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Jamestown, Virginia

Jamestown was a village on an island in the James River in Virginia, about 45 miles southeast of where Richmond, Virginia, is now. Both the river and the 1607 settlement there were named for King James I of England who had recently come to the throne then. The Jamestown Settlement was the first permanent English colony in the New World.



Jamestown was founded in 1607 by the London Virginia Company. Three ships, the Susan Constant , the Godspeed , and the Discovery arrived at Jamestown on May 14, and their crews of 104 men and boys began the first permanent English settlement in North America. The settlers consisted mainly from English farmers and Polish woodcutters, hired in Royal Prussia. Upon landing, secret orders from the Virginia Company are opened which named John Smith as one of the councilors. Smith had been arrested on the voyage over by Admiral Christopher Newport for mutiny and scheduled to hang, but was freed upon the opening of the orders.

Despite the fact that Jamestown Island is a swamp, the men of the Virginia Company chose to settle here because they felt it was far enough inland to avoid contact and conflict with the Spanish fleet while the river was deep enough to permit them to anchor their ships yet have an easy and quick departure if necessary. They had only been at Jamestown for less than a fortnight when they were attacked on May 26 by Paspahegh Indians, who succeeded in killing one of the settlers and wounding eleven more. By June 15, the settlers finished the initial triangle fort at Jamestown and a week later, Newport sailed back for London on the Susan Constant with a load of pyrite and dirt.

Edward M. Wingfield was named the first president of the colony and would remain in that position until September, when he was found guilty of libel and deposed. John Ratcliffe was elected to take his place. A year later, John Smith was elected to replace Ratcliff. He would remain as President until wounded in 1609, when Ratcliffe became President again, although Ratcliffe was captured by Powhatan and tortured to death by Indian women while on a trade mission shortly after being elected. The winter of 1609-1610 became known as the starving time in Jamestown.

The settlers who came over on the initial three ships were not well equipped for the life they found in Jamestown and many suffered from saltwater poisoning which led to infection, fevers, and dysentery. Smith was wounded when his powder bag exploded and he was sent back to England, where he wrote A True Relation about his experiences in Jamestown and a second book, The Proceedings of the English Colony of Virginia. The publication of this book sparked a resurgence in interest in the colony and, with plans being made to abandon Jamestown in 1610, a new governor, Lord de la Warr, arrived and forced the remaining 90 settlers to stay.

While president of the colony, Smith led a food-gathering expedition up the Chickahominy River. His men were set upon by Indians and when his men were killed, Smith strapped his Indian guide in front of him to use as a shield. Captured by Opchanacanough, Powhatan's half-brother, Smith gave him a compass, which made the Indian decide to let Smith live. When Smith was brought before Powhatan, however, the chief decided to execute him, a course of action which was stopped by the pleas of Powhatan's young daughter, Pocahontas, who was originally named Matoaka, but whose nickname meant "Playful one."

Although Pocahontas's life would be tied to the English after this first meeting, she is not tied to Smith, except in his report in his books. During the winter of 1608, after Jamestown was destroyed by flames, Pocahontas brought food and clothing to the colonists. She later negotiated with Smith for the release of Indians who had been captured by the colonists during a raid to gain English weaponry. Pocahontas converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca in 1613 under the tutelage of Reverend Alexander Whitaker, who arrived in Jamestown in 1611 to found the first Presbyterian Church in Virginia. She married a settler, John Rolfe on April 24, 1614. Within two years, they left for London, where Pocahontas died at Gravesend on March 17, 1617.

Rolfe arrived in Jamestown in 1609 following the shipwreck of the Sea Venture , which may have inspired William Shakespeare's "The Tempest". Wedged in a reef off Bermuda, the 150 on board built ships from the wreckage and sailed the two boats, known as the Deliverance and the Patience up to Jamestown, where they found the colony in ruins and practically abandoned until de la Warr arrived.


Rolfe was the first man to successfully raise tobacco at Jamestown. The tobacco raised in Virginia to that time, Nicotiana Rustica, was not to the liking of the Europeans, but Rolfe had brought some seed for Nicotiana Tabacum with him from Bermuda. Shortly after arriving, his first wife died, having given birth to a daughter in Bermuda, who did not survive long enough to see Virginia. Although most people wouldn't touch the crop, Rolfe was able to make his fortune farming it. When he left for England with Pocahontas, he was wealthy and they had a son, Thomas. When Rolfe returned to Jamestown following Pocahontas's death, Thomas remained behind in England. Back in Jamestown, Rolfe married Jane Pierce and continued to improve the quality of tobacco, with the result that by the time of his death in 1622, Jamestown was thriving as a producer of tobacco and Jamestown's population would top 4,000. Tobacco led to the importation of the colony's first black slaves as well as women from England in 1619.

