A Brief History of Jamestown, Virginia
1612: JOHN ROLFE TRIES A TOBACCO CROP TO HELP SAVE THE DESPERATELY STRUGGLING JAMESTOWN SETTLEMENT.I may not forget the gentleman worthie of much commendations, which first tooke the pains to make triall thereof, his name Mr. John Rolfe, Anno Domini 1612, partly for the love he hath a long time borne unto it, and partly to raise commodity to the adventurers...
--Ralph Hamor, then Secretary of Virginia
Few realize that this seminal event in American history may well be why the lower half of the United States speaks English instead of Spanish today.
By the dawn of the 17th century, despite several disastrous attempts, England still lacked a viable claim to some part of the New World.
In 1606, James I tried once more to fruitfully impregnate the mythically rich, virgin land. He established 2 companies made up of merchant-adventurers eager to plumb the tantalizing riches of North America--these were the London Company and the Plymouth Company.
The first to embark was the London Company, which sent forth three ships in December of 1606. James gave them three objectives: find gold, find a route to the South Seas, and find the Lost Colony of Roanoke.
Adverse winds held their ship near England for 6 weeks, and seriously depleted their food reserves. Forty-five died on the voyage, but 101 men and 4 boys finally landed on a semi-island in May, 1607. A record log tells us that within a month they were able to complete the building of a large triangular fort on the banks of a river the Indians knew as "Powhatan's River," or "Powhatan's Flu." The settlers named it the James, after their King.
At first the climate seemed mild, the Indians friendly. As John Smith wrote, "heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitations."
Then came blistering heat, swarms of insects spawned in the nearby wetlands, unfit water supplies, typhus, starvation, fierce winters, Indian attacks, shiploads of inappropriately-prepared "Colonists" (sent from a changing England that had no other place for them), and even a period of tyrannical martial law when missing church 3 times was a capital offense.
The troubles were exacerbated by the colonists themselves. Many of them we could call gentlemen-adventurers, "whose breeding," a contemporary said, "never knew what a day's labour meant." These were men, often lesser scions of nobility, with no future in overpopulated England, who were lured by the Virginia Company with promises of land and wealth--much as people were lured to California during the Gold Rush. But there was no gold in Virginia, and these "prospectors" didn't know how to farm, didn't know how to hunt, and--possibly feeling betrayed by the Virginia Company's promises, and lacking any land of their own--were not known for their spirit of cooperation either among themselves, nor with the local Indians of the Powhatan confederacy.
In 1609, a fleet of 9 ships from England had been caught in a tremendous hurricane, and the lead ship, the Sea Venture, had been wrecked off Bermuda, its passengers--including many of the proposed new leaders of the colony--stranded for months. The rest of the ships had limped into Jamestown in August of 1609, their passengers mostly sick or hurt--one ship was said to carry the plague--and provided nothing but extra mouths to feed--400, in fact.
Apparently the only man who had been able to keep a modicum of peace, both in the colony and with the Indians, was John Smith. Even so, by 1609, the settlers had suffered one horror after another. Hundreds had died, but the worst was yet to come. Smith, injured in a gunpowder explosion, was shipped back to England, and with other leaders stranded on Bermuda, the colony of as many as 600 fell into chaos.
Then another river-freezing, icicled winter hit, and with it a period so bad it was later called the Starving Time. Arms and valuable worktools were traded for a pittance in food. The fields lay fallow. Housing was used as firewood. The weak settlers were easy pickings for the contemptuous Indians. Trapped within their walls by Powhatan's renewed enmity, the Jamestown residents ate their way through their livestock, their pets, mice, rats--and each other. Many turned to cannibalism, sneaking out at night--braving Indian ambush--to dig up the graves of both English and Indian dead. One contemporary wrote of a man who secretly killed his wife and ate her, until only the head was left. The author wrote --in a tasteless joke that has spanned centuries--"Now, whether she was better roasted, boiled or carbonadoed (grilled), I know not, but of such a dish as powdered (salted) wife I never heard of."
Meanwhile in the relative paradise of Bermuda, the hurricane survivors--including one passenger named John Rolfe, who had learned to smoke tobacco in London--built two ships from the wreckage of the Sea Venture, and finally resumed their journey.
On May 24, 1610, approaching Jamestown, they came upon only 60 gaunt survivors of the "Starving Time"--nearly 90% of the colony had died during the winter.
The ships from Bermuda brought only more mouths, and few reserves of food. There were no crops, no tools, no housing, no hope. It was the end. Survivors and rescuers packed what they could on the ships, and headed back down the James River. Jamestown was abandoned..
