How Far Into Virginia Did Jamestown Settlers Explore?

The original Jamestown settlers were all men and boys — and they didn’t bring much with them. Only the basics like food and water. For everything else, they had to search when they arrived in what would eventually be named Virginia. It wasn’t an easy task. Every additional step into the great wilderness of the New World meant increased risk from natural obstacles, hunger, dehydration, and Native Americans. And certainly, they could only explore during the warmer months of the year.

Actually, much of the exploring occurred before the men and boys actually landed their ships in Jamestown. They spent a week or two trying to find the right spot. Jamestown might have been their best shot to set up and long lasting settlement — but that doesn’t mean it was ideal. Far from it, in fact. The location was somewhat shielded by natural barriers, but water sources were far from adequate and created problems for the new settlement.

The settlers might have had better luck farther south and more inland. Jamestown is located along the Atlantic Coast, due southeast of Richmond, which is about midway between Maryland and North Carolina. The first winters would devastate the new colony.

Additional shipments of goods were scheduled over the next few years, and they might have benefitted from continuing to explore along the coast. They had problems of their own, however, and many ships were lost along the way. This was especially true in 1609, when the flagship Sea Venture led six other ships and two pinnacles as part of the Third Supply. They were enveloped in hurricane winds, lost a few ships, and were forced to land along the reefs of Bermuda lest the entire fleet be destroyed.

Interestingly, these new settlers probably had it easiest — because the original Jamestown settlement was enduring the Starving Time, during which two-thirds of the population perished from starvation, disease, and freezing temperatures.

But because of the misfortunes of the Third Supply, they were able to explore farther south (although Bermuda was already mapped at the time). These settlers arrived in Jamestown in late spring, 1610. Another fleet arrived barely more than a month later, replenishing the settlement’s supplies — and people.

North Virginia was more difficult to explore during this time, both because of Native Americans and settlers from other European countries. The Native Americans posed less of a problem because so many were wiped out by the diseases and illnesses brought by the Europeans. But fighting between settlements was also to be avoided at all costs, because the population was already so small. 

Eventually, it was the economy that drove further exploration into the New World. The main staple, tobacco, was so desired in the New World that trade allowed the settlers to expand supply lines well beyond what was initially available. This mostly occurred decades after the ancient planters first arrived — but they did eventually succeed in making the most of their adventure into the New World.

Did Early Jamestown Settlements Struggle With Addiction?

Most of us realize that the first settlers of historic Jamestown were forced to endure an endless list of hardships before they really got their footing. These included lack of water and food, famine, conflict with Native Americans, sickness, and long winters. Together, these factors contributed to many of the settlers perishing very early on — and considering the first group was comprised only just over 100 men, that was a big problem.

Another issue was the lack of economy. They needed a profitable commodity to trade amongst themselves and with the natives, and it took them a few years before they found one: tobacco. Once settlers were incentivized to grow (they had been given “free” land that belonged to the Natives). But tobacco is addictive. What makes addiction more likely? Factors like adverse living, depression, etc. And we know the Jamestown settlers had that in spades.

So was there any evidence to suggest they struggled with addiction?

Oddly enough, it’s rarely discussed. Oddly enough, King James didn’t have much respect for tobacco or smokers — he is documented as having believed it was a revolting habit — but he allowed settlers to grow and sell it anyway. After all, the New World was ripe for the taking. But in order to take it, settlers had to first survive long enough to build a beachhead that future travelers could use to get their own footing. 

In the years following, settlers arrived by the boatload. Most were indentured servants who were forced to work off a debt. Survival was the least of their problems! Almost all of these settlers grew tobacco to work off their debt and make a living. It’s almost inconceivable to make the case that none of these poor, depressed folk smoked. They almost certainly took their fair share of the crop that kept them alive and, eventually, helped them prosper.

Which Settlements Followed Jamestown Into The 17th Century?

The average American fifth grader would probably know that Jamestown was the first major attempt at settlement of the New World by the English, who were becoming quite good at empire building. But how many of them would know the order of operations thereafter? There were dozens of settlements, some smaller, some larger, that came after Jamestown. Many of these early settlements failed, while others thrived.

Technically, Christopher Columbus and his men began a settlement where they landed in 1493, after their second voyage across the sea. They named it Isabella. It was consistently on the verge of destruction until he moved to a new town near present-day Santo Domingo.

The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in December 1620. Not exactly the best time — or place — to arrive in the New World, but they made do. Without the help of the Native Americans, these settles almost certainly would have starved to death during the harsh New England winter.

We most often think about those settlements established by the English, but the French were colonizing as well. New France was permanently established in 1616 Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia) after Jesuit missionaries arrived in 1611. Believe it or not, but the American focus on English colonies makes little sense considering how meticulous the Jesuits were in documenting every single detail of the New World experience. Much of what we know about the English colonies is thanks to Jesuit efforts.

