Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in what eventually became the United States. Established on the swampy edge of a river that flows into the Chesapeake Bay, Jamestown nearly didn’t survive. In the end, though, the Jamestown settlers who survived winters of famine found that they could grow and sell tobacco to Europeans back home. It turns out that selling drugs is not a new phenomena.
Jamestown was a business venture. Wealthy investors in England pooled their money and financed the creation of the colony. Ships and supplies were expensive and there was no guarantee of success. When they set out, no one knew exactly what they would find, and no one predicted that tobacco would eventually become the cash crop of Virginia.
What do you think? Was Jamestown a good investment?
A NOTE ABOUT NAMES
Before we start talking about the English-speaking colonists who came to America, and laid down the foundation of what eventually became the United States, we need to take a moment to talk about the many names that get used to describe the people and the place they came from, because it is complicated.
Let us begin with geography. Two islands make up the British Isles off the coast of Europe. The larger island in the east is Great Britain and the small one to the west is Ireland. Great Britain is divided into three nations: England, Scotland and Wales. England is the largest, most populous, most developed, most wealthy, and has dominated its neighbors for much of their shared history. The city of London is in England.
However, England is not a country today. In modern times, all three parts of Great Britain are in the United Kingdom, along with a corner of the island of Ireland, called Northern Ireland. The rest of the island of Ireland is the independent country of Ireland. All these areas and the people who live there have a long and complicated history, which is quite interesting, but not the subject of our course.
Sometimes we call this country England or Great Britain although the proper name is the United Kingdom. You will see it written as UK for short. However, because it has carried different names at different times, we sometimes call the entire place England, or Great Britain, and we call the people there English, or British. In these readings we may use the names interchangeably.
Suffice today, most of the people of the British Isles speak English and many of the White settlers in America came from these two islands. I am sorry if this is confusing. Like many things in history, there is just not one easy way to describe the whole of human experience.
Secondary Source: Map
A map of the British Isles. The nation of Ireland is in grey. Note that the northeast corner of the island of Ireland is one of the four regions of the United Kingdom.
THE ENGLISH ARRIVE LATE
By the time British arrived in the New World and established their first permanent settlement at Jamestown in 1607, much of the continent had already been claimed by other European nations.
All of the modern Southwest, including Texas and California, had been peopled by Spanish settlers for about a century. The entire expanse of land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky Mountains had at one point been claimed by France.
Many factors contributed to Britain’s tardiness. England was not the most powerful European nation in the 16th century. Spain was most influential. Along with Portugal, Spain dominated New World exploration in the decades that followed Columbus. France, the Netherlands, and Sweden all showed greater interest in the Western Hemisphere than England did.
A voyage by John Cabot on behalf of English investors in 1497 failed to spark any great interest in the New World. England was divided in the 1500s by great religious turmoil. When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in 1533, decades of religious strife ensued. Finally, under Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, the English were prepared to stake their claims.
Although England was an island and therefore a seafaring nation, Spain was the undisputed superpower of the seas in the 16th century. Many of England’s adventurous sea captains found that plundering Spanish ships was a far simpler means of acquiring wealth than establishing colonies.
PRIVATEERS AND THE SPANISH ARMADA
Sea Dogs, or Privateers were English mariners of the Elizabethan era employed by the queen to harass the Spanish fleets and establish a foothold in the New World. Essentially, the privateers were pirates operating with the permission of a king or queen. What they did was considered legal so long as they only attacked the enemy.
Among the most prominent sea dogs were Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Humphrey Gilbertand, and Walter Raleigh. These sea captains possessed exceptional maritime and military skills as well as a burning desire for capturing Spanish treasure. They and their crews were highly motivated since, as privateers and not members of the Royal Navy, they were allowed to keep whatever treasure they could steal from the Spanish. They helped provoke the eventual showdown between Elizabeth I’s England and Philip II’s Spain.
One of these privateers, Sir Francis Drake became the first to sail around the world since Ferdinand Magellan when he completed perhaps the longest escape route in the history of the world to avoid capture by the Spanish.
