HP092: Jamestown

HP092: Jamestown

I’m Jason Watts and your listening to history podcast number 92, Jamestown.

Jamestown, site of the first permanent British settlement in North America, founded May 14, 1607, located on a peninsula (later Jamestown island) in the James River in Virgina. Named in honor of King James I, the colony initiated the cultivation of tobacco, established the first representative government on the continent in 1619, brought the first African slaves to the colonies, and built the first Anglican church in America. Situated in an unhealthful marshy area, the colony always had a small population because of a high mortality rate.

Most of us attribute the early colonies with the Pilgrims, however this group was not trying to escape religious persecution it was hoping to make some profit in the new world. In 1607 Virgina was largely unknown. It was named to honor Elizabeth I, England’s “Virgin Queen”. The new region, which stretched from present-day North Carolina to New England was thought to have untold hidden prizes in the form of gold and other precious minerals. The Northwest Passage was also fabled to exist in this New World. The Northwest passage was supposed to be a passage to the Orient, where the explorers would gain access to the riches of the Orient. Anxious to seize the new resources King James I, approved the plan to settle this new huge territory.

Two companies were to establish colonies. The Virgina Company of London was licensed to utilize the southern section of the territory and the Plymouth Company which was comprised mainly of investors from Plymouth, England, was to colonize the northern portion. In 1607, after just one year, the Plymouth Company failed in their efforts to colonize the Atlantic Coast of modern-day Maine. The Virgina Company chose the Chesapeake Bay area hoping it might be the gateway of the Northwest Passage.

The Spanish had a short-lived mission in the largely uncharted lower Chesapeake in the late 16th century. A group of settlers from the nearby Roanoke colony also had trekked the lower Chesapeake region in 1585-86. Unfortunately, the collapse of Roanoke and the mysterious disappearance of its colonist, coupled with the unwillingness of the Spanish to share intelligence with their English rivals, meant no one on the first voyage had sufficient knowledge of the area or its inhabitants.

Nonetheless, the leaders of the Virginia Company, comprising many prominent members of England’s political and business empires, attempted to set the colony on path. They selected seven men as Jamestown’s governing council, though rather than naming them straight away (an perhaps discouraging other investors from joining), they enclosed the names in a box only to be opened upon landing in Virginia. Along with the names, they included a lengthily set of instructions for founding and operating the colony.

144 sailors and settlers left for Virginia in 1606 aboard the Godspeed, Discovery, and Susan Constant, the largest of the three ships, with Newport at the helm. Among the 105 settlers making the voyage, more than one-third were male investors. Undoubtedly hoping to protect their investments and provide leadership, their aim was to make a quick profit on the gold and silver. They expected to mine and return to England as rich men. Although, many would never see their homes again.

In April 1607 they arrived on the Virginia coast. Newport opened the box containing the instructions for the endeavor. The appointed seven councilors included Newport, Smith and Wingfield, who was also selected as first president of the council.

Instead of providing leadership for the colony, the council devolved into factionalism and trivial jealousy. The bickering among the leaders proved to be deadly for the new colony.

The leaders selected a marshy strip of land barely attached to the north shore of the James River and named it Jamestown after their king. Newport returned to England in June with two ships carrying samples of sassafras and clapboard, which the settlers had produced in the seven weeks since founding Jamestown.

After Newport left, the council ordered most to search for gold and working to produce goods to ship back to England. Their search for precious minerals took valuable time and energy away from constructing shelters and maintaining crops, the few crops that they had planted. The various expeditions between 1607 and 1610 failed to find significant mineral deposits or the rumored passage to the Pacific.

As the region’s summer heat began to wear on the Englishmen, their choice of location proved to be increasingly impractical. Fed by the salty James River, wells turned putrid during the late summer, and a major drought that corresponded with their arrival minimized the chances of finding fresh water.

And while sporadic attacks by local Indians caused wounds and a few deaths, the major killers were dysentery, typhoid and salt poisoning from the afore mentioned wells. When Newport returned from England in January 1608, just over a third of the original settlers were left. Wingfield had been removed as council leader on charges of plotting with the Spanish to destroy the colony, and Smith again faced hanging by his rivals. The leaders had completely turned against each other, and those who remained in power were ready to give up and return to England, leaving the non-investors to fend for themselves in the Virginia wilderness.

Newport’s return provided brief relief. He brought new supplies and 100 new settlers. However, shortly after the supplies were unloaded and repairs begun on the fort had begun, a fire destroyed all but three buildings and the majority of the supplies intended to last the entire winter. The survival of the colony now depended on the Powhatan Indians.

The Powhatans were a loose association of about 30 tribes whose lands spanned from the James River to the Potomac River and from the Atlantic to the site of modern Richmond. They were led by Wahunsonacock, who had commanded leadership of several small tribes in the vicinity of Jamestown in the 1570s. He proved daunting match for the English.

Wahunsonacock commanded the trade throughout his region, especially copper, skins, pearls, and tobacco. He undoubtedly saw the arrival of the English, with their wealth of metal goods, weapons, and glass beads, as an chance to maintain his position as Powhatan leader.

The desire for trade on both sides kept the colony alive through their first winter. John Smith played a pivotal role in establishing contact with the Powhatans, trading for food throughout the fall of 1607. He became vital as the ambassador between the English and Powhatan.

The Indians originally welcomed Smith as a trader, but as the settlers’ need for corn and meat increased, it became increasingly complex to work with Wahunsonacock. Smith used threats and force, coupled with rewards of trade goods, to acquire enough food to keep the colony alive.

Smith’s efforts, along with the death or departure of other council members helped Smith achieve leadership of the colony in September 1608. He quickly organized new rules to make the colony more self-sufficient, though his “no work, no food” policy made him less popular than ever with the other gentlemen.

Smith took pleasure in his greatest success during Jamestown’s early years when he concentrated on securing food and making merchandise to be returned to England for profit. He sent men to live at the falls (near present-day Richmond) and at the mouth of the James River to attain food sources; this plan put him further at odds with other leaders. He returned to England in October 1609, luckily for him, he missed the coming disaster of the following winter.

By late 1609 Wahunsonacock had had enough of the Englishmen. As the drought continued, the Powhatans’ food supplies also dwindled. The English settlers’ raided Wahunsonacock villages taking what little food they had and ruining relations.

During the winter of 1609-10 the Powhatans cutoff trade with the English and overwhelmed their fort. More than 200 settlers were trapped inside, and with minimal food they perished. Parties from the fort, sent to re-establish trade with the Powhatans, were ambushed and slain. Disease and starvations persisted through the winter; the settler’s were reduced to eating horses, rats, shoe leather … and each other. Only 60 Jamestown colonists survived the brutal winter, which is now known as the Starving Time.

In 1610 Jamestown was about to be abandoned by its inhabitants when Thomas West, Lord De La Warr, arrived with new energy and new supplies.

New leaders instituted martial law and responded to Powhatan attacks with their own. By 1614 Wahunsonacock’s forces were largely defeated and English settlers began expanding along the James River. A fragile peace was established in 1614 when Wahunsonacock’s daughter Pocahontas married Englishman John Rolfe.

Jamestown fell into decay when the seat of government of Virginia was moved in 1699 to the Middle Plantation (later Williamsburg).

By the mid-18th century the peninsula had become an island. Conservation efforts halted the erosion of the site, and excavations uncovered artifacts. In 1936 the island was incorporated into the Colonial National Historical Park, and 17th-century replicas have re-created the colonial atmosphere.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

The History Channel Magazine, March/April 2007, ‘Easy Riches Seduce Investors’, by Kevin Maijala, p. 28 – 34

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