Jamestown: A Colonial Trial Run



Edited by Dr. Marie Lasseter
Director of Academic Technologies
University System of Georgia

Introduction

In 1606, new groups, the Virginia Company of London and the Plymouth Company, were given the rights to colonize North America. The Virginia Company would focus on the mid-Atlantic region, the Plymouth further north. Captain Christopher Newport was given command of a fleet of three ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery, all carrying just over a hundred colonists. Their goal was to reach the Chesapeake Bay in order to find a suitable location far enough inland to be reasonably secure from discovery by the Spanish. The ships set sail from England before Christmas and arrived in the Chesapeake region in April, 1607, after the usual stopover in the Indies. The colonists searched for a suitable place for settlement and on May 15 chose a rather unhealthy, marshy area along the James River on which to land. The reason for the choice is not clear, as the James had many suitable building sites with better environments. Perhaps the colonists thought that, being in a marsh, they would be less likely to attract unwanted attention from the natives or Spanish. Whatever the reason, the location would prove to be a difficult one.

The Powhatan

Powhatan, detail of map published by John Smith (1612) / Wikimedia Commons

The Indians of the region, the Powhatan, whose dialect was Algonquian, knew of Englishmen from their neighbors to the south. Unlike the Indians at Roanoke, the Powhatan were a large and powerful confederation of many tribes under one chief, Wahunsonacock, also known as Powhatan. The territory he commanded stretched from the Potomac in the north to the Carolinas in the south, from the Chesapeake Bay inland to the west of what is now Richmond. Essentially, he controlled Tidewater Virginia in what has been described as the largest Indian confederation in North American history.

The Powhatan dressed much like their neighbors to the south, wearing skins for clothes, copper and pearls for jewelry. After settling the colonists at Jamestown, named in honor of James I, Newport set about exploring the rivers. He discovered the Fall Line at the site of modern Richmond, Virginia, a natural boundary making the transition from the Tidewater to the Piedmont regions of the territory. Boulders and rapids mark the end of the English portion of the river. The colonists met both friendly and hostile Indians and survived an early attack on their settlement that served to convince them of the need to invest time and effort in strong defenses. The colonists finished the construction of a three-sided fort in just a month. A trench was dug, into which logs were stood upright and packed tight to form a wall. At each corner, the walls were formed into a circular area, with extra earth packed in to create a mount for watchmen and a cannon.

When Captain Newport sailed back to London in June, he left what he thought was a colony sufficiently established to survive until further support arrived. By August, however, the colony was beginning to struggle. The location of the settlement was within the tidal area of the James River where salt water from the Chesapeake Bay mixed with fresh water from the James, creating a brackish brew not fit to drink. While the marsh waters were not good for humans, they proved a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The colony had been well provisioned, but the food stores spoiled due to the heat, leaving the colonists short on supplies and desperately in need of new sources of food. The final misery was the local Indians who continually harassed the colonists whenever the opportunity arose to inflict injury and death. While Newport was in London spreading the news of the success and great potential future success of the Jamestown settlement, over half the colonists died.

The sweltering summer heat had caused the colonists to suffer terribly. Fall provided a moment of relief before winter came, bringing to those down on the river a peculiar type of cold, a damp chill that went right through the body of anyone not properly attired, leaving them feeling as if they would never be warm again. Such was the miserable state of the last forty-some members of the colony in the winter of 1607.

Captain John Smith

Detail of John Smith from an illustration in The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles; with the names of the Adventurers, Planters, and Governours from their first beginning, Ano: 1584, to this present 1624. Engraver John Barra? / Wikimedia Commons

The one bright spot of these members, Captain John Smith, was also one of the most troublesome. Of all the colonists, John Smith became the most famous in no small measure due to his own self-promotion: he wrote one of the first celebrity autobiographies. It helped the English learn of the New World and its inhabitants and of the fabulously adventurous life of John Smith. Smith’s stories seemed too fantastic to be true, yet apparently they were. As much as he may have been a braggart, Smith truly was a most resourceful man of action. Unfortunately his bravado drove most people, including the colonists and the colony leaders, to distraction. Part of the problem was that Smith was a commoner while the leaders were gentlemen, that is, his social betters. Such details meant little to the gruff Smith, who had been a soldier of fortune and valued mettle over social status. He had been arrested and kept locked below decks for much of the crossing, as he argued with and angered the leaders. Once the ship landed, he was released and continued to annoy those around him. With the colonists facing the real possibility of starvation and Smith eager for action, the colony leaders chose to set Smith on the Indians.

The Famous Rescue of Smith by Pocahontas

Smith was charged with exploring the surrounding area, seeking a passage to the Pacific and, as always, gold. He traded with the Indians for provisions and, because of this, was successful in learning the area and the ways of the natives, including their language. He did hear stories of a western sea and of mountains and gold. He also heard about the Roanoke colony and was given reason to believe there had been survivors who were still alive. Most important to the Jamestown colonists, he also brought back enough food to help keep the colony alive. At the same time, Smith was careful to nurture the image of the English as being strong and interested in trade for trade’s sake, rather than out of any need. Smith did not want to give an impression of weakness that might tempt the Indians to an all-out attack. He was cautious as well with what he revealed about the English plans, taking care not to provoke violence. Those who traveled with Smith were not always so cautious.

While exploring the Chickahominy River, Smith left some men in a boat and went on shore. While he was gone, the men spotted women along the banks. The colony had no women. The Indian women appeared friendly, so the men left the boat against Smith’s instructions and walked into a trap. Men from the Chickahominy tribe had been waiting under cover to ambush Smith’s men, who ran to escape. One, George Cassen, did not make it. He was not killed outright; instead, he was tied between stakes, stripped naked, and tortured to death. Excoriated by seashells, head first, his skin was then burned before his eyes; his fingers were cut off piece by piece, and his entrails taken out and burned. Still alive, Cassen was then burned to death.This death demonstrated sheer brutality on par with the English form of execution of being drawn and quartered. Smith and the men he had brought to shore heard sounds of alarm, but too late to rescue Cassen. They ran, trying to save themselves, and were cut down by the Indians. Smith alone of the English on shore survived; he slipped and fell and was captured. Not wanting to meet the same fate as Cassen, Smith resolved to convince the Indians that he was an important man, a useful man to know. He showed them a compass, made a grand speech, and somehow was spared for the moment and taken on a long journey to meet the great chief, Powhatan.

