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On The Banks Of The James River
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Virginia English Colony On The Banks Of The James River

Imperialism was all the rage, but relocation was rough. On May 13, 1607, after a five-month trans-Atlantic voyage plagued by scurvy, dysentery and maggoty meat, three boats dropped anchor in the James River. The 104 male passengers, hungry for wealth, land and adventure, established the colony of Virginia. Wealth proved elusive, and new lands brought new wars, but adventure -- disease, massacre and the like -- was abundant. In a single year, 90 percent of the settlers succumbed to sickness and starvation, and survival wouldn't soon get easier. Though fortune was fickle in North America's first permanent English settlement, the era's legends and success stories endure: Capt. John Smith, Pocahontas, the beginnings of big tobacco, the birth of democracy.

Within is a country that may have the prerogative [advantages] over the most pleasant places known, for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation.... Here are mountains, hills, plains, valleys, rivers, brooks, all running most pleasantly into a fair bay, compassed but for the mouth, with fruitful and delightsome land....
Captain John Smith, writing about Virginia
in his 1624 book, The Generall Historie of
Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles

As the three ships that were carrying the Englishmen sailed up the river that they called the James, some Indians who called the same river the Powhatan were watching them. It is possible that some of these Indians had seen Europeans before. In 1570, Spanish missionaries had built a settlement in Virginia that the Indians quickly destroyed. Later the English sent out several ships to explore the coast of what is now the eastern United States. These explorers named this land Virginia, in honor of their Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. However, the explorers of the late 1500s failed to set up any permanent settlements in Virginia or anywhere else in America.

The Indians watched from the forest as the Englishmen left their ships to explore. On one of their first landings, at a point that the English called Cape Henry, about thirty colonists were attacked by a small band of Indians. According to Captain John Smith, the Indians "hurt two of the English very dangerously." To the Indians, the men who had arrived in the three "floating islands" and who were armed with "thunder-sticks" were invaders. They were the enemy.

The three English ships - which were named the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery - continued up the James River for about sixty miles. Finally, on May 14, 1607, the colonists reached a small peninsula on the river's north side. They walked onto the marshy shore, looked around, and decided that this was a good place to build a fort. Here they could defend themselves from attack by either the Spanish or the Indians. They soon began work on their settlement, which they called Jamestown after King James I. The Virginia Company explorers landed on Jamestown Island, to establish the Virginia English colony on the banks of the James River 60 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

If Jamestown had failed

It came within a whisker of being abandoned on any number of occasions—then North America as we know it today would probably not exist. Instead of English, we might be speaking French, Spanish, or even Dutch. If Jamestown collapsed, the emergence of British America and eventually the creation of the United States may never have happened.

By the time John Smith and his fellow colonists landed in Virginia, many European colonies had failed already, owing to harsh winters, rampant disease, hostile Indians (or other Europeans), and difficulties with provisioning. The Spanish lost colonies in Florida, the French at Fort Caroline (Florida) and Port Royal (Nova Scotia) and the English at Baffin Island, Roanoke (North Carolina), and Sagadahoc in Maine. Few colonies lasted more than a year and many hundreds of colonists died, often in terrible conditions. The spread of English settlements along the North Atlantic seaboard in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was far from inevitable.

So, too, the early colonists of Jamestown encountered daunting challenges. Unable to survive solely on their own, they counted on periodic reprovisioning and new infusions of settlers from their sponsors in England, the Virginia Company of London.

In November 1609, two and a half years after Jamestown was first settled (during which the colony had been a total loss to its investors), members of the Company learned that a hurricane had scattered a fleet of eight ships sent out earlier in the year to bring 500 settlers, food, arms, ammunition, and equipment to the beleaguered colony. The principle vessel, the 250-ton Sea Venture, was feared lost. As the Company members filed into their London office, their faces reflected their deep concerns. Should they continue to finance their risky and costly gamble in the New World or just pull the plug and let the colony collapse?

Their decision would change history. Instead of giving up, the members sprang into action to save their investment and calm investors and others who would soon learn the news of the disaster themselves. In December, the Company published A True and Sincere Declaration, a bold defense of the colonization effort that asked why this “great action” of the English should be “shaken and dissolved by one storm?” The carefully reasoned argument restated the colony’s purpose—to take possession of North America, bring Christianity to the Indians, and produce valuable commodities—and outlined why Jamestown would eventually become profitable. If these were the right and proper goals for the colony when the expedition had set out, the Company asserted, why should they be abandoned now?

The treatise worked, enabling the Company to raise money for another fleet, under the command of Lord De Le Warr, which set out in April 1610 and arrived just in time. The winter and spring of 1609-1610 had proved particularly deadly to colonists. A combination of Indian attacks, disease, and starvation killed three-quarters of the 400 settlers in six months. When De La Warr’s ships anchored off Jamestown Island in June, the new governor turned around surviving colonists who had just abandoned the site and put the colony on a more secure footing.

