomenon of witchcraft was something firmly believed in by those who were rooted in the Christian faith throughout Europe. In other words, most Jamestown settlers from 1607 and on didn’t just believe in witchcraft: they knew it existed. There was even a string of accusations that began sometime after 1622. Dozens of trials were conducted from 1626 to at least 1730.

They probably would have gone on longer if Parliament hadn’t repealed the Witchcraft Act of 1604, which is what planted many of the seeds of the future chaos in the first place. It really started back in 1542 when Parliament criminalized witchcraft.

It didn’t help that the ancient planters assumed the Native Americans worshiped alongside the devil. It’s no coincidence that John Smith once said Powhatan was “more like a devil than a man.” Others used similar descriptions after encountering the indigenous tribes. Alexander Whitaker was an Anglican minister who described them like the “English Witches” all men of the cloth seemed to “know” so well. George Percy wrote that the Native Americans would make “noise like so many Wolves or Devils.”

It shouldn’t come as such a surprise, then, that the colonists thought witchcraft was a big problem even in their own backyards.

Historians have no idea exactly how many trials regarding witchcraft were conducted in the early 1600s, because most of the era’s court records were destroyed during the Civil War nearly two hundred years later.

In September 1626, Joan Wright of James City County was formally accused of witchcraft. She was an English settler. Witnesses testified that she had prophesied the deaths of fellow colonists around the same time she allegedly destroyed crops and cows, and somehow caused the death of a baby. Naturally, they said it all occurred through witchcraft.

Even though she admitted her part in all of it, she was acquitted of the charges.

Although we’ll never know for sure exactly why these charges were brought about, we can safely assume it was not the result of supernatural activity. Perhaps Wright was not a popular member of the community. More likely the charges were the result of unexplained phenomena that were so commonplace in the early 1600s: unexplained crop failure, death, persistent illness, etc. Even today people feel the need to place blame when something goes wrong. How often do we turn to science? It was even less common back in the colonies.

Naturally, witchcraft cases tend to reflect the presence of misogyny in the culture of the ancient planters. Only two of the cases we know about made allegations that men had played at witchcraft. Women were the primary targets, but we have no idea how far the paranoia really spread.

A Brief History of Slavery in Colonial Virginia

In the early 1600s, colonial officials found it difficult to find laborers to help them develop land in the “New World.” A new concept called indentured laborers developed in which British residents would sign contracts where they would work in the New World as payment for their passage and a small farm. Most of these indentured laborers were young people who planned on staying permanently. In some cases, British criminals were forced to become indentured servants rather than serving time in prison. They were not slaves but were required to work for 4-7 years to pay off their debt from passage and their farm.

The first Africans reached Jamestown in 1619 when they were brought in by Dutch traders that captured a Spanish slave ship. It is a custom of the Spanish to baptize the slaves before removing them from Africa. It is an English tradition that anyone who has been baptized to be exempt from slavery. Therefore, the first African became indentured labrorers. These Africans were eventually freed and joined the colonists as part of the community, eventually owning land and having slaves of their own.

It wasn’t until 1640 when slavery first appeared in Virginia when African John Punch was sentenced to slavery after trying to flee his indentured labor service. The white men who fled with him were, however, only sentenced to one additional year of indentured labor. This is viewed in history as the first legal sanctioning of slavery in the English colonies and the first legal distinction made between Europeans and Africans.

The next instance of slavery that we see in Virginia is the civil case between Anthony Johnson and Robert Parker.  John Casor, an African indentured laborer complained that his master Anthony Johnson (a freed African) held him past his indentured time. A neighbor, Robert Parker threatened Johnson that he would testify in court and touted that he would lose some of his lands if he did not free Casor. Johnson then freed Casor. Casor then entered into an indentured service with Parker. Feeling bamboozled Johnson sued Parker for possession over Casor. The court ruled that Parker illegally took Casor and that he belonged to his rightful master for “the duration of his life.” Casor was now a slave.

Things You Didn’t Know About the Virginia Colony

Much of this country’s early history can be found in Virginia. It was home to one of our first colonies, and Jamestown was as important as any of the rest. The residents who called this place home struggled to survive, and actually did so, against all odds. All that aside, it was one of the most interesting places to live as well. Here are some things you may not have known about the history of these settlements!

  1. Before there were even colonies, Sir Walter Raleigh named all of the British territory north of Florida and south of Canada “Virginia.” Everything. When the population exploded, new colonies chipped away at the already-named territory little by little.

  2. European tobacco wasn’t introduced into the Virginia colony until about 1610, and only then by the husband of Pocahontas, John Rolfe. Needless to say, it was a great investment even if it was a lot different than what we’re familiar with today.