Figure 4.2 Rebecca Rolfe | Formerly known as Matoaka and Pocahontas, Rebecca Rolfe is shown in this portrait as she appeared in London in 1616, based on an engraving by Simon van de Passe. / Flickr User “cliff1066”, Flickr CC-BY-2.0

What happened next became the most famous story of Jamestown and perhaps all of Colonial American history. The account of the story comes from Smith himself who wrote of it in his autobiography. Some historians doubt any of it is true; others believe Smith embellished the details, and others that, while Smith gave the facts correctly, he did not understand the significance of the event. This seems doubtful as Smith, of all the English, was the most widely traveled, had the most experience in meeting different cultures, and seems to have been the most successful in dealing with Powhatan. How could he have done so well if he was unable to grasp the meaning of his encounter with Powhatan and his daughter? According to Smith, although he was held captive, he was treated well. Various important men questioned him, but he was not abused. He was brought before Powhatan, who was seated as a king with attendants surrounding him. Among the crowd was a little girl, roughly ten years old and quite pretty: Matoaka, more commonly known as Pocahontas. Large stones were brought out and placed before Powhatan, then Smith was brought forward and made to place his head on one of them. He expected to be executed by having his skull crushed between the stones. Suddenly, Pocahontas flew forward and threw herself protectively over Smith, wrapping her arms about him and putting her own head over his. Was this a spontaneous act on the part of Pocahontas? Probably not. Smith was spared, given a new name, Nantaquoud, and adopted by Powhatan. Before setting him free, Powhatan even offered him lands. Such adoptions of foreigners were not uncommon among Indians. Adoptions could strengthen tribes and cement diplomatic relations. Powhatan knew Smith was a man of some importance among the English, and Smith had put on a good show. Even when faced with having his skull crushed, he acted with bravery, a trait admired by the Indians. Smith was returned to Jamestown with an escort. He had promised cannons to Powhatan but had no intention of delivering them. He showed his escort the largest cannons there, which were far too heavy for the Indians to move, so they agreed to accept other gifts for Powhatan instead.

With his troubles with the Indians over for the present, Smith was immediately faced with a crisis at Jamestown. The colony had been reduced to just forty cold, sick, and miserable men, who wanted to go home. Newport was overdue on his promised return; he had left one ship, the Discovery, to be used as needed, but had not intended it to be used to sail home to England. Smith forced the men to stay by threatening to fire on them and the ship. They, in turn, voted to have Smith arrested on charges of being responsible for the deaths of his men and then executed. For the second time in days, Smith’s life was endangered, this time by his own people. At the eleventh hour, Captain Newport returned to take charge on New Year’s Day, 1608. Newport had sailed accompanied by another ship, as was typical of the English, but the ships had become separated, and the other was not seen again. Still, Newport’s arrival meant Smith was saved and so too was the colony, thanks to Newport’s supplies and fresh colonists.

The fortunes of the colony turned again when a fire consumed the fort, destroying all the buildings and supplies. All the new colonists had were the materials they had brought with them that had not yet been unloaded from the ship; all the old colonists had was whatever they were wearing when the fire broke out. This devastating turn of events made the colonists even more dependent on trade with the natives. Powhatan sent food for Smith and Newport, as Smith had told Powhatan that Newport was his important “father.” The corn and venison eased the hunger of the colonists. At the same time, Smith noted a rate of inflation in trade with the Indians; they were still being generous, but were expecting more in return. Jamestown did not have an unlimited supply of trade goods, as they all had to be brought from England. The Indians were experienced in barter and quickly learned the value of their own goods to the English.

All that Glitters

Statue of Christopher Newport at Christopher Newport University / Mytwocents, Wikimedia Commons

Captain Newport was faced with multiple problems; the first was that the colony leadership fell into petty squabbles when he was not around to lead them; the second was that he had told the Virginia Company in London and others that he had found gold in Virginia. In some areas of Virginia, the creeks appeared to be running in golden channels, but it was only pyrite or Fool’s Gold. Newport had been misled by the golden glitter and now was more pressed than ever to find real gold as quickly as possible.

To this end, the colonists spent the early part of 1608 in the hunt for gold. They packed the pyrite-laden dirt onto Newport’s ship in the vain hope that it would prove to be gold laced. Meanwhile, nothing necessary for the survival of the colony was being done: the fort’s defenses were not being strengthened, the region was not being fully explored, the colonists were not producing enough of their own food to be self-sustaining, and the sailors, waiting to return to England, had to survive on the colony’s food and water supplies, further straining the colony’s resources.

Smith blamed Newport for the colony’s focus on gold, not appreciating the position Newport was in with the financial backers of the colony who would not be impressed by anything other than gold, no matter how many other valuable resources Virginia was found to have. Newport further created problems for Smith by trading most generously with Powhatan on terms that could not, and, in Smith’s view should not, be sustained. Newport had even given swords to Powhatan, and Smith was utterly opposed to giving weapons to the Indians. To Newport, it was good business, as he wanted Powhatan to see the English as useful neighbors and allies. He and Powhatan had even exchanged boys as a gesture of goodwill and so that each boy could learn the other people’s ways and then be of service to their own people in understanding the other, an ancient practice of diplomacy.