Philip was certain that his great fleet of ships would put an end to England’s piracy. In 1588, one of the greatest turning points in world history occurred when Spain’s “invincible” Armada of 130 ships sailed into the English Channel. Despite their numerical inferiority, the English ships were faster and easier to maneuver than the Spanish fleet. With the aid of a great storm, Elizabeth’s ships humiliated Philip’s navy, which returned to Spain with fewer than half their original number.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada marked the beginning of the end of Spain’s domination of Europe and the Western Hemisphere. More importantly for England, it marked the dawn of the era of permanent English settlement of the New World.
With tensions high between England and Spain, it soon became sensible for England to establish permanent settlements in the New World to rival the Spanish. If nothing more, they could serve as bases from which to raid Spanish ships.
Primary Source: Painting
The assembly of the mighty Spanish Armada as it departed on its way to attack England. The Armada was defeated, tipping the balance of power in Europe away from the Spanish.
Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition to Roanoke did not fare well. In 1585, Raleigh’s men settled on the small island off the coast of modern-day North Carolina. Relations with the Native American inhabitants were peaceful at first, but as the colonists’ supplies dwindled, amity dwindled too. The colonists left in 1586 after beheading the local Indian chief, Wingina.
Raleigh arranged for governor John White and a group of families to return to live in peace with the natives in 1587. Violence, however, is not easily forgotten. Within one month, hostilities resumed, and White was forced to return to England to ask Raleigh for reinforcements.
Time was not on White’s side. When the war with Spain erupted, White could not return to the colony for three years. When he set foot on Roanoke Island in August 1590, he searched frantically for the settlers, including his daughter and granddaughter, the first English New World baby, named Virginia Dare.
All that could be found was the remains of a village and a mysterious word, “croatoan,” engraved on a tree. White concluded there must be a connection between the word and a nearby Indian tribe, but before he could investigate, a violent storm forced him out to sea and back to England.
This lost colony remains one of American history’s most intriguing mysteries, despite the fact that was not particularly important in the long run.
Compared with other European nations in 1600, England was relatively poor.
As new agricultural techniques made fewer farmers necessary, the poor multiplied in the streets of cities such as London and Bristol. Much to the dismay of the wealthier classes, the impoverished were an increasingly burdensome presence and problem.
Richard Hakluyt, a 16th-century geographer interested in explorers and travel narratives, suggested to Queen Elizabeth that New World colonies could serve two purposes. First, they could challenge Spanish domination of the New World. Second, the ever-growing poorer classes could be transported there, easing England’s population pressures.
But Elizabeth was not persuaded to invest public money in a venture that wasn’t guaranteed to be successful. She was not opposed to private investors taking such a chance, however. Raleigh had tried and failed. When it became clear that the wealth of an individual was not enough, the joint-stock company arose.
The joint-stock company was the forerunner of the modern corporation. In a joint-stock venture, stock was sold to wealthy investors who provided capital, or money. These companies had proven profitable in the past with trading ventures. The risk was small because each investor only put up a small about of money so if the venture failed, only a small amount would be lost. However, the returns were quick when the enterprise did well. It was a way for the wealthy to use their money to make money without doing the work themselves.
Investing in a colony was an altogether different venture. The risk was larger as the colony might fail. The startup costs were enormous and the returns might take years. Investors in such endeavors needed more than a small sense of adventure.
THE INVESTORS AND LEADERS
Who led these English colonial expeditions? Often, these leaders were second sons from noble families. English law supported the idea of primogenitor, which meant that only the first-born male could inherit property in a family. As such, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert were all second sons with a thirst to find their own riches.
Merchants who disagreed with the teachings of the official Church of England were also willing investors in New World colonies. There were plenty of English who disagreed with the way the official church was run. Some of these Puritans had the necessary capital to support colonies where they could practice their own version of Christianity.
With an excess landless population to serve as workers, and motivated, adventurous, or devout investors, the joint-stock company became the vehicle by which the English finally settled in the Western Hemisphere.
This starkly contrasted with Spanish and French settlements. New Spain and New France were developed by their kings. The English colonies were developed by their people. Many historians argue that the primary reason the relatively small and late English colonization effort ultimately outlasted its predecessors was because individuals had a true stake in its success.
The first joint-stock company to launch a lasting venture to the New World was the Virginia Company of London. The investors had one goal in mind: gold. They hoped to repeat the success of Spaniards who found gold in South America.
In 1607, 144 English men and boys established the Jamestown colony on the banks of the James River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in what would eventually become the United States. Located in the modern state of Virginia, the colonists named it after King James I.
