Home Index Freedom Documents Constitution In-Depth About Us Contact Us Education Site Map Links Archives E-Mail
The History of America
Chapter I - A Vanishing Colony, Suffering in Jamestown
A Vanishing Colony, Suffering in Jamestown
In 1585 Elizabeth sent a second fleet of ships commanded by Sir Richard Grenville to the New World to found a colony. Hopeful settlers built an outpost for trade with Indians and established a base for future military attacks against the powerful Spanish empire. Leaving nearly one hundred settlers on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, Grenville returned to England. Still another expedition commanded by John White left England in April of 1587, planning to join the settlers left behind by Grenville. However when they reached Roanoke they found nothing but a demolished fort and a solitary skeleton. White and his people rebuilt the forts erected a few houses and renamed the settlement Raleigh. After a month in America, White returned to England leaving behind his daughter Eleanor her newborn baby, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America. Returning with supplies in 1592, a mystified and astonished White found the village deserted; no trace of the lost colonists was ever discovered. When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, not a single Englishman remained in North America.
New King of England James I, intending to make North America part of the already vast British empire, accelerated his plans to build "merchant communities" there by chartering English trading companies to settle "that part of North America commonly called Virginia." Stockholders of these trading companies anticipated quick profits from abundant gold and flourishing crops grown in the New World. They also hoped to discover a new passage to India. Probably none of these ambitious investors could have foreseen that this first colony would evolve into a region where enslaved black men and women would end up harvesting that "stinkin' weed," tobacco, to the immense profit of their owners.
On May 6, 1607, after being blown off course for three terrifying weeks, Captain Christopher Newport finally arrived in Virginia's Chesapeake Bay with three ships carrying 128 men. Hundreds of miles south of their original destination and exhausted from their ordeal, they decided to follow a swelling river with a "northwest bent" hoping to find that elusive passage to India which investors dreamed of. They happened upon a lush region which one traveler described as having "fair meadows and goodly, tall trees with such fresh waters running through the woods as I was almost ravished with the first sight thereof." Naming the settlement Jamestown after James I, they immediately began to construct huts, a storehouse and church, and to plant vital crops. However, since most of these men were little more than eager gold hunters, they made poor farmers, and by January of 1608 many had succumbed to the ravages of extreme hunger and disease. Newport returned to England for desperately needed supplies, leaving Captain John Smith, "a swashbuckling soldier of fortune," in charge.
Total disaster was avoided in Jamestown when the high-handed Smith forcefully imposed military discipline on the colony, proclaiming to the starving colonists, "He that will not work shall not eat." By April 1609, the infant colony began to prosper, and new voyages arriving from England increased the population to almost five hundred. Unfortunately for the settlers, Smith returned to England in October of 1609 for treatment of serious gunpowder burns, and during the harsh winter that followed, now known as the "starving time," desperately famished settlers ate dogs, cats, rats and mice, and some even resorted to cannibalism. Nine out of every ten settlers died during that winter of 1609 to 1610; only sixty-seven lived to see the arrival of spring.
The colonists' survival of those relentless hardships of their first winter has traditionally been attributed to little more than sheer English perseverance. However, the sympathy of the Algonquin Indians of the Powhatan Confederacy actually kept them alive. Powhatan considered the setters potential allies rather than enemies and freely traded valuable corn and other food for steel knives and guns. Powhatan's generosity not-withstanding, they continued to eke out only a meager existence until John Rolfe planted an Indian crop for export - tobacco. In a few short years, Jamestown was exporting thousands of pounds of tobacco, and by the end of the decade enterprising colonists scattered throughout Virginia had exported one and a half million pounds of the crop. To remedy the resulting labor shortage in the expanding tobacco harvests the British government initiated a set of reforms. Anyone who bought a share in the London Company or who transported himself to Virginia could not only purchase fifty acres of land but could also buy an additional fifty acres for any servants who accompanied him.
Under pressure to reap greater profits, the London Company also relaxed legal codes and granted the settlers the "rights of Englishmen," which included the right to elect a representative assembly. On July 30, 1619, the first Virginia General Assembly met in Jamestown and during five days of "sweating and stewing and battling flies and mosquitos" created a representative government.