But the ships were not 10 miles down-river when they were met with a boat whose occupants told them Lord De La Warr, newly appointed Governor of Virginia, was on his way with three ships filled with supplies and 150 new colonists. They were ordered to return to await the Governor.
Jamestown had been given a dramatic reprieve. Yet life remained onerous, and Jamestown had yet to find a crop, or a mineral, or an industry that would make the colony economically viable. The Virginia Company continued to pour people and resources into a venture with virtually no return of investment.
It was in 1612 that John Rolfe began growing tobacco. But Rolfe shunned the harsh product grown by the local Indians, Nicotiana Rustica. It would never sell in London. Somehow he obtained seeds from the coveted Nicotiana Tabacum strain then being grown in Trinidad and South America--though Spain had declared a penalty of death to anyone selling such seeds to a non-Spaniard.
Then Pocahontas entered Rolfes' life. Bad relations with the Indians had continued to plague the settlers. Once, when the Indians held several English captive, the colonists captured and held hostage the chief's beloved young daughter, Pocahontas. John Smith's later writings tell us that a few years earlier at the age of 12, Pocahontas had dramatically saved Smith from her father, the Powhatan's, wrath. This incident could more likely have been a ceremonial "saving," or even nonexistent, but it is verifiably established that in the early days she did indeed often help the colony--with food or with warnings of attack.
But it was four years later now, and Pocahontas was far from the naked child who with her friends used to turn cartwheels through the streets of a nascent Jamestown. Now she was a young woman, and being held by the English. During this period, in his Virginia tobacco fields, Rolfe began to woo--and win--Pocahontas.
How much did Pocahontas know about tobacco? It is true that Powhatan women grew the food, while in a completely separate sector, a sort of back area of the village, men grew the tobacco. Pocahontas, however, had a seemingly insatiable curiosity, and tended to roam where she wanted. (Her birth name was Matoaka; we know her by Pocahontas, a sort of Indian nickname which meant "Frisky," "Mischievous" or "Playful One"). It is likely she either knew a great deal about tobacco cultivation, or knew how to find answers if they were needed. The dramatic success of Jamestown's tobacco crop is credited not only to Rolfes' importation of the Spanish strain, but to his finding better ways of growing and curing it. We may only surmise how much he was guided in cultivation and curing techniques by Pocahontas.
During captivity, Pocahontas received daily bible lessons, and eventually converted to Christianity, changing her name to "Rebecca." Rolfe married her in April of 1614, with Powhatan's approval. This act is credited with bringing 8 years of peace with the Indians, a period when the energies of the colonists could be devoted to the growing of its new cash crop--which indeed was soon to become the New World's currency.
For in 1614, in what has been called by at least one historian the most momentous event of the 17th century, the first shipment of Virginia tobacco was sold in London.
Two years later, in June, 1616, Rolfe and other leaders of the colony arrived in London to discuss the newly successful crop. Rolfe brought Rebecca with him, where her exotic looks and regal bearing made her a popular rage, and she was presented to the court of Queen Anne as a true princess (James had actually crowned Powhatan "King of Virginia.") At the same time, the spectacle of a "savage" princess married to a tobacco farmer may have given rise to exceptionally cutting Elizabethan barbs.
But Rolfes' trip was very much about the colony's major export--tobacco. Despite James I's disapproval of the colony's dependence on a crop he despised, the very survival of his namesake colony could be at stake. And, of course, James could not ignore the enormous import duties Rolfes' Virginia tobacco, "Orinoco", brought to the royal treasury--Londoners and others around the world liked its taste and began demanding it. Since all sales had to be made through London, the English treasury grew with every transaction. Rolfes' trip was a success..
Tobacco became the rage, tobacco and nothing else. We have reports of it being grown in the very streets of Jamestown. Laws had to be passed forcing farmers to devote a percentage of their efforts to growing food.
By 1619 Jamestown had exported 10 tons of tobacco to Europe and was a boomtown. The export business was going so well the colonists were able to afford two imports which would greatly contribute to their productivity and quality of life: 20 Blacks from Africa and 90 women from England. The Africans were paid for in food; each woman cost 120 pounds of tobacco.
By 1639 Jamestown had exported 750 tons of tobacco. Tobacco was the American colonies' chief export. The Jamestown colonists had not found gold, nor a route to the South Seas, nor the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island. But they had found tobacco. Tobacco had brought the settlement from wretched failure to giddying success. Tobacco had created the need for labor at any price (even institutionalized slavery), and--since it wore out the soil every 4-7 years--the mad rush for land all through the waterways of the Chesapeake Bay--or, as the entire area soon became known, "Tobacco Coast."
Tobacco can well be credited with making Jamestown the first permanent English colony in the New World.