The colonists were told that if they did not generate any wealth, financial support for their efforts would end. Many of the men spent their days vainly searching for gold. Consequently, the colonists spent little time farming. Food supplies dwindled. Malaria and the harsh winter besieged the colonists, as well. After the first year, only 38 of the original 144 had survived.
The colony may well have perished had it not been for the leadership of John Smith. He imposed strict discipline on the colonists. “Work or starve” was his motto, and each colonist was required to spend four hours per day farming.
An accidental gunpowder burn forced Smith to return to England in 1609. After his departure, the colony endured even more hardships. A new boatload of colonists and supplies sank off the coast of Bermuda on its way to help the hungry settlement. The winter of 1609-10, known as the Starving Time, may have been the worst of all.
Disease and hunger ravaged Jamestown. Two desperate colonists were tied to posts and left to starve as punishment for raiding the colonies’ stores. One colonist even took to cannibalism, eating his own wife. The fate of the venture was precarious. Yet still more colonists arrived, and their numbers included women.
Secondary Source: Photograph
This photograph shows the reconstructed Jamestown Fort. The original site of the fort has mostly been overtaken by the shifting James River. Today you can visit a rebuilt version a few hundred yards from the original site.
Virginia’s economic future did not lie with gold. There was too little gold to be found there. Looking for new ways to make its investments pay dividends, the Virginia Company of London began encouraging multiple ventures by 1618.
Jamestown settlers experimented with glassblowing, vineyard cultivation, and even silkworm farming. Despite efforts to diversify Virginia’s economy, by the end of the 1620s only one Virginia crop was drawing a fair market price in England: tobacco.
Tobacco is one of the plants that can be found on a list of flora that crossed between the Old World and New because of the Columbian Exchange. The Spanish, who had learned to smoke it from Native Americans, introduced it to Europe. Despite some early criticism of “drinking smoke,” tobacco became popular among the middle classes in England. Much of the tobacco smoked in England was grown in the West Indies.
John Rolfe thought that Virginia might be an outstanding site for tobacco growth. Early attempts to sell Virginian tobacco had fallen short of expectations. Smokers felt that the tobacco of the Caribbean was much less harsh than Virginian tobacco.
Rolfe reacted to consumer demand by importing seed from the West Indies and cultivating the plant in Jamestown. Those tobacco seeds became the seeds of a huge economic empire.
By 1630, over a million and a half pounds of tobacco were being exported from Jamestown every year.
Primary Source: Advertisement
This print advertisement promotes Virginia-grown tobacco. Note that the workers in the field are African slaves.
The tobacco economy rapidly began to shape the society and development of the colony. Growing tobacco takes its toil on the soil. Because tobacco drained the soil of its nutrients, only about three successful growing seasons could occur on a plot of land. Then the land had to lie fallow for three years before the soil could be used again. This created a huge drive for new farmland.
Settlers grew tobacco in the streets of Jamestown. The yellow-leafed crop even covered cemeteries. Naturally, the colony began to expand.
Despite the introduction of tobacco cultivation, the colony was a failure as a financial venture. The king declared the Virginia Company bankrupt in 1624. About 200,000 British Pounds were lost among the investors. The charter was thereby revoked, and Virginia became a royal colony, the first in America to be ruled directly by the Crown.
Investments in permanent settlements were risky indeed. The merchants and gentry paid with their pocketbooks. Many colonists paid with their lives. For every six colonists who ventured across the Atlantic, only one survived.
WAR AND PEACE WITH POWHATAN’S PEOPLE
By choosing to settle along the rivers on the banks of the Chesapeake, the English unknowingly placed themselves at the center of the Powhatan Empire, a powerful Algonquian confederacy of thirty native groups with perhaps as many as twenty-two thousand people. The territory of the equally impressive Susquehannock people also bordered English settlements at the north end of the Chesapeake Bay.
Many cultural differences separated the Native Americans from the English. The most important contrast was each side’s differing view of land ownership. According to Powhatan’s people, land was owned by no one. Rather, it was collectively used by the tribe. Because land could not be owned, it could not be sold or yielded in treaty. Selling land was the equivalent of selling air.
The English view of individual land ownership was completely foreign to the Powhatans, who could not understand being pushed off tribal lands so it could be sold to individuals. To the Powhatans, the loss of their land was a matter worth fighting for.
