A Brief History
On May 24, 1607, 100 English settlers went ashore at a site chosen for the Jamestown Colony, the first permanent English settlement in mainland North America. That is when things went wrong!
The reason they chose that location was largely due to the lack of Native-American residents at that spot. Of course, there was a reason the land was unoccupied, which should have been a clue. Swampy, unfit for agriculture and malarial, the settlers were, like previous English settlers, unprepared for life in the wilderness. Unlike the immigrants to the US in the 1800’s and 1900’s, these were not poor, hard working people, but better off folk unused to manual labor.
Within a few months half had died, some had deserted to go live with the local natives, and by the time English ships visited in 1608, two thirds were dead. The relief voyage had brought new provisions as well as settlers from Poland and Germany. The two resupply trips in 1608 also brought demands from investors in England that the settlers send back gold and other commodities as well as a survivor from the Roanoke Colony (there were none). Little did the English money-men realize how hard life was in Jamestown.
By 1609, things continued to go bad, especially as a relief voyage bringing 500 more people and more supplies had failed to arrive due to bad weather at sea. When the ships did arrive in 1610, things were so bad that the miserable surviving settlers boarded the vessels and set sail for England. Soon afterwards, the returning ships met a relief fleet on its way to Jamestown and both groups then headed back there, this time for keeps.
The settlement finally started expanding its farming, especially with the tobacco seeds brought from the Caribbean, infringing on Native-American land and inducing conflict. The new source of a cash crop brought more settlers and the colony was firmly entrenched, there to stay for good.
Scientists now tell us that during the “starving time” of 1609 to 1610 the settlers had survived only through cannibalism, something most school children are not taught when learning about the settling of America. Out of 6000 total European settlers arriving in Jamestown from 1608 to 1624, around 2600 had died.
In typical English fashion, Native-Americans were poorly treated, causing numerous clashes with the settlers, including burning much of Jamestown on a couple of occasions. Initially, non-English Europeans were not allowed to vote, resulting in a strike by Polish settlers and a relaxing of that rule. African slaves were brought to provide the large labor force needed to successfully grow tobacco and other crops.
By the mid-1700’s Jamestown had faded from prominence in Virginia and became a rural backwater, with city functions moving to places like Williamsburg. The history of the Jamestown settlement is far from the inspiring fairy-tales taught in elementary school. The colony was poorly planned, poorly supplied, and manned by people unsuited for hard work. Somehow, this colony survived and that fact has a lot to do with how the United States ended up where it is today, 300 million people living in the most powerful nation on Earth. Just keep Jamestown in mind when someone invites you to a colony on the moon!
Question for students (and subscribers): Are you descended from any early settlers of Jamestown? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Cooper, Michael. Jamestown, 1607. Holiday House, 2006.
Lange, Karen. 1607: A New Look at Jamestown. National Geographic Children’s Books, 2007.
The featured image in this article, a painting by Sidney King of a Jamestown Settler who died in the swamp going for water, is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.