England soon recognized this, and is credited for implementing what was then a radical idea--it insisted that a permanent settlement had to have women. Thus the English were successful in creating a permanent presence in the New World, unlike the more adventuring and wide-ranging French and Spanish.
"Rebecca" never returned to America. She had barely begun the voyage back when her illness became so severe that the ship had to stop in Gravesend. It was there she died--some say of influenza, some of pneumonia, some of smallpox--in 1617 at the age of 22. The filth and squalor of London that had so shocked the Indians had claimed their Princess. She was interred somewhere in the nave of St. George's Church, which burned down in 1727. The church was rebuilt in 1731, but where exactly Pocahontas' remains lie is unknown today.
John Rolfe returned to Virginia in 1617, and married Joane, the daughter of William Pierce, who had come to Jamestown in 1609. Rolfe made out his will in 1622, confessing to being "sick and weak in body." Most believe Rolfe died at the age of 37 in the Indian Massacre of 1622 (though his name does not appear on the list of the Massacre dead, his farm at Bermuda Hundred had been destroyed.)
The Rolfes' son, Thomas, was sickly, and was left to be raised in England. John Rolfe never saw his son again. In 1635, at the age of 20, Thomas returned to Virginia to reclaim his birthrights--both English ("Varina," the plantation--named for a variety of tobacco--on which he was born) and Indian, as his grandfather Powhatan had left him thousands of acres all around Jamestown. Thomas married an Englishwoman, Jane Poythress, and began a family. Many Virginians (the Blairs, Bollings, Lewises, Randolphs)--and many British--today are understandably proud to trace their lineage back to the remarkable, storybook union of the Indian princess Pocahontas and the tobacco farmer John Rolfe.
Shortly after Rolfe notified Powhatan of his daughter's death, Powhatan resigned his leadership, entrusting it to his brother Opitchapan, and moved to a site as far as possible from the English settlements. Just a year later, in 1618, he died. Opitchapan's successor, the warlike Opechancanough, instigated the Indian Massacre of 1622. Powhatan's confederacy, decimated by disease and a futile war against a never-ending wave of immigrants, was completely subjugated by 1644. In 1651 the country's first Indian Reservation was established in Virginia--for the remnants of Pocahontas' people.
Jamestown was picked for its military advantages. It had a deep-water mooring for the ships, it was far enough up the James to be out of sight of the fearsome Spanish, and it was a semi-island--protected on three sides by the river and marshes.
But it was a swamp, and a phenomenally unhealthy location. Fresh water was a major problem, and often the colonists were reduced to drinking the brackish river water. Malaria and dysentery periodically raged through the community. It suffered disastrous fires and explosions in the early days, and even as a city it was burned down twice. Bacon burned it during his Rebellion, and a few years later it burned down again by accident. When the fourth State House burned in 1698, the site was abandoned, and the capitol moved to Williamsburg. Jamestown, out of the mainstream of the bustling colony now, gradually fell into ruins.
Preparations are now underway for a grand festival in 2007 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. Archeological efforts are attempting to establish more accurately the original location of the triangular wooden fort completed on June 15, 1607. A 19th Century paddlewheel boat churned up the earth under the original site, and it caved in early in the 20th century. It has been thought the original site of the fort was out in the James, but there is speculation that churches would never move from hallowed ground, and that the site of the ruins of the brick church may well be situated at a corner of the fort still on land.
Many artifacts were lost when the site was a ferry landing, and travelers simply picked them up for souvenirs.
See Jamestown Rediscovery Findings at the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) site.
The Landing Site
Pictures to come:
- The Isthmus, Site of the Great Road
- An Indian Village
- The Susan Constant
According to Ivor Hume in The Virginia Adventure, "John Smith died at the age of fifty-one in London in 1631, leaving as his legacy his books, his maps, and his controversial personality, which together will keep his memory flamboyantly alive as long as there is a Virginia."
1607-05-13: FIRST permanent English settlement in the New World begins.105 men and boys land at Jamestown. Secret orders opened upon landing name John Smith as one of the Councillors.
- Smith leads a food-gathering expedition up the Chickahominy. His men killed by Indians, he ties his Indian guide to his arm as a shield. Smith becomes stuck in an icy swamp and is captured. He shows Powhatan's half-brother Opechancanough the wonders of his compass, which apparently saves his life.
- John Smith is brought before Powhatan, where the Pocahontas incident is said to have taken place. The event--possibly a ritualized acceptance into the tribe--grants him Powhatan's acceptance.
- Smith returns from Powhatan's camp accompanied by 2 Indians to take back 2 guns Smith had promised Powhatan. Smith offers the 2-ton demiculverins, immovable by the Indians, and in demonstration loads the cannon with rocks and blasts an icicle-filled tree--much to the Indians' shock.
