As many Americans prepare for Thanksgiving this month, our thoughts turn back to the First Thanksgiving after the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth from England. But, did you know that the Pilgrims were not the first permanent English settlers in North America? The men of Jamestown would secure that title about 12 years beforehand. Let’s learn a little more about the history of the Jamestown Settlement.
The History of the Jamestown Settlement
In 1607, three ships sailed from England to the shores of North America. You could say that of all the ships that sailed to the “New” World from Europe (new only to Europeans), these ships would have the greatest impact. For you see, these ships carried a fiery redhead named John Smith who was going to change history. By his tough and stubborn character, he was going to help a band of weary men survive the difficult founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America.
At 16, John Smith left home to seek adventure. He quickly found it by enlisting in the armed forces. He fought in numerous battles across Europe, suffering injury and captivity. I imagine those experiences were part of what made this man so tough.
It was in 1606 that John Smith first learned of three ships sailing to the New World. They were the Discovery, the Godspeed, and the Susan Constant. They were being sponsored by the London Company, a group of English merchants. As an adventurer, John Smith wanted to join—and did. However, halfway between Europe and North America, John Smith was accused of plotting a mutiny! He was shackled in chains by Captain Christopher Newport, who was in charge of the expedition. Smith remained in chains for some time and barely escaped execution because he was not well-liked. Nor was he trusted.
When the ships reached North America in 1607, they landed on the coast of Virginia. Though Sir Walter Raleigh never settled in North America, earlier in history he named the east coast of the New World “Virginia” in honor of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. (Raleigh named it for the adventurers that disappeared at Roanoke!) In keeping with tradition, Captain Newport’s settlers named their new home “Jamestown,” in honor of King James I of England.
The London Company hoped that Jamestown would bring profit to England through gold or lumber. A few sincere souls hoped, too, to share Christ among the native peoples of North America. I’m not sure if any of the settlers then had a vision for starting a British colony in North America, but they had a big part in doing so. This is how:
The king of England sent a secret box containing seven names with Captain Newport to the New World. The names of these men were not to be read until they reached their destination. The seven named men were selected to govern the new settlement under the authority of the king of England. Keep that in mind. Though people were already living in North America (and had been for thousands of years), the English believed that they had the right to claim land new to them and rule it. Eventually, they did both.
Well, when the time came for the names to be read out loud, almost all were shocked to hear the name of John Smith. Though still in chains, Smith was one of the men chosen by the king of England to rule the New World! The captain of the expedition acknowledged Smith but chose to leave him in chains for at least the first month or two of their landing in the New World. John Smith was that unpopular. (This is certainly a very interesting part of the history of the Jamestown settlement, don’t you think?)
When John Smith was finally released, it proved to be for the better of the settlement. You see, the settlers weren’t getting along at all, their supplies were short, and they had no strong leadership. Furthermore, a form of socialism was in place that allowed everyone to eat from the common storehouse, whether they collected food or not. The problem with that system was that at least 50 of the 100 settlers were “gentlemen” by rank in England and didn’t believe in hard labor. They preferred instead to laze about and search for gold. When John Smith got out of confinement, he changed all of that.
Though his tactics were nothing to be proud of, John Smith bullied his way into leading the entire colony. Some report that he resorted to poisonings, floggings, and assassinations of troublemakers. John Smith quickly saw that it would require hard labor from every man there to survive the upcoming winter. He issued a policy that if a man didn’t work, he didn’t eat! And he meant it. This policy changed the entire social structure of the community. Socialism was out, and personal responsibility was in. Through private labor, the gentlemen with hungry stomachs were soon motivated to do their share of work in order to eat.
Regardless of everyone’s work, times were terribly hard on the settlers. Food remained scarce because the men weren’t equipped with good hunting and fishing supplies. Clumsy rifles only scared the deer away, and there were no nets for fishing. Jamestown sat near a swampy area infested with mosquitoes and low on pure drinking water. With the men now weakened by starvation and dehydration, sicknesses like typhoid, malaria, and dysentery raged through the camps, killing men left and right.
John Smith, in taking charge of things, remained very unpopular. But some would admit that, by his forcefulness, he kept them alive. One of his ideas was to aggressively seek out the Native Americans for help with food. So let’s talk about the Native Americans here. They had a big part in the history of the Jamestown settlement.
The Powhatan of North America
There were at least 18,000 Powhatan Indians living in the region later named Virginia. Most spoke the Algonquian (Al GONG kee un or Al GONG kwee un) language. At that time, 30 tribes were united by one chief who went by the name Wahunsonacock. The settlers called him Powhatan (POW uh tann) because it was the name of the chief’s town and empire—and it was easier for them to pronounce. I’ll call him by the same. Chief Powhatan was a negotiator. Though he never fully trusted the settlers, he tried to. At times, he and his braves were kind and friendly. They were impressed with the newcomer’s magic needle and talking paper, better known as the compass and written language. Other times, the Native Americans were fearful and hostile. This leads us to the legendary story of Powhatan’s daughter, the Indian princess named Pocahontas.
