Colonial Jamestown History – From Settlement to Colony
The Jamestown Colony was settled in 1607, thirteen years before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock and is the site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Three ships landed containing a total of 104 men and boys, all sponsored by the Virginia Company of London which hoped to expand English trade and, of course, make a profit. Each of these early settlers was required to meet a financial obligation by sending back trade goods to the Company that sponsored them.
On May 13, 1607, the colonists chose the site of Jamestown Island to build a three-sided fort erected on the banks of the James River. The area offered a good defensive position and the Virginia climate and fertile soil was well suited to building large plantations. These early settlers were somewhat disappointed to discover that, unlike the many Spanish myths surrounding the New World, gold and gems were not laying about, waiting to be scooped up and sent to London for easy profits. They also quickly discovered that they were, indeed, employees of the Virginia Company – following directions given by the gentlemen who were appointed to rule over the rest. These laborers were armed and given food and clothing in return for their work, as well as a promise of their own land after seven years of indenture to the Company. Their first task was to decide how they were to meet their financial obligation so the Company could profit. The industries they chose to concentrate on were glass manufacturing, beer and wine making, and pitch and tar production.
From the beginning, the Jamestown Colony struggled to make a profit for the Company. Most of the 1607 settlers were used to the ‘city life’ of London. They lacked wilderness survival skills and were inexperienced at the tasks needed to develop the chosen industries. In addition, disease and hunger took their toll, as did poor relations with the local Natives led by Chief Powhatan. Between 1608 another 200 colonists set sail for Jamestown, including women. The first recorded marriage at Jamestown was in 1608 between Anne Burras and John Laydon. This was a time of improved spirits and relations with the Powhatans that lasted through the arrival of another 400 colonists in the fall of 1609. Unfortunately, these ill-fated settlers arrived just in time for what became known as “The Starving Time” – a winter of sickness, disease and starvation that saw 80% of the population die.
During the following years, the Virginia Company used numerous methods to continue to gain stockholders, support from the Crown, and entice hundreds of settlers to the Jamestown Colony. They appealed to God and Country, they held lotteries – but they never made a profit. The mortality rate of settlers and the cost of sending new settlers remained high, impacting any type of steady income they hoped to achieve. In 1612, John Rolfe successfully experimented with what would become Virginia’s cash crop, tobacco, and it was the first venture at the settlement to make a profit. Soon, it became the only industry arriving settlers focused on. In 1617, the Virginia Company established a headright system – a form of indenture in order to increase the colony’s numbers as many believed that populating the Jamestown settlement was its only hope for success. Current residents or investors paid for the passage of new settlers in return for land. These new settlers then spent a period of time serving on the investor’s land.
Despite both the success of tobacco crops and the many hundreds of settlers that arrived, by 1621, the Virginia Company was severely in debt. In March of 1622, the Powhatan Indians staged an uprising, killing a quarter of the European population settled in Jamestown and the small holdings that had sprung up around it. Finally, King James I officially changed the status of Virginia to a royal Colony in 1624, to be administered by a governor appointed by the King, a form of government that continued until the Nation’s Independence in 1776.
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