Newport finally sailed for England on a ship loaded with worthless, sparkling dirt and the two leaders of the group who had tried to take the Discovery. Smith was left to deal with the rest of the gentlemen who resented his manner and with Indians who had been given elevated expectations of what the English would deliver. Powhatan appreciated the usefulness of the English metal weapons and tools. Smith was not as willing as Newport to give them up, so the Indians resorted to stealing what they wanted. Smith was not foolish or murderous enough to react to the thievery with the type of violence that Lane had used at Roanoke. Instead, the colonists tried to stay alert and drive away potential thieves without offending Powhatan.

The ship that had accompanied Newport and was thought lost suddenly appeared in April, a few days after Newport sailed for England. The commander, Thomas Nelson, had sailed south to winter after losing contact with Newport. He brought more supplies and colonists, and things seemed to be looking up for the colony, although the conflicts amongst the leaders continued to cause problems within, and the Indian’s continued harassment from without. Nelson did not linger. After off-loading the supplies and colonists, he stayed long enough to take on a shipment of cedar before setting sail for England. For the Virginia Company, Jamestown was becoming something of a disappointment.

John Ratcliffe’s Bad Decisions

John Ratcliffe / Wikimedia Commons

In Jamestown, John Ratcliffe, president of the colony, behaved in ways which had a negative impact on the colony. Early in the venture, Smith had supported Ratcliffe for leadership, but he had since been disappointed by Ratcliffe’s actions and interests. In Smith’s absence, Ratcliffe had ordered the colonists to build him a home outside the fort. The idea was foolhardy, since a house outside the fort would be a natural target for the Indians. While working on Ratcliffe’s home, the colonists were unable to do the work needed for the colony’s maintenance. With the summer months, the weather had again turned unpleasantly hot and muggy, and many of the colonists were ill. Worst of all, Ratcliffe was consuming much-needed provisions. When Smith returned, Ratcliffe was removed from office. Smith, although recovering from a severe stingray attack and still unwell, was voted in as president. Whatever the state of Ratcliffe’s mind, he made his situation all the worse by attempting mutiny.

Smith allowed the colonists much-needed time to recover before setting them to the task of preparing the colony for winter. Newport returned in September to find Smith in charge and the colonists hard at work. Newport brought another load of supplies as well as colonists, including the first married couple, and the first single Englishwoman in North America, Anne Burras. Anne was a maid to Mistress Forest, the first married Englishwoman in North America. Anne became the first Englishwoman to marry in North America, accepting the proposal of John Layton, one of the first colonists.

As 1608 drew to a close, Jamestown continued to survive but was not making a profit. As a business, it was operating at a loss. The Virginia Company of London was formed to invest in the colonization of Virginia with the goal of making a profit for its investors. By 1608, the investors had paid money to send ship after ship of colonists and supplies to Jamestown and had received back only two shiploads of dirt and one shipload of cedar. Rather than making a return on their investments, they were losing money. The company renewed Newport’s instructions: to find gold, the lost colony, or the west passage to the Pacific was to be the colony’s priority. Also, Newport was to crown Powhatan. Smith considered everything the company wanted as a general waste of valuable time that the colonists needed to spend on producing food. Over Smith’s objections, Newport followed directions. He presented a crown to Powhatan, along with many other gifts. He sailed up the James to the Fall Line and then led an expedition overland from there and found neither gold nor a passage west. Smith had been right; Newport had wasted time, and, worse, he had managed to offend Powhatan. Suddenly, their unstable relations now reached a new low. The colony still could not produce its own food, and none was to be had from Powhatan’s people. Smith blamed Newport, who had disregarded Smith’s warnings and placed the colony in jeopardy.

Smith made finding food a priority. He sailed to various villages only to find that Powhatan had forbidden them to give the English food. Smith, desperate, would set fire to one of the village buildings and threaten to burn the rest if food was not brought. The tough tactics worked to an extent; the Indians did give him food, but not very much. They said, and it may well have been true, that they were also low on food. Powhatan had become convinced that the English intended to settle permanently in his lands, which he did not want. Smith’s concern was the survival of Jamestown, which needed food and security. The situation remained uneasy as Smith tried to acquire more food and Powhatan tried to find a way to murder Smith. Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, saved Smith with a warning, at great personal risk. Smith did not realize that Powhatan too had his informants: Germans who had arrived with Newport’s last visit. Smith had sent them to the Powhatan to build them an English-style house at Powhatan’s request. When the Germans saw how much better life was in an Indian village than in the English fort of Jamestown, they asked to stay and serve Powhatan, who accepted at once.

Smith returned to Jamestown with the provisions he had managed to gather only to find that what food stores had been at the fort had been ruined by rats during his absence. Now the official leader of the colony, Smith set about making the changes he thought necessary for its survival. He ordered everyone, including the gentlemen, to work. Those who did not work would not eat. He secured a good supply of fresh water by having a well dug. He had new housing built. He increased security and put men to work farming. Some Indians who remained captives at the fort taught the English how to plant, and things were finally moving in the right direction. Smith was dealing well with both Indians and English, but he had not conquered the rats. Once again, they destroyed the colony’s stores. Smith managed the crisis well and kept everyone alive but noted that there was a group that still would do little except feed themselves, a fact which clearly tried his patience.

When he lost all patience with Newport and the unreasonable monetary expectations of the Virginia Company, Smith wrote a strong and clear complaint to which the Virginia Company listened. They re-wrote the colony charter: no longer would a council and president control Jamestown; instead, a governor would be selected. Rather than sending ships with a hundred or fewer colonists at a time, several hundred would be sent together. Instead of the useless gentlemen that Smith considered to be a plague, the company would send working class men, skilled laborers and artisans well supplied. The new ideas were good; however, the execution of the new plan was poor. No official notice of the plan was sent to Smith. He did hear some general information from an English captain who sailed to the area. The company, though, told him nothing. On August 11, four large ships sailed up the James River. They carried a new shipment of colonists, hundreds of them, not just men but families with children, at the worst time of year. They brought the news that even more were on their way following close behind; they had been a fleet of eight and were separated in a storm. Several of the people Smith loathed the most, including Ratcliffe, were amongst the colonists. The ensuing conflict was immediate; Smith’s old rivals wanted to enforce the new charter; however, the new charter was on a ship that had not arrived, leaving Smith to insist that the original charter was still in force.