To most Native Americans who first encountered them, the English seemed harmless at first. If it were not for the good nature of Powhatan’s people, the Jamestown settlers never would have survived their first few seasons in the New World.
Powhatan, the leader of the nation that shared his name, regarded the English settlers suspiciously, as he had previously regarded Spanish settlers.
However, Powhatan understood that good relations with these new inhabitants might help forge a powerful alliance. The English had guns and powder. These items might just give him the advantage he needed to defeat surrounding tribes.
Before long, Powhatan’s hopes of peaceful cooperation were dashed. During the Starving Time, colonists took to raiding Native American food supplies. In retaliation, Powhatan ordered an attack.
he First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614) resulted not only from the English colonists’ intrusion onto Powhatan land, but also from their refusal to follow native protocol by giving gifts. English actions infuriated and insulted the Powhatan.
Primary Source: Map
John Smith’s map of Virginia drawn in 1624. North is on the right side of the map. Smith included illustrations of Powhatan and local Native Americans and labeled the areas controlled by various tribes.
In 1613, the settlers captured Pocahontas, also called Matoaka, the daughter of a Powhatan headman named Wahunsonacook, and gave her in marriage to Englishman John Rolfe. Their union, and her choice to remain with the English, helped quell the war in 1614. Pocahontas converted to Christianity, changing her name to Rebecca, and sailed with her husband and several other Powhatan to England where she was introduced to King James I. Promoters of colonization publicized Pocahontas as an example of the good work of converting the Powhatan to Christianity. Pocahontas died in England at that age of 21. She and Rolfe had one son and it is a mark of some distinction to be able to claim that one is a descendent of Pocahontas.
Peace in Virginia did not last long. The Second Anglo-Powhatan War of the 1620s broke out because of the expansion of the English settlement nearly one hundred miles into the interior, and because of the continued insults and friction caused by English activities. The Powhatan attacked in 1622 and succeeded in killing almost 350 English, about a third of the settlers.
The English responded by annihilating every Powhatan village around Jamestown and from then on became even more intolerant. The Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646) began with a surprise attack in which the Powhatan killed around five hundred English colonists. However, their ultimate defeat in this conflict forced the Powhatan to acknowledge King Charles I as their sovereign. The Anglo-Powhatan Wars, spanning nearly forty years, illustrate the degree of native resistance that resulted from English intrusion into the Powhatan Confederacy.
Regardless of the individual people involved, the story of the relationships between English settlers and Native Americans is usually one of initial friendship, and then violent conflict over control and access to land. The war between the Jamestown colonists and the Powhatan Confederacy is simply the first in this pattern.
Secondary Source: Photograph
The capitol building in Williamsburg, Virginia. As the Virginia colony grew, the government moved inland to the town of Williamsburg. The House of Burgesses met at this building, which stands at the opposite end of a long mall from the home of the royal governor.
THE HOUSE OF BURGESSES
Although many differences separated Spain and France from England, perhaps the factor that contributed most to distinct paths of colonization was the form of their government.
Spain and France had absolute monarchies, but Britain had a limited monarchy. In New France and New Spain, all authority flowed from the Crown to the settlers, with no input from below.
The English kings who ruled the 13 original colonies reserved the right to decide the fate of their colonies as well, but not alone. The colonists drew upon their claims to traditional English rights and insisted on raising their own representative assemblies. Such was the case with the Virginia House of Burgesses, the first popularly elected legislature in the New World.
Modeled after the English Parliament, the House of Burgesses was established in 1619. Members would meet at least once a year with their royal governor to decide local laws and determine local taxation.
King James I, a believer in the divine right of monarchs, attempted to dissolve the assembly, but the Virginians would have none of it. They continued to meet on a yearly basis to decide local matters.
What is the importance of a small legislative body formed so long ago? The tradition established by the House of Burgesses had a powerful effect on colonial development. Each new English colony demanded its own legislature in turn, and colonists became accustomed to having a say in the way their colonies were governed.
Starting with the Virginia House of Burgesses, Americans had 157 years to practice democracy. By the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, they were quite good at it.
So, the wealthy men who first invested in the Virginia Company lost their money, and many of the first settlers lost their lives. But in the end, Jamestown survived and the Virginia colony eventually thrived. For those who owned the tobacco plantations, life was good. For those who did not, and especially for the Native Americans who were pushed out of their ancestral lands by the English, life was less pleasant.
