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Jamestown colony settlement (1607)


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Jamestown was founded in 1607 by the London Virginia Company. Three ships, Susan Constant, Godspeed, and 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 of English farmers and Polish woodcutters, hired in Royal Prussia. Upon landing, secret orders from the Virginia Company were 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 there 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 Maria 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 Ratcliffe. He would remain as President until wounded in 1609, when Ratcliffe became President again, although Ratcliffe was captured by Chief Powhatan and tortured to death by women of the Powhatan tribe 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, Chief Powhatan’s half-brother, Smith gave him a compass, which made the Indian decide to let Smith live. When Smith was brought before Chief 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”, through a log of the events kept by Captain Samuel Jordan. 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.

Prosperity

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.
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