Farewell John Smith

Smith won because the charter was lost with the ship that carried it. The new governor had also not arrived, so Smith remained in charge. He divided the colonists and sent them out to new settlements, as he had done previously to deal with the food shortage. The uneasy peace between the English and the Indians depended on both sides demonstrating restraint. The new gentlemen did not seem to understand this need and soon came into conflict with different tribes, attacking them with little or no provocation, destroying their homes and the very crops that the English had depended on as an object of trade; they robbed and killed them yet did not understand how these actions constituted a problem. They were worse than Lane’s men at Roanoke. One group even managed to take a grandson of Powhatan, and, while he was restrained, shot him, claiming it was an accident. The young man’s father, Parahunt, launched a constant attack against the men. Smith tried to negotiate a peace and was successful in dealing with the Indians, but he could do nothing with the English who would not listen to him. As Smith sailed back down river to Jamestown, something ignited the black powder he carried in a bag for his gun. It exploded, causing terrible burns to his body and leaving Smith in agony. His injury was so severe as to be lifethreatening. Also, his office as president was coming to an end one way or another, as his term was expiring even without the new charter. Moreover, ships were on hand preparing to return to England. These combined factors convinced Smith to return home. The English told the Indians, including Pocahontas, that Smith was dead.

The Starving Time

Mass grave at Jamestown discovered by archaeologists, beneath the foundations of one of the later capitol buildings / Photo by Sarah Stierch, Wikimedia Commons

Powhatan had respected Smith, even though he had tried to have the Englishman killed. But the Indian chief had no such respect for the new leaders at Jamestown. The Indians attacked almost anywhere they encountered the English, sometimes with direct attacks, sometimes in ambush, sometimes by luring the English into traps. The troublesome and self-serving Ratcliffe had thought to trade for corn with the Indians. He was captured, tied between stakes before a fire, and, like George Casson, excoriated then burned alive. Order broke down among the leaders of Jamestown as desperation set in. One group that had sailed up to the Potomac to find corn took their corn and sailed for England. For those who were left alive, the winter of 16091610 would be one of the cruelest experiences in American History, known as the “Starving Time.”

With food supplies low and the leadership inept, the colony faced its most desperate situation yet. John Smith, who understood just how tenuous the colony’s hold on survival had always been, focused on water, food, shelter, and security: the things the colony needed to survive. Now without Smith’s leadership, the colony fell apart. Their official leader was a well-educated aristocrat, George Percy, who had no experience in dealing with any of the problems of the colony. Powhatan’s men continued to harass the colony, killing colonists who wandered away from the protection of the fort and destroying English resources outside the fort. Inside the fort, hunger drove men to rash acts; some tried to rob the almost empty stores and were executed by Percy. To relieve the pressures on the dwindling food supply, Percy sent some colonists out to Point Comfort where they would remain for the winter, out of touch with the main group at Jamestown and unaware of the horrors that would happen there.

Soon the starving colonists resorted to eating cats, dogs, rats, and mice that were living in the fort. Nothing was left alive except the colonists themselves, so next they turned to leather items such as belts and shoes. They even boiled and ate their neck ruffs to obtain starch. Eventually they began to eat the human dead, including an Indian who had been killed and buried. Finally, one colonist was driven to commit a terrible crime: Henry= Collins killed then cannibalized his pregnant wife. He tossed the body of the baby into the river. When his crime was discovered, he was tortured until he confessed, then executed.[10] Many colonists were so demoralized that some, fearing they would not be given a burial, dug their own graves and waited in them to die. As the winter came to an end in the spring of 1610, only sixty colonists were left alive at Jamestown and those were in pitiable condition. They had numbered five hundred when Smith left. Other English still remained alive at Point Comfort; they had, in fact, wintered quite well but dared not venture out to see how things were at Jamestown. Percy criticized the Point Comfort leaders, but the truth was they had succeeded where he had miserably failed.

Bermuda and the lost Ship, the Sea Venture

Title page of Sylvester Jordain’s A Discovery of the Barmudas, 1610 / Public Domain

The lost ship that had been carrying the new charter and new governor was the Sea Venture, and its colonists and crew had ended up on Bermuda, a paradisiacal island at that time. Here they had food, both meat and fruits, plenty of fresh water, and a wonderful, gentle climate. Many did not want to leave this pleasant island. Their ship, the Sea Venture, had been damaged in the storm that had separated the fleet. When the storm cleared, the captain, Admiral Sir George Somers, looked for land. He spotted Bermuda, which would be a safe place away from the Spanish, and ran the Sea Venture aground on a reef off the island’s coast. Under the circumstances, it was probably the best that Somers could do, as his ship was in need of repairs, so they could not stay out to sea; Bermuda was surrounded by shallows and reefs and rocks, giving the ship no good approach. Somers managed to ground Sea Venture in such a way that all passengers and crew were safely transported to the island and the ship itself could be salvaged, to a certain extent. She could not be saved, but from her and the islands forests, new, smaller ships, the Deliverance and the Patience, were crafted. Shipbuilding was time-consuming under ideal circumstances. For Somers and company to craft two sea-worthy ships on a desert island was a remarkable achievement. As the work progressed, the members of the little company became attached to their island home. Remaining was not an option because of their duty to the Jamestown colony, so they set sail for Jamestown on May 10, 1610.