What do you think? Was Jamestown a good investment?
BIG IDEA: The English developed their first colony in America at Jamestown. It was a business venture that nearly failed until the colonists discovered that they could grow and export tobacco.
Although the land that is now the United States was occupied by Native Americans, and settled by Europeans, Africans, and Asians from many places, the United States as a nation has its roots in settlement from England. The English were late arrivals in America. The Spanish and French had already established colonies in the Americas and had been there for more than 100 years before the arrival of the first English colonizers.
Spain had been the most powerful nation in Europe for many years due in large part to the riches discovered in the Americas. However, when the Spanish tried to invade England, her giant navy was sunk in a storm and defeated in battle. It was an important turning point in European and American history.
The English started attacking Spanish ships carrying gold, silver, and other treasure from America back to Europe. Many of these attackers were privateers who later helped found the first English settlements in America.
The first English settlement in America was at Roanoke, but it failed. No one knows exactly what happened to the settlers since they all disappeared.
English businessmen pooled their resources to form joint-stock companies to share in the cost and risk of investing in America. The first such company paid for the establishment of Jamestown in Virginia.
Jamestown was a failure in the beginning. The settlers did not know how to farm so they starved. Only with help from the local Native Americans did some settlers survive. However, they discovered that they could grow tobacco, which they could sell back in Europe. Tobacco made Jamestown and the surrounding Chesapeake Bay region profitable.
The area around Jamestown was settled by the Powhatan Native American people. They had a tense relationship with the English settlers. Sometimes they helped the settlers, but when the English took Native lands they went to war.
An important tradition established in the Chesapeake Bay region was the House of Burgesses. Neither England nor Virginia were democracies since the poor had little influence in both societies. However, the wealthy plantation owners in Virginia meet regularly to make laws for their colony. This House of Burgesses helped establish a tradition of self-rule that the colonists were willing to fight for in the 1770s.
Spanish Armada: The Spanish navy that sailed to attack England in 1588. It was damaged by a great storm and humiliated by Queen Elizabeth’s navy, thus ending the threat of Spanish conquest of England.
Joint-Stock Company: A business in which wealthy individuals invest in order to raise funds for a venture. The Virginia Company of London is a famous example.
Primogenitor: An English tradition that a family’s property would pass down to the eldest son. Many of America’s first settlers were second and third sons who did not inherit money or land in England.
Tobacco: Crop that saved the Virginia colony.
Absolute Monarchy: A system of government in which a king or queen has total control.
Limited Monarchy: A system of government in which a king or queen shares power with elected officials.
Divine Right: The belief that a king or queen derived power from God. It contradicts the Enlightenment idea that governments derive power from the consent of the people.
London: Capital city of England and the United Kingdom
United Kingdom: The nation made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Roanoke: Walter Raleigh’s failed English colony in Virginia.
Jamestown: First successful English colony in America. Settled in 1607, John Smith helped save the settlers from starvation. Eventually the colony became financially successful when John Rolfe learned to grow quality tobacco in Virginia’s soil.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Privateers: Pirates that operate with a “Letter of Marque” from a monarch that gives them official protection, so long as they only attack ships from enemy nations.
Francis Drake: Prominent English privateer. He was the second person to circumnavigate the world.
Walter Raleigh: English privateer who founded the Roanoke colony.
John Smith: Leader of the Jamestown colony. He is famous for ordering that the setters would not eat if they did not work, and dealing with Powhatan. He also wrote a famous memoir his experience in the colony.
John Rolfe: Jamestown colonist who learned how to successfully grow quality tobacco in Virginia. He married Pocahontas.
Powhatan: Leader of the Native America tribe that shared his name. They lived in Virginia around the Jamestown settlement and went to war with the English settlers. Pocahontas was his daughter.
Pocahontas: Daughter of Powhatan. She married John Rolfe and died in England.
Virginia House of Burgesses: A legislative body created in colonial Virginia. It was an early example of democracy in America.
Starving Time: The winter of 1609-10 in Jamestown when many settlers starved to death. Later the colonists learned to grow their own food.
Anglo-Powhatan Wars: A series of three conflicts between 1609 and 1646 between the English settlers in Virginia and the neighboring Native Americans.
Virginia Company of London: Joint-stock company that funded the Jamestown colony.