Jamestown, Virginia

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Jamestown (center) on a card that the Spanish ambassador to the English royal court, Pedro de Zúñiga y de la Cueva , to Philip III. sent. This is the earliest contemporary depiction of the Jamestown fort (reproduced here in detail).

Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America . It was founded in 1607 - initially as James Fort  - on an island in the James River in Virginia and named after King James I of England. It was also the first colony founded in England and thus the nucleus of the British Empire .

It was under the supervision of the Virginia Company of London . In the first few years, none of the colony's original goals were met - to explore a route to the riches of the Orient, convert Native Americans to Christianity , find gold and silver, and export large quantities of goods to England. Instead, in the early days the settlement was faced with several failures due to fighting with the Indians, disease outbreaks and ongoing food shortages. The economic situation of the colony did not change until 1612, when tobacco was planted , which subsequently became Virginia's most important export.

On July 30, 1619, the first general assembly of Virginia, the first legislative assembly of citizens in the history of the United States, was held in Jamestown . In 1624, the Virginia Company administered colony was converted into a Crown Colony ; In 1699 the seat of government was moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg , about 6 km away to the northeast, and the settlement was abandoned.

In terms of the American founding myth, Jamestown is largely overlaid today by the memory of the Pilgrim Fathers who landed in Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620 . The remains of the original Jamestown settlement are now part of the Colonial National Historical Park and are cared for by the National Park Service .


Don Luis and the Ajacán Mission 1570

As early as 1570, the Spaniards tried to set up a mission on the Virginia Peninsula near what would later become Jamestown. Eight Jesuits and an altar boy relied on the help of Don Luis , the son of a chief of the Powhatan, who was picked up in this area in 1561 and educated in Spain and Mexico for nine years. However, Don Luis, back with his tribe, finally had the Jesuits killed with their own axes. The following year, a punitive expedition by the Spaniards appeared, killed over 20 Indians and hung them on the ship's mast. These events provide the historical background for the Jamestown massacre and Powhatan wars . Fear through traumatic experiences and hope for advantages from the technically superior whites formed the mixture of feelings with which one would encounter the foreign invaders in the future.

England and Roanoke Island 1585

1584 map (Chesapeake Bay to Cape Lookout) by John White .

In the 16th century, England played only a subordinate role in seafaring to America's coasts, alongside Portugal, Spain and France. Only during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I did interest in a possible settlement of the American continent arise. The English geographer and writer Richard Hakluyt was one of the most prominent proponents of establishing English colonies . He argued that the colonization of America would not only weaken the power of the Spanish king, but would also save millions of souls of the indigenous people through Christianization. Hakluyt was convinced that the establishment of colonies could create a new market for English products and at the same time the goods obtained in the colonies could increase the wealth of England.

With these arguments, Hakluyt found open ears of his queen. However, the first trips by English ships to the coasts of North America turned out to be failures. Martin Frobisher's three trips between 1576 and 1578 led him to financial bankruptcy. Sir Humphrey Gilbert's attempt to colonize Newfoundland ended with his death at sea. And even if John Hawkins and Francis Drake were able to steal gold, silver and other valuable goods from the Spaniards on their raids, the English had not yet managed to found a colony in the New World by 1580 .

The attempt to colonize Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina was England's most promising attempt to gain a foothold in North America. The colony, founded in 1585 under the command of Sir Walter Raleigh , had to be abandoned a year after it was founded, and a second attempt at settlement in 1587 also failed. Of the 90 men, 17 women and 11 children left on Roanoke in 1587, there was no trace of them when English ships returned to the island in 1590. Despite their blatant failure, Roanoke's attempts at settlement had an impact on further events - the mere possibility that some of the settlers might have survived gave the English advocates of colonizing North America an important argument in hand to make further efforts for permanent settlement.

Jamestown from 1607

The Virginia Company's first colonists arrive in the New World

Replicas of the ships that took the settlers to Virginia in 1607. The replicas are now in the harbor of historic Jamestown and serve as a tourist attraction.

On April 10, 1606, Elizabeth's successor to the English throne, James I , issued a royal charter that divided the North American coast between two joint-stock companies founded specifically for the establishment of colonies. The Plymouth Company was granted the right to occupy the area between the 38th and 45th parallel. The area awarded to the Virginia Company of London comprised the North American coast from the 34th parallel at Cape Fear in the south to Long Island Sound at the 41st parallel in the north.

In April 1607, 143 men sailed into Chesapeake Bay on the Virginia Company's three ships Susan Constant , Godspeed and Discovery . Between a third and a half of the men belonged to the English gentry , a class of the upper middle class and lower nobility. Many of them had been recruited by Sir Thomas Smythe , a wealthy London merchant who was also one of the main investors in the company. Most of the younger ones were second born, drawn to the New World by the prospect of wealth and adventure. A number of the men, such as John Smith , Edward Maria Wingfield and Christopher Newport, were former soldiers. Another group, including many Germans, consisted of craftsmen, including a blacksmith, a stonemason, two masons, four joiners, a tailor and two barbers. The rest of the comers consisted of unskilled workers and the ship's crew. Women and children were missing - they would be brought in later once the colony was secured. At first it was a matter of taking possession of the land for the English crown, finding gold or silver and exploring a route to the riches of the Orient.