Governors Gates and West

They arrived less than two weeks later at Point Comfort, where they found Percy, who told them things were bad at Jamestown. Somers sailed on, reaching the fort on May 24. The fort appeared abandoned. The buildings and fortifications were damaged, the gates were down, and there were no people or even sounds of them. A bell was sounded to see if that would draw anyone out. Somers and the new governor Sir Thomas Gates might well wished it had not worked. The people who emerged from the buildings were emaciated beyond belief, appearing more dead than alive. Their bodies starved, their minds unwell, they came out and approached the new arrivals. Governor Gates faced his first crisis as the new governor of Jamestown. He had had no way of knowing what was happening at the colony while he was on Bermuda. Even if he had known, he could not have imagined the utter misery he found at Jamestown. While he took time to assess the situation, he could find no solution other than to remove all of the residents, load them on the four ships that had been left there, and find ways to return them to England.

Gates, Somers, and the Sea Venture had been believed lost by the other captains in their fleet, and that loss had been reported back to the company in England. They had therefore selected a new governor, Thomas West, Lord De La Warr, and gave him a small fleet with new colonists, and good provisions before sending him off to Jamestown. He arrived at Point Comfort just as Gates was sailing down the James to leave Virginia. West stopped Gates and turned the little fleet around. He had no intention of abandoning Jamestown. Gates and West, with their combined ships, sailed back to the fort. West was disgusted, believing and declaring that much of the problem had been the fault of the lazy colonists. Taking a page from John Smith, West ordered the fort to be cleaned and made it clear that the colonists would work. In addition to dealing with the foul conditions at Jamestown, he also focused on food, even though he had brought plentiful supplies. West had no intention of falling into the trap of his predecessors by waiting for a crisis to come along.

In dealing with Jamestown and the colonists, West had been clear-headed and decisive, if a bit stern. Dealing with the Indians was another matter. The careful balance John Smith had managed to maintain would be forever destroyed by the actions of the colony’s new leadership which repeated the mistakes made by the Roanoke Colony of escalating violence instead of using diplomacy.

West, having been informed of the Indians’ equipment thefts, sent a message to Powhatan demanding the return of the items and any prisoners Powhatan might be holding. Powhatan did not agree, so West chose Percy, who had been responsible for the Starving Time, to lead a punitive raid. The two men then for no particular reason chose to target the Paspahegh tribe, but Percy set out with a group of men. They came to the village at night and killed several men, burned the village to the ground and captured the queen, as the Europeans referred to her, and her children. In apparent bloodlust, Percy and his men took the queen and her children back to their ship where they tied the children up and threw them overboard, using them for target practice as they drowned. The queen watched as her children died. Percy took the queen back to West. What exactly happened next is a matter of debate. According to Percy, West wanted nothing to do with the queen and was angered that she was alive and ordered Percy to burn her at the stake. Others doubt West ordered this; still, she was taken ashore and executed.

The new leadership of the colony did not last. Somers had sailed off to Bermuda to attempt to capture hogs for the colony. He died of unknown causes, possibly a heart attack, on the island. West, who was to have been the governor for life, left after a few months with failing health in 1611. Sir Thomas Dale came to Jamestown in 1611 and soon earned a reputation for tough leadership. Dale, a soldier by trade and nature, instituted a rigid discipline on the fort. The effect on morale was not good, but the colonists worked hard, behaved themselves, and kept their homes and fort clean. To do otherwise could mean a whipping or even execution under Dale’s command. Dale established new settlements to expand the colony and had no more qualms about killing the Indians than he did about killing his fellow English.

In 1613, Sir Samuel Argall, a ship’s captain who had assisted the colony, discovered the location of Pocahontas, still the favorite daughter of Powhatan. He persuaded a local chief to help him capture her and lured her onto his ship. Argall took Pocahontas to Jamestown where Dale received her in a fair and friendly manner; the English thought they would now have bargaining power over Powhatan. In order to recover Pocahontas, Powhatan would have to release his captives and return the stolen tools and weapons. They were wrong. They kept Pocahontas at the settlement at Henricus where she was instructed by a minister in Christianity and where she also met John Rolfe, one of the colonists from the Sea Venture. Rolfe had lost his newborn daughter on Bermuda and his wife either on Bermuda, in Virginia, or on the journey between the two. At some point, a romance developed between Rolfe and Pocahontas. When Dale took Pocahontas to a village where he expected to find Powhatan in hopes of exchanging her for his stolen goods, Powhatan was not there, and Pocahontas declared to the Indians present that she wanted to stay with the English. Everyone, especially the English, was shocked. Whatever her motives, Pocahontas had freed her father from any obligation to agree to the demands of the English. She returned to Rolfe and her Christian lessons. She eventually was baptized as Rebecca, and she and Rolfe married in 1614 with the approval of Powhatan. Some of Pocahontas’s family attended the service. The wedding achieved peace. Once more the English and Powhatan traded goods instead of lead shot and arrows.

John Rolfe was also important to the colony, and indeed to American History, for something else entirely: he pioneered tobacco cultivation in Virginia. The Virginia Indians had a variety of tobacco they used which was hardy but rough to smoke. Rolfe knew of a smoother, sweeter variety from the Caribbean. He had managed to secure some seeds and began growing his Orinoco tobacco at Jamestown. By 1612, he was planting it at Varina, up the river from Jamestown. The peace with Powhatan made it possible to create plantations where tobacco could be grown in large quantities.Tobacco production became the golden resource the Virginia Company had so long desired as tobacco use became phenomenally popular in England and Europe.

In the summer of 1616, Pocahontas sailed with her husband, son, and some Powhatan warriors to England where she was admired by many. They stayed in England until 1617. John Smith came to visit her, and she was very moved by seeing him again, especially as she had thought him dead. As the Rolfes prepared to sail for Virginia, she became suddenly ill and died within a few hours. Rolfe buried her in England, left his son Thomas there to be raised, and returned to Virginia and tobacco. Powhatan outlived his beloved daughter by roughly a year and died in 1618. He had given up trying to push the English out, which was why there was such a period of peace. His brother, however, still did not accept the English presence.