New England was founded by 1630. John Winthrop propelled this colony forward by authoring a famous pamphlet with arguments why it should be founded despite the strong objections of English authority back home. One of those reasons was because the Native American presence in Massachusetts was extremely small — thanks to the spread of illness and disease brought by the English.

New Netherland was established by the Dutch Republic with a large amount of territory in 1614, some of which included present-day Cape Cod. The colony included a number of settlements — which would find conflict not only with nearby Native Americans, but also with the settlers of other colonies established by the Swedish South Company. They pushed into New Netherland from the south, while the New England Confederation pushed in from the north. Even so, the colony swelled for the next fifty odd years.

The vast majority of these settlements were built and organized similar to Jamestown: indentured servants were brought over from the Motherland, and then forced to work for a period of years to pay off what they owed. There was no credit card debt relief for these poor souls. They worked in the fields until the books were balanced properly. Eventually, slaves would be brought over as well — which meant indentured servitude occurred less and less. This was great for business owners, but not so great for everyone else.

By the way, these colonies and settlements were hardly the first. The Norse began to colonize North America as early as the tenth century — although they probably didn’t make it much farther than Newfoundland and Greenland.

How Were Officials Elected In Early Jamestown?

Considering there were barely more than 100 settlers (all men and boys) who arrived in Jamestown, it stands to reason that there may have been infighting. That’s what happens when you put dozens of alpha males ready for adventure and a new life in one confined area with all the stress in the world: bad water, little food, horrendous winters, and Native Americans with whom you refuse to get along. So how did they elect their officials?

Don’t be silly, they didn’t elect anyone — because their was still a king back in England and he was still in control.

The town was actually named after King James I, who himself established a council of seven men who would carry out directives. Command was given to Captain Christopher Newport. Interestingly, the leadership was a mystery until they actually arrived in Jamestown — meaning their were already big problems by the time they got there, especially because everyone wanted to know exactly who would be ordering them around. But the king had it his way, and a box with seven names inside remained sealed until they landed. 

This was great news for Captain John Smith, who was to be hanged for mutiny. When the settlers saw his name on the list of seven, he was granted a reprieve by Newport. 

Within the first two years of settlement, though, investors and settlers alike grew antsy about the current direction of the colony. A new charter was requested and approved, and a sole governor was appointed: Sir Thomas West. His second, Thomas Gates, established a code of laws by 1610, which were continually expanded upon by successors (because there really are never enough laws, if we’ve learned anything from American legislators).

Over the next decade, governors and councilors would routinely change because of harsh winters and internal political strife. But that’s what having a king is all about!

How Did Jamestown Residents Settle Non-Criminal Disputes?

There were only 104 people at the first English settlement on the continent of North America — and you might not have realized that they were all men. You heard right. There were no women to balance out the testosterone, and you know what that means: there were disputes, fights, and major problems that needed to be settled without a truly legal means of doing what needed to be done.

Think about it. These men, most of whom were young, couldn’t just pick up a blunt object to commit murder (they all knew each other), or head to a lawyer’s office to sue for damages. On the plus side, there was no need to venture to the nearest Orlando divorce attorney — because there were no marriages. There was one particularly difficult season known as the “Starving Time.” During this period, Jamestown settlers may have resorted to eating the dead. Perhaps they started with the ones they didn’t like too much.

What kind of issues were there? There were Native Americans close to the settlement, and trade between the two groups was difficult. Clean water, unfamiliar environment, little food, and harsh winters only added to the stress endured by Jamestown settlers. Another thing you might not know is that many of these people were very wealthy — and that means they weren’t used to doing things for themselves. Farming? No thanks. They didn’t even have the skills for it.

History wrote, “Modern-day samples taken from some of the wells used by Jamestown colonists have revealed high levels of salt and varying degrees of arsenic and fecal contamination — a foul, and potentially lethal, cocktail.”

How they settled non-criminal disputes shouldn’t surprise anyone who can contemplate for even a minute how a group of all men would respond to these issues: with temper tantrums. There was a history of refusal to work, insubordination, etc., and English authority often had to step in.

When people started to die in the colony, a man named John Smith took over and imposed martial law (which sounds silly considering how few people there were). Smith had those who refused to do their jobs summarily executed. The only thing that truly saved the colony from mutiny was a land incentive system in which people were provided with free land so long as they promised to tend crops on it. 

That helped the colony find a cash crop: tobacco. Not really a big surprise that this was the most profitable crop, especially when you reconsider the stress they were under. Smoking and chewing were two ways to temporarily relieve pent of stress — which was important since there were no women around for nearly a year. Had tobacco not been grown there, England probably would have given up on the colony. And truth be told, all those who lived there probably would have died much sooner than they did.

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.

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. 

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!

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.