The creation of Jamestown

Caert van de rivier Powhatan . Map of the James River by the Dutchman Johannes Vingboons (17th century).

After arriving in Chesapeake Bay, the men first set out to explore the James River and look for a suitable place to start a settlement. According to instructions from the Virginia Company, this area should be at least 100 miles from the Atlantic to protect against Spanish raids. In addition, the instructions specifically stated that an unpopulated strip of land should be found to avoid conflict with the indigenous people.

The men eventually settled on Jamestown Island, about 50 miles from the coast . Since the island in the James River is only connected to the mainland by a narrow land bridge, it was easy to defend against attacks from land. In addition, the waters of the James River near the island were deep enough for ships to anchor, bring provisions and equipment to the island, and use ship cannons to defend a settlement from both land and water.

On May 14, 1607, the colonists went ashore on Jamestown Island and immediately began unloading the ships and securing the landing site. The latter measure in particular turned out to be well-founded, because although the first contacts with the Indians were largely peaceful, the first major dispute occurred only a short time after the arrival of the settlers. Around 200 warriors of the Powhatan Confederation attacked the colonists' camp and involved them in heavy fighting, which could only be ended by using the ship's cannons. Immediately after the fighting ended, Edward Maria Wingfield was the first president of the colony to order the construction of a protective fort . It was completed within 19 days, was surrounded by a triangular palisade wall and secured with cannons on all sides. A week after the fort was completed, Christopher Newport sailed back to London with the Susan Constant and a supposed cargo of gold (in fact, it was pyrite, also known as "fool's gold" ).

First disillusionment: illnesses and strife in the summer of 1607

Shortly after Newport's departure, the settlers became disillusioned. The wilderness on Jamestown Island was soon exhausted and the swampy marshland surrounding the island made large areas unusable for growing crops. Even worse, however, was the fact that there was no fresh drinking water on the island, which resulted in the colonists drinking brackish water from hastily dug wells or water from the James River.

After six weeks the first settlers began to die. The drinking water taken from the James River led to salt poisoning, diarrhea and typhoid . By the end of September 1607, the number of colonists had halved, and fewer than forty of the men survived the outbreak of winter. In addition, there were disputes over the leadership of the colony, which finally culminated in the fact that Edward Maria Wingfield was replaced as the first president of the colony by John Ratcliffe .

John Smith takes command

John Smith . 18th century engraving, after Simon de Passe.

According to his own statements, John Smith took command of the settlers during the presidency of John Ratcliffe - who is described by Smith as "little popular, weak in judgment in dangerous situations and less hardworking in peacetime". Smith had been charged with mutiny during the voyage to the New World and narrowly escaped conviction. In his younger years he fought as a mercenary in wars against the Spaniards and the Ottomans and distinguished himself many times. Now he was obviously using the power vacuum to put himself at the head of the colonists.

As the colony's food supplies ran low, he set out in a boat with half a dozen of the men to trade coppers and axes for grain and other groceries from the Indians of the Powhatan Confederation. After his first voyage was successful, he embarked on a number of other trade missions upriver, exploring the river region northwest of Jamestown and ultimately ensuring the food supply for the settlers through trading with the Indians.

In his later reports, Smith writes that every time he returned, he found the colony in disrepair. The settlers, Smith said, "are all sick, some lame, some injured - all unable to do anything but complain ... many dead, crops rotting and nothing done."

In September 1608, Smith officially replaced Ratcliffe as president of the colony. Smith had new houses built and the fort's protective palisade wall renewed. To improve the discipline of the discouraged settlers, Smith had them drilled outside the fort every Saturday. He also issued orders that food should only be given to those colonists who also worked.

The hunger season

The winter 1609/1610 was a hard time (known as the starving time - famine ). The clashes with the Powhatan Confederation came to a head. As a result, food became scarce and diseases broke out. The settlers were not well equipped enough to live in Jamestown from the start. Of the 214 men who had arrived by then, only 60 survived the winter. Survivors reported that cannibalism had also occurred in individual cases . In 2013, the results of a study that had been carried out on the bones of a girl around 14 years old became known. Tool and ax marks on the skull and shin do not allow any conclusions to be drawn other than that meat and brain were removed from the girl's skull for food, researchers at the Smithsonian Institution report .

In June 1610, the settlers wanted to return to England when Captain Newport brought a new governor ( Thomas de la Warr ) and supplies. On May 21, 1610 two ships under Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers arrived from England, with which the East English farmer John Rolfe also came. Rolfe provided the colony with an export item by developing a new type of tobacco . In 1607 a pound of tobacco could be sold in England for twelve dollars. Despite government countermeasures against the evil of tobacco on moral grounds, the demand in England and the harvest in Virginia rose to £ 20,000 in 1609, £ 500,000 in 1627, and £ 24 million in 1662. Rolfe married Pocahontas , the daughter of the Powhatan chief , in April 1614 which the settlers had excited as girls through their demonstrations. As a result, there was peace between colonists and indigenous people for a few years.

