Jamestown was the first colony on the Virginia territory. Moreover, it became the first permanent settlement in America. But, on the contrary to other colonies in the New World, which were widely appraised and always treated with respect and appreciation, the Jamestown Settlement has lived through some complicated times. Despite all the idealistic perceptions of the pilgrim’s journeys in the 17th century, the story of Jamestown presents a bright example of all the complications faced by people on their way to colonization of America. The early history of Jamestown shows that the survival of first colonists was very complicated and at times unjust. This paper is aimed at studying the early history of the Jamestown settlement and defining all the influences, which have made the survival of first Virginia settlers complicated.
Before moving to the analysis of the Jamestown Settlement it is essential to emphasize the type of people that have come to the New World. The Virginia Company has sponsored the voyage to the New World hoping to find monetary gain in it. This has given a new possibility to compete with Spaniards and the French and boost English business. Thus, the primary background of the trip was economic. Investors were interested in the discovery of precious metals, as well as the new trading field – the colonists. Moreover, everyone was still looking for the new way to India. As a result, the main group of people who have set off to Jamestown was adventurers and travelers, who had to explore the territory and make it profitable. Therefore, the colonists were not supposed to raise food. Instead they should have acquired it either through the trade relations with native tribes or by the supplies from the Old World.
Three British ships left the European shore in 1606 and arrived on the coast of modern Virginia in 1607. This year is also known as the date of the Jamestown establishment. The first three ships brought to America only men and boys. Not a single woman arrived in 1607. Thus, the first settlement on the Jamestown peninsula consisted of around 100 men of different age. The leaders of the colony were chosen by the Virginia Company and put in a sealed box, which had to be opened only upon arrival. This has slightly complicated the matters, as John Smith, who had to be on the council, was already prepared to hanging. Already in 1608 Smith was elected the head of Jamestown and has become the most renown and successful among the colony’s heads. A year later two Supply Missions came to Jamestown and the first of them brought the first female colonists. Both supply missions brought new colonists but in fact did not bring enough food supplies. Therefore the upcoming years were complicated, especially the winter of 1609-1610 also known as the “Starving Time”. This was also the time when John Smith had to leave the New World because of an injury and Jamestown was left in the hands of George Percy, who was not able to respond to the colony’s demands the same way as his predecessor. Only with the Third Supply Mission and arrival of Lord De la Warr the situation in Jamestown has slightly improved. Only with the development of tobacco export the sources invested in the colony began to return. With the new governor and slowly but steadily stabilizing economy the Jamestown Settlement was growing stronger and more prosperous. A significant moment of the colony’s history happened in 1919, when the Virginia General Assembly met for the first time in Jamestown. This has become the first form of a representative government on the American continent.
There are some common reasons that made the Jamestown Settlement so infamous. Different scholars have come up with the four main causes that can explain the hardships of the colony. These are also called the criticisms of Jamestown: unsuitable location; inability to establish relations with the locals; unpreparedness of the colonists; unprecedented death toll on the island. Put together the four factors have lead to the poor conditions in the colony and its’ constant problems and instability.
From the very beginning the colonists have chosen a wrong location. There were two primary reasons for choosing the Jamestown island: on one hand it gave the colonists a chance to protect themselves from the attack from the sea, and on the other this territory wasn’t occupied by Native Americans. The first reason was extremely important on the initial stages of colonization because there was a constant competition among European countries in the process of exploring the New World. The Virginia Company has even issued an order in which it stated that the colonists have to select a “safe port in the entrance of some navigable river”. But the second reason should have already showed the colonists that there has to be a reason why the Native Americans left the Jamestown Island. In fact, there were many different reasons. And the colonists have realized their mistake shortly after settling on the territory. The land was full of infectious insects due to the marshes, which covered the island. Due to the huge number of mosquitoes and other insects the island territory has become a breeding ground for various infectious diseases. Moreover, there was a constant shortage of fresh water. The colonists were forced to drink either unhealthy water from the wells or salty water directly from the James River. Finally, the marshy land was not suitable for any type of farming or growing grains. The colonists were not able to grow harvest on the nearby territories.
Another problem of the Jamestown settlers was their inability to establish and maintain peaceful relations with locals. The largest local group of Native Americans, the Powhatans, have never been friends with the colonists. In best times the relationship was strained and has turned into violent and even war from time to time. Researchers usually blame the colonists for this lack of the understanding of local culture. This might be true because other Europeans of the time describe the Powhatans as a peaceful tribe. One of the Englishmen who passed the Virginia shores stated that Powhatans were a “people most gentle, loving, and faithful, void of guile and treason.” Taking into consideration these reflections on the tribe one may indeed assume that the inability to maintain peaceful relations could be the fault of Europeans rather then Native Americans.
The third criticism that is commonly used for the Jamestown Settlement is the type of people that arrived to the colony. Colonists were not only lazy, but they’ve been unprepared for the hardships of the colonial life. Many of the settlers were considered “gentlemen” and thus were not adjusted to the conditions and requirements of the newly established colony.These people were not used to hard labor. As a result, they were not able to contribute to the colony’s development in any way. John Smith, who became the Mayor of Jamestown in 1608, has strongly emphasized this problem in his letter to the sponsors in the Old World: “… I entreat you rather send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, gardiners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons and diggers up of trees” as the majority of people who came to Jamestown earlier were not prepared to the new conditions and would spend a lot of time to learn how to survive in the New World. And till that time these people would have to be under the supervision of the colonists. The difficulty was also caused by the fact that the New World was interesting not for the farmers or craftsmen but for adventurers and the noble gentlemen. And these were not able to take care of own basic need in the wild.
Lastly, the unexpectedly high mortality rates were the fourth problem of Jamestown that has made this colony the most infamous one. When the Third Mission arrived in 1610 they have found that out of around 400 settlers only sixty were alive. This was right after the “Starving Time” of 1609-1610. This time is also infamous for the common cases of cannibalism. The starving colonists have killed and consumed not only the imprisoned locals, but also other colony inhabitants. The more global calculations said that the around 6000 colonists have arrived in Jamestown between 1607 and 1624 and three out of four of them died. These numbers show that the characterization of Jamestown Settlement as a “hellhole where famine and illness and savage death awaited” might be true to a large extend.
The early history of the Jamestown settlement is very complicated and should be studied as a complex subject. On one hand the settlement is infamous for its’ early years, high death rates and the overall decline over the first decade of its’ existence. At the same time this has become the first colony in Virginia and the very first permanent settlement in the New World. Moreover, Jamestown has housed the first representative body on the continent. Therefore, the achievements of the first American colonists should not be underestimated even though they have faced a number of complications over the first years in the New World. On the contrary, the ability to survive despite all the hindrances should be praised and the first Virginian colonists have to be treated with respect and gratitude by all the upcoming generations. It is always easier to judge the events of the past, but it is much more complicated to make decisions in the present. The best way would be to learn the mistakes of the first Jamestown colonists and try to avoid them in modern life.