That same year, the House of Burgesses, the first legislature of elected representatives in America, met in the Jamestown Church. Their first law was to set a minimum price for the sale of tobacco. In 1622, an uprising led by Opechancanough led to the massacre of nearly 400 settlers, although Jamestown was spared from destruction due to the warnings of an Indian boy named Chanco to Richard Pace of Wapping Wall, London (d. abt 1624), a resident since about 1613. Pace, after securing himself and his neighbors on the South side of the James River, took a canoe across river to warn Jamestown which narrowly escaped destruction. A year later, Captain William Tucker and Dr. John Potts worked out a truce with the Powhatan Indians and proposed a toast, using liquor laced with poison. 200 Indians were killed by the poison and 50 more were slaughtered by the colonists. In 1624, the Virginia Company lost its charter and Virginia became a crown colony.

Colonial Era

In the 1670s, the governor of Virginia was Sir William Berkeley, serving his second term in that office. Berkeley had previously been governor in the 1640s and was a scholar and playwright, as well as a veteran of the English Civil War and in his seventies. In the mid 1670s, a young cousin of his, through marriage, Nathaniel Bacon, Jr. arrived in Virginia, sent by his father in the hope that he would mature. Although lazy, Bacon was intelligent and Berkeley provided him with a land grant and a seat on the Virginia Colony council.

In July 1675, the Doeg Indians raided the plantation of Thomas Mathews in order to gain payment for several items Mathews had obtained from the tribe. Several Doegs were killed in the raid and the colonists then raided the Susquehanaugs in retaliation. This led to large scale Indian raids. Berkeley tried to calm the situation, but many of the colonists refused to listen to him and Bacon disregarded a direct order and captured some Appomattox Indians.

Following the establishment of the Long Assembly in 1676, war was declared on all hostile Indians, and trade with Indian tribes was regulated, often seen by the colonists to favor those friends of Berkeley. Bacon opposed Berkeley and led a group in opposition to the governor. Bacon and his troops set themselves up at Henrico until Berkeley arrived and Bacon and his men fled, upon which time Berkeley declared them in rebellion and offered a pardon to any who returned to Jamestown peaceably.

Bacon led numerous raids on Indians friendly to the colonists in an attempt to bring down Berkeley. The governor offered him amnesty, but the House of Burgesses refused, insisting that Bacon must acknowledge his mistakes. At about the same time, Bacon was actually elected to the House of Burgesses and attended the June 1676 assembly, where he was captured, apologized, and pardoned by Berkeley.

Bacon demanded a commission, but Berkeley refused. Bacon and his supporters surrounded the statehouse and threatened to start shooting the Burgesses if Berkeley did not receive the commission as General of all forces against the Indians. Berkeley eventually acceded and then left Jamestown. He attempted a coup a month later, but was unsuccessful. In September, however, Berkeley was successful and Bacon dug in for a siege, which resulted in his burning Jamestown to the ground on September 19, 1676. Bacon died of the flux and lice on October 26, 1676 and his body is believed to have been burned. Berkeley hanged the major leaders of the rebellion and was relieved of his governorship and returned to London, where he died in July 1677.

"Jimsonweed" is a corruption of "Jamestown weed," named for the village after some British soldiers sent to quell Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 failed in their mission after being fed leaves of the plant, which grew wild in great quantity there. They were intoxicated for about a week and claimed afterward to have no memory of that period.

The first phase of Jamestown's history ended in 1699, when a decision was made not to rebuild the statehouse which had burned down in 1698, but instead move the capitol of Virginia to Middle Plantation , which would soon be renamed Williamsburg.

Modern Era

In 1861, William Allen , who owned the Jamestown Island, occupied Jamestown with troops he raised at his own expense with the intention of blockading the James River, and therefore Richmond, from Union troops. He was soon joined by Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones , who directed the building of batteries and conducted ordnance and armor tests for the CSS Virginia (formerly known as the Merrimac) at the site. By the end of 1861, Jamestown had a force of 1200 men, which was augmented in early 1862 by an artillery battalion. With the Union forces landing at Yorktown under General George B. McClellan, in April, however, the peninsula was abandoned by the Confederates.

Once in Federal hands, Jamestown became a meeting place for runaway slaves, who burned the Ambler house, an eighteenth century plantation which, along with the old church, were the few remaining signs of Jamestown. When Allen sent men to assess damage in late 1862, they were killed by the former slaves. For the most part, Jamestown did not have an active role in the Civil War, although both sides used it for feints. Following the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, the oath of allegiance was administered to former Confederate soldiers at Jamestown.

Currently, the National Historical Site exists on 22 acres (91,000 m&sup2) of land at the western end of Jamestown Island. The area was donated to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in 1893, before which time, it had seen settlement, rebellion (in 1676), and battle (during the Civil War). In 1934, the Colonial National Historical Park obtained the remaining 1500 acre (6 km&sup2) island and partnered with the APVA to preserve the area and present it to visitors in an educational manner.

To mark the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown Settlement, in 1957 a large festival park opened with much ballyhoo: Queen Elizabeth II made an official appearance and loaned a copy of the Magna Carta for the exhibition. There is now a working reconstruction of the settlement, and of the three ships that brought the colonists, which is very popular with tourists, especially school groups. Recent archaeological work at the site is still expanding our knowledge of what happened at Jamestown in its earliest days.

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45