Had the Virginia Company pulled out of Jamestown, the English might never have established themselves as the major colonial power on the mainland, leaving the Spanish or Dutch to colonize the mid-Atlantic region, which may well have discouraged the establishment of English settlements in New England. Instead of settling at Plymouth, the Pilgrims might have ended up in Guiana, on the northern coast of South America, an alternative suggested at the time; Massachusetts settlers might have joined other Puritan groups moving to Providence Island, off the coast of Central America, and to sugar-rich islands of the West Indies. The English may well have decided to confine their activities to the Caribbean or abandoned colonizing projects in America altogether, turning their attention to dominating the business of transporting goods, much as the Dutch would do after losing New Netherland (New York) to the English in 1664.

But against the odds Jamestown survived, becoming the first successful English colony in North America, from which the English language, laws, and secular and religious institutions in time spread across North America and the globe. At Jamestown the English learned the hard lessons of how to keep a colony going. By trial and error, they discovered that only with the introduction of stable political and social institutions—representative government, the church, private property, and family and community life, as well as the discovery of profitable commodities—would settlements prosper and grow. All successful English colonies followed in the wake of Jamestown.

Few other places in America so richly symbolize both the good and bad of our shared past. Jamestown matters because it is about coming to terms with that past; a past at times painful and conflicted but which eventually laid the foundations of modern America. At Jamestown, Indians, the English, and Africans first encountered one another, lived and worked alongside one another, survived and persisted, and in so doing began the long drawn out process—often contentious, sometimes tragic, but ultimately successful—by which together they shaped a new world and forged a new people.

The colonists had been sent to Virginia by a group of wealthy London merchants called the Virginia Company of London. The London merchants hoped that the Virginia colonists would discover gold and other treasures, which they would ship back to England.

The colonists had made the long and dangerous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean for many reasons. Because English laws at that time favored the oldest son, the younger children of wealthy families often inherited very little of their parents' land and possessions. Some of the colonists were younger sons who wanted land, which they could never have in their home country. Others were hungry for the gold that the London Company hoped would be found in Virginia. Still others wanted to introduce Christianity to the Indians. Finally, some were adventurers who were looking for excitement at the edge of the known world.

Before the ships had sailed, the names of the seven men who were to govern the colony were placed in a sealed box by the directors of the London Company. The box remained sealed until the men reached Virginia. When the box was opened, the colonists were not surprised by six of the names: Christopher Newport, the captain of the Susan Constant; Bartholomew Gosnold, captain of the Godspeed; John Ratcliffe, captain of the Discovery; John Martin, a sea captain who had once sailed with the great English explorer Sir Francis Drake; Edward Maria Wingfield, an investor in the London Company; and George Kendall, another sea captain. The seventh name, however, was a surprise. It belonged to a man who was neither a sea captain nor what the English thought to be a "gentleman." His name was John Smith, and he had spent most of the Atlantic voyage locked in irons after quarreling with Edward Wingfield.

The red-haired, blue-eyed, twenty-seven-year-old Smith had already lived through many adventures as a soldier of fortune in such places as The Netherlands, Hungary, and Romania. While fighting with the Hungarian army, Smith was wounded, then taken to Turkey as a slave. After escaping, he made his way back to England by late 1604. Growing restless after several years at home, Smith decided that the New World was the place for him to make his fame and fortune. He joined the London Company's Virginia expedition. Despite the orders from the London Company, the other men on the governing council refused to admit John Smith. However, Smith soon proved that he was the man who was best able to help the colony survive.

Many of the Englishmen who came to Virginia were used to having servants do things for them. They were not very good at farming, working with their hands, or dealing with other people. Smith could do these things quite well. Smith also had the best military sense among the colonists.

In May of 1607, the governing council decided that about twenty men, including Smith, should explore the James River. Captain Smith protested that it was more important for the colonists to finish building the fort at Jamestown. They needed its protection. But the council ruled against Smith. Then, while he and the others were off exploring, Indians attacked the unfinished fort, killed two colonists, and wounded ten others. Several weeks after this tragic event, Smith was admitted to the governing council. He was soon recognized as the leader of the colony.

Under John Smith's direction the fort was completed by mid-June of 1607. Smith then had the men build the town's first thatch-roofed houses. Although the building went well, the colonists faced several big problems. By the summer of 1607 the colony was running short of food. The Englishmen had planned to arrive in Virginia in time to plant crops, but the trip had taken longer than expected. It was too late to plant crops. The colonists tried to hunt and fish, but nearly all of them, except John Smith, were not able to do it. In the midst of a land full of wildlife and plant foods, the Jamestown colonists suffered from famine.