House of Burgesses

Black and white photographic view of the chamber of the House of Burgesses in the Capitol at Williamsburg, Virginia, James City County, by the American photographer and photojournalist Frances Benjamin Johnston. / Library of Congress

During this period of peace, the tobacco boom led to a rapid expansion of the colony. New settlements had to be established. At the same time, the colonists’ drive to produce tobacco to the exclusion of most everything else, even such necessary things as growing food, was a cause of concern. Colonists were given grants of land and plantations were established. With the growth of the colony came a need for a new form of government, one that would allow the colonists a place to voice their concerns and to work for the common good. On July 30, 1619, the House of Burgesses met for the first time at Jamestown. This was the first group of elected representatives to meet in the New World. The timing of the first meeting was unfortunate as an outbreak of malaria forced the session to be cut short, but it is still significant for establishing the model that would be followed for the next 24 years.

In 1618, a leadership change at the Virginia Company brought important changes for the colony. The Virginia Company still wanted a profitable colony and one attractive to colonists. To this end they sent a new governor, Sir George Yeardley, with a document that is known as the “Instructions to George Yeardley” and also as the “Great Charter” which instructed him to make significant changes to the colony’s government. These changes included an end to martial law and the establishment of English Common Law, an administrative reorganization, and new rules concerning colonists’ transportation and owning of land in what would become known as the Headright System, as well as the establishment of a General Assembly that would include members elected to represent the citizens from the various areas of the colony. All free men could vote. Each settlement area was allowed to elect two representatives, called Burgesses. A burgess is simply someone elected to represent a town, borough, or university in a parliament or other assembly. They were the only elected members of the government for the colony, as all others were appointed. The colony had 11 such areas in 1619:

  • James City
  • Charles City
  • Henricus
  • Kicoughtan,
  • Captain Martin’s Plantation
  • Smythe’s Hundred
  • Martin’s Hundred
  • Flowerdew Hundred
  • Argall’s Gift Plantation
  • Captain Lawne’s Plantation
  • Captain Ward’s Plantation

The Governor and the Governor’s Council, originally six men selected by the governor and the burgesses, met in a unicameral session as the General Assembly. The first meeting was held in the church at Jamestown and began with a prayer and an oath to King James I. This first meeting dealt with issues such as tobacco prices, indentured servants, mulberry trees (in hopes of developing silk production), Indian relations (restricting what could be traded with the Indians and insisting that the Indians be fairly treated), marriages, and observation of the Sabbath; everyone was required to attend church twice on Sunday and to bring their weapons or pay a fine. Jamestown, unlike some of the later New England colonies, had not been established with a religious purpose, yet the colonists there as in other places took their religion seriously. These colonists were all officially Protestants, all members of the Church of England, or Anglicans. As England still wrestled with issues of religious identity that would ultimately lead to the founding of other colonies, the Virginia Company stockholders and the Jamestown colonists were all Anglican, and whether truly devout or not, the colonists were all active in the church thanks to mandatory church attendance. The Bishops of London provided the ministers to the colony. For the Jamestown colonists, their religious identity as Anglicans was tied to their cultural identity as English. By swearing their oaths to their king, they also were swearing oaths to the head of their church. Catholics were easily seen as enemies; non-Anglican Protestants were also not trusted. Other faiths would eventually gain a foothold in Virginia, but Anglicanism remains even to this day.[11]

Another important issue decided in this first session of the Assembly was the question of who was rightfully in the colony and who had the right to be represented in the Assembly. This last issue was raised because one of the plantation holders, Captain Ward, had not followed the standard procedures and had not received the appropriate permission from the Virginia company to be a part of the colony, but he and his men had proved valuable in their support of the colony, especially in catching fish, so he was encouraged to apply to the Virginia Company to have his status made legal. The other problem was Captain Martin who did have all the proper patents and more; he had a special arrangement that meant he and his people could actually ignore the rulings of the colonial government. The burgesses agreed that it would not be appropriate to have members who were not bound by the decisions of the Assembly, and Captain Martin was advised to contact the Virginia Company to renegotiate his patents to bring him and his plantation under the same rule as the rest of the colony. In this way the first meeting of the General Assembly established its authority over the entire colony. The governor still had the power to veto any ruling of the Assembly, to call it into session, and to end the sessions as he saw fit.[12]

As the colony expanded, so did the House of Burgesses, evolving from having two representatives elected for each settlement to having two elected for each county, plus single representatives for towns and one for the College of William and Mary. In 1643 the House of Burgesses became the lower house of the Virginia General Assembly, and the Governor’s Council formed the upper house. The Governor’s Council had also evolved from six members, with the Crown rather than the Governor appointing its members for life. They would continue to meet at Jamestown until the capitol of the colony was moved to Middle Plantation, which became Williamsburg in 1699.[13]

Servitude in Virginia

After it became clear that the colony would need a strong labor force, but before slavery was developed, the solution to the labor problem was indentured servants. The early colonists were free men and women who either paid their own passage or had someone else fund the voyage, such as a husband paying for his wife’s passage. After the changes brought by Governor Yeardley in 1619, anyone paying for their own or another’s passage was given 50 acres of land as a headright, or 50 acres per person or head transported. The intention was to encourage more people to come to the colony to help it develop a stable population. Wealthy members of the colony who traveled back and forth to England could abuse the system by claiming a headright for each passage back to the colony, so the system was not perfect.[14] Soon though, another group of colonists developed: indentured servants. These were people who were free-born English and other Europeans who either choose to become indentured or who, in the case of children, were indentured by their families. They were not slaves and their indenture was not a lifetime commitment. This system had benefits for both the person paying for the indentured servant as well as for the indenture servants themselves. For the sponsor, they had a guaranteed worker, provided the indentured servant did not die, and after 1619 they received a headright for transporting the indentured person. For the indentured servant, they offered several years of their labor in exchange for passage to the colony, being provided for while indentured: food, clothes, shelter, and then once the term of their indenture was ended, they were given land, supplies, tools, livestock, and possibly some money depending on the terms of their contract, to begin their lives as free colonists. They also had the skills they developed while serving their indenture. So, rather than being a new colonist, just off the boat without any knowledge of the hazards of Virginia, the former indentured servants were well-seasoned and better prepared for success.[15] Many became small farmers, while others became wealthy landowners.