- As evidenced by the tree episode, it is bitter cold, and the situation at the fort is desperate. Only 38 of the original 105 colonists remain. Some are about to leave for home on the tiny Discovery, but Smith aims one of the fort's cannons at the ship and threatens to blow it out of the water.
- Smith is accused of causing the deaths of his men; is deposed from his position, tried, and condemned to hang. Some accounts hold the noose is about his neck when
- The First Supply arrives--Captain Newport on the John and Francis, carrying fresh supplies, along with 60 new settlers. He puts a stop to Smith's execution.
- Hope turns to desperation. Almost the whole town of thatch/wattle houses goes up in flames; everyone's clothes are burned, leaving colonists little protection during one of the century's most frigid winters.
- Smith brings his "father" (Christopher Newport) up the York to meet Powhatan. Newport almost botches the trading session by acceding unqualifiedly to Powhatan's proposal of a "deal"; Smith salvages the situation by trading "rare" blue beads for substantial provisions. "Sons" are traded--young Thomas Savage is sent to live with the Indians; Namontack is sent to live with the English. These and others similarly traded will serve as interpreters and communications links between the two peoples.
1609-09 to 1610-05: The "Starving Time"Over this disastrous winter, cold, starvation, disease and attacks by Indians shrink the colony from 500 people to 60.
1610-06-07: Jamestown is abandoned
1610-06-08: Lord de La Warr's ships arrive; he orders the colonists to return to Jamestown
1614: ENGLAND: FIRST sale of Virginia tobacco
1616-06-03: ENGLAND: John Rolfe and Pocahontas arrive in London
1619-07-30: FIRST representative legislative assembly is held.The General Assembly meets in the choir of the Jamestown church from July 30-August 4. The first law passed: tobacco shall not be sold for under 3 shillings per pound.
1619-08: FIRST 20 blacks are purchased as indentured servants from a passing Dutch ship.The colonists desperately need workers for the tobacco crop. John Rolfe writes in his diary, About the last of August came in a dutch man of warre that sold us twenty negars.
1622: The Indian Massacre of 1622.350 colonists at plantations are killed in a surprise uprising in Opechancanough's attempt at ethnic cleansing; Jamestown itself is spared by a warning from the Indian boy, Chanco. The colony goes from 1,400 to 1050.
1623-05: Tucker & Potts Poison a Village.Captain Willam Tucker concludes peace negotiations with a Powhatan village by proposing a toast. The drink has been laced with poison by Dr. John Potts. 200 Powhatans die instantly. 50 more are slaughtered.
1639-01-11: King Charles I grants colonists the right to call their General Assembly. Charles' ruling sets precedent of semi-self-rule for all British colonies.
1651: FIRST Indian Reservation created near Richmond, VA for the remnants of Pocahontas' people.
1676-09-19: Bacon's Rebellion. In retaliation for an attack by Berkeley, Bacon burns down Jamestown..
2007: Celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America to be held at Jamestown.
- Support comes from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Research Project, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy. Virtual Jamestown is a product of collaboration between Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia.
- The Story of Virginia
A comprehensive, long-term exhibit on the history of the commonwealth, The Story of Virginia, an American Experience covers more than 10,000 square feet and contains more than 1,000 objects.
Contact and Conflict focuses on the settlement of colonial Virginia and the complex interactions between its English, Native American, and African inhabitants. Tobacco saved the English colony but resulted in the Indians being driven from their lands and enslaved Africans being brought here to work the tobacco fields. The only known likeness of Pocahontas from life is shown with gold buttons from a hat she wore when visiting England. An original dugout canoe made with European tools illustrates the interaction of the English and American Indians.
428 North Boulevard
Richmond, VA 23220
Telephone: (804) 358-4901
Fax: (804) 355-2399
Monday - Saturday 10 a.m. to 5p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 5p.m (Museum Galleries only).
Today, as Virginia approaches the 400th anniversary of that seminal event, there are two Jamestowns. And of course they are feuding.
Jamestown Island, the site of the original settlement, is run by the National Park Service and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. Jamestown Settlement, a nearby living history museum, is run by a state agency, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. The Virginia General Assembly named the foundation to coordinate the state's multimillion-dollar birthday bash.
The island folks complain the settlement folks are not playing fair with all that money, and have failed to cooperate on fund-raising, marketing and joint ticket sales. The disgruntled islanders, in fact, suggest the foundation has gone so far as to cultivate confusion about which is the original site in order to lure more tourists to the museum.
The foundation insists it has acted with complete honor. We should hope so. It must ask itself: WWFFVD? What Would the First Families of Virginia Do?
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