Disease was another terrible problem. Although the location of Jamestown was good for military reasons, it was very bad for health reasons. The drinking water was polluted, and the marshes near Jamestown were a breeding ground for mosquitoes. As a result, the colonists caught malaria, pneumonia, dysentery, and other diseases. By the end of the summer of 1607, almost half the Jamestown colonists were dead, and many more were dying.

From time to time the Indians came to the settlement with meat and corn, which they traded to the colonists for various trinkets. But the Englishmen could not get enough food from them. John Smith realized that, if any of the Englishmen were to survive their first winter in Virginia, they would need to get large amounts of food from the Indians.

Smith led several food expeditions. Loaded down with mirrors, beads, and trinkets, Smith and a few other men would walk into an Indian village and bargain with them for deer meat, corn, and bread. Because the Indians did not trust the whites, these trading expeditions were quite dangerous.

In late December of 1607, John Smith was seeking food near the Chickahominy River when he and his little band were suddenly attacked by Powhatan Indians. Several of the colonists were killed, and Smith was taken prisoner. Smith could tell that the Indians were thinking of killing him right away. To gain time, he pulled out his compass, and, speaking to the Indians in their own language, demonstrated how the needle always pointed to the north. The Indians decided to spare this fascinating man for a while. They took him to the village where Chief Powhatan (the tribe and their chief were both called Powhatan) was staying.

After being led into Powhatan's lodge, Smith was questioned by the chief. Powhatan wanted to know why the Englishmen were in Virginia and when they would leave. Smith tried to lie his way out of trouble by saying that they had been driven there by a storm and would soon be leaving. Powhatan didn't believe him. Smith was sentenced to die for killing two Indians at the Chickahominy River battle.

Upon Powhatan's signal, two large stones were brought forth. The Indians grabbed John Smith, threw him to the ground, and forced his head onto the stones. When several braves raised their clubs above his head, Smith was certain that the end was near. But then the chief's daughter Pocahontas, who was about twelve years old, ran to Captain Smith and cradled his head in her arms. Several years later, Smith wrote the following description of this famous event:

Two great stones were brought before Powhatan; then as many as could laid hands on him [Smith], dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beat out his brains, Pocahontas the King's dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death; whereat the Emperor was contented he should live.

Although John Smith thought that Pocahontas had saved him on impulse, many historians think that the Indians did not really mean to kill Smith. They think that this dramatic event symbolized Pocahontas's "adoption" of the captain. Either way it is probable that Smith was saved because Pocahontas had taken a liking to him.

Smith exchanged pledges of friendship with Powhatan and then was escorted home. After this, Powhatan traded food to the colonists. He also taught them how to plant corn and make fishing traps. The settlers needed this help very much because, by the time Captain Smith returned to Jamestown in early January of 1608, only about forty of the original one hundred colonists were still living.

Soon after Captain Smith's return from Powhatan's village, Captain Christopher Newport arrived from England. He brought supplies and about 120 more colonists (including the first two women to arrive at Jamestown). The supplies helped the colony live through the rest of the winter. Unfortunately, few of the new men were the kind the colony needed. Like the original colonists, most of them did not know how to survive hardship or how to provide for themselves. When the London Company sent seventy more of this kind of men to Jamestown in September of 1608, Captain Smith was disgusted. He wrote the following letter to the colony's English sponsors:

When you send again I entreat you rather send but thirty carpenters, husbandmen, gardeners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons, and diggers up of trees' roots, well-provided, than a thousand of such as we have. For except we be able to lodge and feed them, most will consume with want of necessaries before they can be made good for anything.

Although deaths from disease continued throughout 1608, the hunger problem was not as bad as it had been earlier. Under the direction of Captain Smith, who was now the president of the colony, the colonists improved their settlement. The men cleared fields, built a blockhouse to strengthen their defense, and performed military drills.

A third shipment of much-needed supplies and additional colonists (which included women and children) arrived from England in September of 1609. Unfortunately, soon after this shipment, Captain Smith was badly wounded in a gunpowder explosion and had to return to England to regain his health.

When Smith left, there were almost five hundred colonists in the growing settlement of Jamestown. Although there were still occasional skirmishes with the Indians, Smith's friendship with Powhatan and Pocahontas had greatly improved the relations between the two groups. Things were looking good for the colony. But this situation did not last long.

Dennis B. Fradin. Jamestown: First Permanent English Settlement In America. The Virginia Colony (Thirteen Colonies (Lucent)) . Children's Press, Chicago. 1986.
James Horn. Why Jamestown Matters. American Heritage. Winter 2008; Volume 58, Issue 3.

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