One such man was John Chandler. Chandler was a child of nine and apparently the youngest immigrant to the colony at the time when he sailed on board the Hercules. He landed at Jamestown June 10, 1610. It seems young John sailed alone without any family and was almost certainly an indentured servant. Why his family would indenture him at such a young age is not known, as it was a risky business for anyone to undertake, especially a child. Chandler survived the lean years and dangers, and by 1623, he was listed as living in Elizabeth City, now Hampton, Virginia, a survivor of the massive attack of 1622. By 1624, he was in the service of Ensign Thomas Willoughby and may have been giving military service. Still, he had a small piece of land and wealthy neighbors, the Lupos. Lieutenant Albiano Lupo was an investor in the Virginia Company who had transported himself and others to the colony. His young wife Elizabeth held in her own right as she had paid for her own transport. Together they had over 400 acres of land when Albiano Lupo died in 1626. Elizabeth inherited her husband’s property, which made her a very wealthy widow. Shortly after the death of her husband, she married her neighbor, John Chandler. This arrangement was not unusual; due to the circumstances of life in the colony, women generally did not stay single for long. As for John Chandler, he suddenly became a man of wealth and property and his prosperity grew in the following years, due in part to the headright system as he paid the transportation of nineteen others. His holdings grew to thousands of acres and included parts of Hampton and Newport News. His new social status led him to become a judge and also serve as a member of the House of Burgesses.[16]

The headright system was successful in putting land in the hands of the planters and small farmers. The push to be successful in growing tobacco placed a high demand not only on labor but also on land. Land that could be cultivated for tobacco in a relatively safe location was not limitless. The wealthier landowners invested their fortunes in purchasing more land in the best locations, leaving small farmers and those who hoped to be farmers with fewer and fewer options. As they settled on land in the less secure areas closer to Indian settlements, conflicts arose. By 1674, there was great dissatisfaction among these poorer members of the colony who felt their governor, William Berkeley, was not doing enough to protect them. What they wanted was for Berkeley to kill all the Indians. A collection of dissatisfied poor land holders, landless men, indentured servants, and slaves found a leader in Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy aristocratic landowner who also felt Berkeley was not doing enough to protect the colonists from the Indians. Bacon would go on to lead his motley group in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.[17]

The practice of indenture did have its drawbacks. A heavy investment was required of someone getting an indentured servant, and the indentured servants were just as likely to die as anyone else in that time. If the indentured servant survived, they would leave service eventually, taking all their job skills with them, leaving their former employer in need of new workers. For those thinking of being indentured, it was not an easy choice. Conditions were often harsh. Although a contract might specify that the indentured servant was to be fed and sheltered, if his employer had no food, the indentured servant had no food either. The final problem with indentured service for the colony was that it did not produce enough people to join the labor force needed to produce the tobacco, the colony’s only successful cash crop.

In 1619, a Dutch ship carrying slaves arrived at Jamestown. These slaves were almost certainly from Ndongo Angola in Africa, captured and sold into slavery by the Portuguese. Although these Africans were considered slaves, when they arrived and were purchased by the governor of the colony, slavery as such did not exist in Jamestown. There was only indentured servitude, so these first Africans became indentured servants, not slaves in Jamestown. The colony needed labor to produce tobacco, but slavery developed slowly, not overnight. For those early Africans who survived, some expectation of freedom existed. Records show that some not only were free, but also became tobacco farmers with their own land and slaves. However, records indicate that they were not seen as equal to the colonists or the Indians.

Slavery was already established in Massachusetts when the first law passed concerning slaves in Virginia in 1640. The law does not refer to slaves but to blacks. Free citizens of the time were required to have and maintain weapons so that they could be used if need be for the defense of the colony, but the law from 1640 excused blacks from this duty. Another law passed allowed black women to be taxed. Then, in 1662, the first law directly concerning slavery in Virginia declared that it was possible for blacks to be servants for life. Indians also could be enslaved. In 1667, it was declared that baptism would not result in freedom; for some colonists, owning a Christian was, if not a sin, at least considered wrong. So, if slaves were baptized, the owner might set them free rather than own Christians. From that point on, laws concerning slaves were passed more frequently and became harsher; it was not, for example, a crime to accidentally kill a slave through punishment. It became natural for blacks to be slaves for life. A child of a female slave was automatically born a slave. Other laws included the following: thirty lashes to punish a slave who threatened a Christian in 1680, harsh punishments for slaves who ran away, separate slave laws, a white who married a slave would be banished, and, by 1705, slaves were to be considered real estate and, if unruly, could be dismembered. In 1625, twenty-three blacks appeared in Virginia. Seventy-five years later, their number increased to over 16,000, a change spurred by the need for cheap labor to grow tobacco.

Opechancanough

‘John Smith taking the King of Pamunkey prisoner’, a fanciful image of Opechancanough from Smith’s General History of Virginia (1624). The image of Opechancanough is based on a 1585 painting of another native warrior by John White. / Wikimedia Commons

Sometime after the death of Powhatan, his brother Opechancanough became the chief, or werowance, of the Powhatan. He had never stopped wanting to rid Virginia of the English. He had been the first chief to hold John Smith captive. He had seen how the English grew in numbers and knew that if they were not eliminated while they were still relatively few, they would continue to spread out into Indian territories. Therefore, on March 22, 1622, Opechancanough launched the largest coordinated attack against the English. Nearly 400 English were killed all across the colony. If Opechancanough’s security had been better, so that his plans had not leaked, the death toll would have been much higher.

For the English, who had had peace for so long, the event was a terrible shock. The newer colonists probably could not understand why the attack happened; only the oldest colonists would know of all the events that had happened over the years that fueled Opechancanough’s anger, but they did not care about Opechancanough’s motives. Opechancanough had expected the English to leave after the devastating attack. They did not. Instead, they wrought revenge, poisoning a couple hundred Indians in an attempt to kill Opechancanough, who escaped.