The first legislative assembly

In 1619, the settlers held the first legislative meeting in US history at Jamestown Church. In the same year, on August 20, the first 20 black slaves reached the colony on a Dutch ship . In 1620 the first 90 women came to Jamestown.

Powhatan Wars and Jamestown Massacre 1622

The clashes with the Powhatans gradually came to a head after the death of Chief Powhatan in 1618 and culminated in the Jamestown massacre of 1622. Of the more than 1,100 settlers at the time, 347 were killed. The English launched retaliatory raids. Finally, in the second Powhatan War of 1644, the Indians of this area were largely wiped out. Chief Opechancanough was captured and shot from behind by a guard. Reservations were assigned to the survivors and annual tribute payments to Virginia in the form of furs were required. A few years later, the invaders' hunger for land extended to these reserves as well. In less than 40 years, the Powhatan Confederation was destroyed and English supremacy in the region secured.

Jamestown today

In the 18th century the memory of the first English settlement was forgotten and the area was used as farmland. A military post was established on the island in the James River during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 . In 1861 during the Civil War , the Confederate Army built a fort with earth walls on the island as part of a fortification for the James River. It was not until the end of the 19th century that people remembered the importance of Jamestown, whose exact location on the island was no longer known. In 1893 the landowners donated much of the island to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities . In 1900 bank reinforcements were built so that no further parts of the island were lost due to the erosion of the bank. Since 1934 Jamestown has been part of the Colonial National Historical Park under the administration of the National Park Service . In 1994, William Kelso began an excavation on the island which uncovered the foundations of the first settlement.

The National Historical Park includes, among other things, the battlefield of Yorktown , where George Washington fought a decisive victory over the English general Charles Cornwallis in the War of Independence in 1781 .


  • James Horn: A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America , New York 2005, ISBN 0-465-03094-7 .
  • William M. Kelso: Jamestown. The Buried Truth , Charlottesville and London 2006, ISBN 978-0-8139-2770-1 .
  • Frank E. Grizzard, Jr. / D. Boyd Smith: Jamestown Colony: A political, social and cultural history , Santa Barbara, CA [et al. a.] 2007, ISBN 1-85109-637-X .
  • Karen Ordahl Kupperman: The Jamestown Project , Cambridge, MA and London 2007, ISBN 0-674-02474-5 .
  • Lorri Glover / Daniel Blake Smith: The Shipwreck that saved Jamestown. The Sea Venture castaways and the fate of America , New York 2008, ISBN 0-8050-9025-8 .

Web links

Commons : Jamestown, Virginia  - Collection of pictures, videos, and audio files


  1. ^ Don Luís de Velasco / Paquiquineo
  2. Alvin M. Josephy jr., 500 Nations, Munich 1996, pp. 202f.
  3. ^ "His purpose [would soon be] defeated, his powers and strengthe diminished, his pride abated, and his tyranie utterly suppressed". Quoted here from James Horn, A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America , New York 2005, p. 24.
  4. "gayninge ... the soules of millions Of Those wretched people". Quoted here from Horn, A Land as God Made It , p. 24.
  5. Jump up ↑ Horn, A Land as God Made It , p. 33.
  6. See on this and the following horn, A Land as God Made It , p. 40.
  7. ^ William M. Kelso: Jamestown. The Buried Truth , Charlottesville and London 2006, p. 12.
  8. Kelso, Jamestown. The Buried Truth , p. 14.
  9. ^ Horn, A Land as God Made It , p. 57.
  10. "little loved, of weake judgment in dangers, and lesse industry in peace", here quoted from Horn, A Land as God Made It , p. 59f.
  11. “all sick, the rest some lame, some bruised - all unable to do anything but complain… many dead, the harvest rotting and nothing done”, quoted here from Kelso, Jamestown. The Buried Truth , p. 18 f.
  12. ^ Smithsonianmag.com: Starving Settlers in Jamestown Colony Resorted to Cannibalism , May 1, 2013
  13. ^ Douglas Owsley: Smithsonian and Preservation Virginia Reveal Startling Survival Story at Historic Jamestown , Smithsonian Institution, May 1, 2013
  14. ^ André Maurois, Die Geschichte Amerikas , Zürich 1947, pp. 39–42.
  15. ^ Spencer Tucker, James R. Arnold, Roberta Wiener, The Encyclopedia of North American Indian Wars, 1607–1890, Santa Barbara 2011, pp. 17ff.
  16. Preservation Virginia: History of Jamestown ( Memento of the original from June 10, 2013 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / apva.org

Coordinates: 37 ° 12 ′ 34 ″  N , 76 ° 46 ′ 48 ″  W.