Jamestown: A ‘New World’ Experiment
Captain John Smith stepped forward and the Jamestown settlement morphed into a community based on military-style discipline.
Raise your hand if you can trace your family lineage to Jamestown or have visited the reconstructed site of the first permanent settlement in the English colonies.
I’ve always found it interesting that there are former presidents of the United States — apologies to Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, among others — who are not readily recognized by citizens, but Jamestown and even the date 1607 seem to have a place in our collective memory. I cannot attribute that knowledge solely to Virginia’s excellent marketing as “the nation’s birthplace,” although the state has been masterful in helping generations of students and adults experience Jamestown and the representative government that was born at Williamsburg just 12 years later.
There is something about Jamestown’s story that strikes a chord.
One hundred and four English men and boys arrived at the future site of Jamestown in 1607 after having crossed the Atlantic aboard a convoy of three ships: the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. The settlement was quickly named for King James I of England, the benefactor of their joint-stock venture, the Virginia Company, and their purpose was clearly identified in their charter: “to dig, mine, and search for all Manner of Mines of Gold, Silver, and Copper.” They selected the site on the James River after considering critical elements to survival: 1) a site surrounded by water on three sides and located sufficiently inland to allow defense again the Spanish; 2) deep water allowing them to dock their ships on the shoreline; and 3) no inhabitants already living on the site.
Their plans looked good and, within weeks, a triangular fort had been constructed, allowing artillery pieces to guard each of the fort’s corners. While the nearby Powhatan Indians did not reside on the peninsula, the settlers quickly discovered that the Powhatans considered the land to be their hunting lands. The relationship was tenuous and, when Captain Newport returned to England for additional supplies, the settlement slipped into disarray. The danger of complete failure hovered.
While the members of the expedition had been excited about the adventure to a “New World” and the possibility of discovering vast wealth, several problems arose. First, the majority of the men had previously lived in towns and generally had no experience in building, hunting, farming, or mining. Those who had a more financially secure background considered manual labor to be a “low class” activity and were disdainful of the difficult work necessary for success. But one of the major complications arose from the structure of the charter: All were simply employees of a company controlled by absentee owners; they would not gain personally from their hard work, therefore little work occurred. Even with food supplied by the Powhatan Indians, more than half would die in the first year and, like Roanoke, the colony seemed doomed for failure.
So, what happened? The question is more accurately asked as, “Who happened”?
Captain John Smith stepped forward and the Jamestown settlement morphed into a community based on military-style discipline where each person was expected to contribute through his labor. If one chose not to work, then food would be withheld. Private ownership of property and control over one’s own destiny — within limits, since it was still a rugged frontier settlement — improved the conditions, but Jamestown would continue to be plagued with the diseases associated with exposure, brackish water, lack of nutritious foods, and the ever-present possibility of Indian attacks.
By 1624, Virginia had become a royal colony and the Virginia Company was dissolved, once again promoting the idea of land ownership and an improved and permanent status as freemen. When women began to join the settlements, a sense of permanence, not exploration, developed. Families working together to create a new life became the most significant selling point for encouraging others to trade that predictable English life without hope for a more difficult colonial life with the potential for success.
Life was still difficult, but for many of the immigrants, life had always been difficult. Yet something momentous had changed. Now, these risk-takers could envision a better life for their children and their descendants.
A dream was being born…
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