Pocahontas and the History of the Jamestown Settlement
According to John Smith’s version of the story, he was exploring the territory of the Native Americans when they captured him and took him to the camp of Powhatan. On that occasion, according to Smith, Powhatan was not feeling friendly. He called for a stone block and club and laid John Smith’s head on it with the intention of killing him right then and there! John Smith claims that Powhatan’s young daughter Pocahontas, who was between 10 and 13 years old, was watching the event and threw herself over his head—crying and pleading for his life. Powhatan, out of love for his daughter, stopped the execution to appease her.
Some wonder if this story of Pocahontas and the history of the Jamestown settlement is true. John Smith was suspected of exaggerating the truth and telling tall tales. I don’t know. But there is evidence that Pocahontas was indeed a real Native American girl and the daughter of Powhatan. We know that because there is more to the story. Over the next few months, Pocahontas remained loyal to John Smith and the settlers. She brought them corn and other food to help keep them alive. Why did she do this act of kindness? I wish I knew. It made her father nervous because he still did not trust the Europeans. I would like to believe that Pocahontas was just one of those rare people who had a heart of compassion that extended beyond race or color or beliefs. She took great risks in being nice to the settlers. But they were glad she did.
Powhatan continued to distrust the settlers more than he trusted them. On one occasion when John Smith demanded corn, Powhatan refused to give it. Smith in return offered Powhatan gifts from the king of England. Powhatan was given a luxurious bed, a basin and pitcher, and a purple cape. When the Englishmen offered Powhatan a crown, they had a hard time placing it on his head because he refused to bow down for the ceremony! Powhatan was a proud chief. Reluctantly, he gave up some corn in exchange for the gifts.
As for John Smith, from 1608 to 1609, he continued to lead the settlers through good and bad times until he suffered a terrible injury. A bag of gunpowder that he carried around his waist accidentally blew up on him. His pain was awful, and so he decided to sail back to England for proper medical care. He didn’t know it then, but when he left the New World, he had not seen the last of Pocahontas. (I’ll tell you the rest of her amazing story in another lesson!)
After John Smith left Jamestown, things went downhill for the settlers. New Europeans arrived but they did not have enough supplies. Without strong leadership, the men grew lazy, quarreled, and made poor decisions. They suffered from fires, scuffles with Indians, and drought. When winter set in, it nearly killed them all. Food supplies were far too low for fighting the sickness and disease that ravaged the camp. The settlers nicknamed that winter “the starving time.” Indeed it was that since only 60 out of 500 settlers survived until spring!
Fortunately, things improved in 1610 when a new governor named Thomas West, Lord de la Warr, took charge. (By the way, it is from his name that the name of the state of “Delaware” is derived.) Under Thomas West and others, Jamestown eventually found a way to survive. Though they tried and failed to harvest silkworms and grapes, they were successful at raising hogs, Indian corn, and sweet-tasting tobacco. These products were shipped to England—enticing more and more settlers to North America with hopes and dreams of new industries and new lives.
One shipload of settlers was a little more significant than the rest. It was the ship that brought 90 “young, handsome, and honestly educated maids” to Jamestown. In other words, young, available women were brought to Jamestown to become wives. They were significant because they gave the men incentive (meaning good reason) to settle, farm, and make a living. The new wives—and eventually the arrival of children—changed everything in Jamestown.
Seeds of Injustice
As good as I make that sound, seeds of injustice were also being planted. Growth and expansion brought problems. As with the Aborigines of Australia we studied earlier, the early Europeans did not understand (or didn’t care) what they were doing to the Native Americans. Every pasture that was cleared for farming and business took away the hunting grounds of Native Americans. Europeans drove Native Americans farther west or drove them to hostility. War was inevitable.
Furthermore, laborers were needed in the New World to make business boom. Tragically, a quick fix to meet this need came through the slave trade. Africans sold other Africans to Dutch sailors, who in turn shipped them to the New World for labor. There was no compensation for these laborers; there was no freedom for these laborers; there was no fair representation for these laborers. They would be enslaved for many years to come, causing wounds that have yet to be fully healed in the Americas.
So as you can see, both good and bad seeds were planted in America when Jamestown survived those early winters. By 1624, the king of England did away with the privately-owned London Company and made Virginia a “royal colony” under his rule. In 1699, the town relocated a few miles away in Williamsburg, which became the capital city in the historic colony of Virginia. You can visit an incredible re-enactment village there today (Colonial Williamsburg), as well as historic Jamestown. Both sites offer a wealth of information about the history of the Jamestown settlement and make for a great field trip!