  3. That tobacco was likely smuggled from Central America or Spain, where the sale of tobacco seeds was illegal.

  4. Native Americans were already cultivating tobacco of their own, but naturally the European settlers of Jamestown preferred a taste of home just a little bit more.

  5. From late 1609 and well into 1610 was a period known as The Starving Time. The search for food was so fruitless that upwards of 80 percent of all the colonists perished over the winter. Some archaeologists believe that the residents who survived resorted to cannibalism in order to do so.

  6. Most historians agree that the first colonists to settle Virginia weren’t actually planters at all. They were rich men trying to become even more wealthy by stealing natural resources that the Native Americans had found for themselves. It was harder than they anticipated!

  7. Hampton was settled in 1610, and has been continuously settled ever since. That’s saying a lot since the town burned down during the chaos of the Civil War.

  8. Virginia was the site of the first capital trial and execution in the New World. A councilman and captain, George Kendall was accused of being a Catholic spy. The other colonists were worried that he might be supply information on colonization and settlement efforts to Spain, so they tried and executed him.

Was Tobacco In Colonial Virginia Different From What We Grow Today?

The ancient planters struggled to survive when they first arrived in Virginia, but they knew what they were getting into. They came for a variety of reasons, but they had to work together in order to make their new homework to its full potential. One of the biggest contributing factors to the long-term success of this early colony was tobacco–an important cash crop everywhere, but especially to the colonists.

They needed the influx of capital it provided, but as their need for resources grew, so too did their conflicts with the Native Americans who lived in the area. They needed land more than anything else to continue growing their tobacco, which led to conflict, social strife, and war.

Whether or not the tobacco tasted familiar to the settlers depended on where the seeds were found. The first tobacco the settlers found belonged to the Native Americans who lived there, and was called “nicotiana rustica.” To them, it would’ve tasted darker and more bitter than what they were accustomed to growing. Eventually, John Rolfe managed to procure Spanish seeds called “nicotiana tabacum.” These seeds helped the settlers grow a plant that tasted dark yet mild compared to the former.

It should be noted that the dominant means of “consumption” was called “snuff.” The ground tobacco leaves would be sniffed or inhaled. It was quite unlike the cigarettes today and probably wasn’t as offensive.

These latter seeds would become the standard for tobacco farming over the next century, but of course, the way we grow and breed plants has evolved quite a bit over time. Tobacco cultivation became so important to the economy of new colonies that the General Assembly mandated a number of regulations by 1619. Tobacco had to undergo inspection, and could only be stored in specific types of warehouses and transported in port towns. This process helped expand other settlements in Norfolk, Richmond, and Alexandria. Anyone one who failed to do this would face criminal charges and be in need of a criminal defense lawyer.

It was a brutal cycle. The cash crop was directly used to pay for the indentured servants or slaves who would inevitably be responsible for cultivating the land where the next batch would be planted. Many of the crops would be shipped back to England in return for new slaves, servants, and an influx of cash.

What Did New England Look Like Before Settlement?

The sea level was lower tens of thousands years ago, and a land bridge near modern-day Alaska and Russia may have allowed people to move into North America. Historians think they may have arrived via the sea even earlier than that, but one thing is for certain: by the time European settlers traveled to the New World, Native Americans had already settled into every nook and cranny. There may have been a population of 50 million, give or take.

They didn’t have the same domesticated plants or animals that Europeans enjoyed. They didn’t have horses. They grew corn and beans and squash in many places. They had domesticated dogs and turkeys. There were no pigs, cows, or sheep.

Around 5000 BCE, corn was domesticated from an almost unrecognizable plant. That allowed the transition from a nomadic to agricultural way of life. We rarely think of the Native Americans as having large communities, but they did. There were smaller tribes here and there, but there were well-traveled roads and cities populated by tens of thousands of people. The largest may have had up to a million inhabitants.

That’s wildly different from how Native Americans are usually portrayed on TV. Most of these cities arose in the southwestern parts of North America and down into Central America. The population of Native Americans in New England prior to settlement would have been much much lower–a few million at the most.

Forests probably looked quite a bit different, too. Many of the plants and animals that made their home in New England before European settlement have since died out. There were different types of trees that were either killed through deforestation or by fungal infection. Earthworms were only introduced into these environments after settlement!

The new plants and animals changed the way these forests grew, and therefore the way they look today. The forests had more trees, but they were well-managed by the natives. They set controlled fires because they knew that the life would grow back stronger and be less susceptible to fires caused by mother nature. Believe it or not, some historians claim that the beginning of our climate change problems found its root in those controlled burnings–which would have released huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air.