For King James I, the massacre was an adequate excuse to rid the Crown of the annoyance the Virginia Company had become. On May 24, 1624, he declared the company to be dissolved, and Virginia became a royal colony. The war continued fitfully between the Powhatan and the English until a treaty was signed in 1632. Opechancanough’s feelings had not changed; he still wanted to eliminate the English, but with their superior weapons, they were able to inflict great damage, despite Opechancanough’s superior numbers.

In 1642, the longest serving governor of Virginia arrived at Jamestown, Sir William Berkeley. Berkeley was a man of many talents. He proved to be an able colonial governor as well as a planter of diverse crops. He believed and so practiced that a colony could and should diversify its economic base by growing more than just tobacco. Tobacco’s value as a cash crop was so great that few followed his lead, but his efforts and personal success are still noteworthy.

Early in his time as governor, Berkeley had to deal with the long-time enemy of the colony, Opechancanough. On April 18, 1644 Opechancanough attacked again as he had done in 1622, killing between 400 and 500 colonists. Again the English did not leave, and their colony had grown so large it was not possible for the Powhatan to drive them out. In 1646, Opechancanough was finally captured. He was quite old, perhaps over ninety. A common soldier who was to guard him shot him in the back instead. The callous act spared Opechancanough from the humiliation of being taken to England and put on public display. Opechancanough ultimately was captured because the Powhatan, who were powerful in 1607, had dwindled away to almost nothing in the span of forty years. Berkeley signed a treaty with Necotowance, Opechancanough’s successor, which ended the two year conflict. The Powhatan tribes were given reservations in exchange for a tribute to be paid to the governor annually, a tradition that still exists today although much of the reservation lands have long been lost to the Indians.

Berkeley had external troubles as well. Berkeley, a Royal Governor, and Virginia, a Royal Colony packed with Anglicans, remained loyal to the Stuarts during the Civil War, leading Virginia to earn the nicknames the Cavalier State and the Old Dominion. Unfortunately for Berkeley and Virginia, the Stuarts lost, and King Charles I was beheaded. With the Puritans taking control in England, Puritan settlements had already been spreading in the colonies, including Virginia, which did not sit well with the Anglican colonists, who were loyal to the Stuarts. Puritans had been settling in Virginia since the 1620s on the south side of the James River and grew steadily in both population and influence, even though they were not particularly welcomed by their Anglican neighbors. Berkeley, a man who encouraged good relations and trade with Indians, was not so welcoming towards Puritans as politics and religion were tied all too closely. Berkeley did not want to have a religious conflict divide his colony as it did England, but at the same time, his tactics against the Puritans were increasingly oppressive. By 1648, ministers were ordered to conform to the Anglican Book of Common prayer or else be punished. To disobey was to disobey the government of the colony. By the early 1650’s most of the Puritans had moved onto colonies friendlier to their religious beliefs, such as neighboring Maryland.[18][19]

Berkeley would be ousted as governor by the Puritan regime in England, only to be recalled for one more term in office (1660-1677). The major crisis of his second term would be the last he would handle, Bacon’s Rebellion. Berkeley’s native-friendly and planter-friendly policies created an atmosphere of unrest among the poorer members of the colony even as the colony as a whole continued to prosper and grow.

In 1699, the capital was moved from Jamestown to the Middle Plantation, or Williamsburg, a place more centrally located in the colony, as the English had moved steadily west. The Jamestown fort itself would fall into ruin and eventually be lost, only to be rediscovered in modern times thanks to archeologists. Williamsburg would become a jewel of a colonial capitol, with the College of William and Mary and many fine shops reflecting the change in the colony brought on by the prosperity based on tobacco. With the struggle for survival over, the wealthier colonists could concentrate on finer things, such as fashion, food, and leisure activities. For the slaves, physical conditions improved, but their slavery remained. For the Indian tribes on tribal lands, they would see a steady encroachment of colonists and their land holdings would be largely lost along with their language and much of their culture.

Endnotes

5 Kenyon, Stuarts, 57.

6 Kenyon, Stuarts, 70-71.

7 First Virginia Charter, Modern History Sourcebooks, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall.

8 See for example, Christopher Hill, God’s Englishman (New York: Dial Press, 1970); Lacey Bald win Smith, This Realm of England (New York: Cengage Learning, 2000).

9 Smith, This Realm, 115.

10 Dennis Montgomery.Such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of CW Journal. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Winter 2007 http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/winter07/jamestownSide.cfm.

11 Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Religion at Jamestown http://www.historyisfun.org/pdf/Background-Essay/ReligionatJamestown.pdf.

12 The Project Gutenberg. Colonial Records of Virginia http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22594/22594-h/22594-h.htm#Footnote_111_125.

13 Matt Gottlieb. House of Burgesses.Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. http://encyclopediavirginia.org/House_of_Burgesses#start_entry.

14 Library of Virginia. Headrights, VA-NOTES. http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/va4_headrights.htm.

15 PBS. Oregon Public Broadcasting. Indentured Servants in the USHistory Dectives 0 PBS.org. http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/indentured-servants-in-the-us/.

16 The Chandler Family Association. John Chandler. http://chandlerfamilyassociation.org/dna_group_7a.html.

17 National Park Service. Bacon’s Rebellion. Historic Jamestowne, http://www.nps.gov/jame/historyculture/bacons-rebellion.htm.

18 Warren M. Billings, Sir William Berkeley. Jamestown Interpretive Essays, Virtual Jamestown http://www.virtualjamestown.org/essays/billings_essay.html.

19 Kevin Butterfield, Puritans in Virginia Encyclopedia of Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Puritans_in_Colonial_Virginia#start_entry.


From History in the Making: A History of the People of the United States of America to 1877, University System of Georgia (2013)

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