The Virginia colony began not at Jamestown but farther south, on Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina. There, between 1584 and 1587, settlers supported by Queen Elizabeth I and funded by her dashing court favorite, Sir Walter Raleigh, attempted to gain a foothold among the Algonquian-speaking Indians. Their purpose had been to harass Spanish shipping, mine for gold and silver, and discover a passage to the Pacific Ocean, but when the colonists brought disease and often-horrific violence, relations with the Indians soured. In 1607, the English attempted another colony, this time in the Chesapeake Bay, which was better suited to deepwater navigation and where they hoped the Indians might be friendlier. By then, James I had ascended to the throne and ended the long war with Spain. Riches would no longer come from stealing Spanish gold but from cultivating natural resources, a plan long advocated by Richard Hakluyt (the younger) and Thomas Hariot. Investors also hoped to take advantage of widespread underemployment in England caused, in part, by a population boom. Thousands of laborers would sail to Virginia and send back timber, glass, tar, sassafras, and perhaps even gold and silver, while spreading the Protestant faith to the Indians.
On April 10, 1606, the Virginia Company of London received a royal charter to settle two large, slightly overlapping areas along the eastern coast of North America. Run by a thirteen-member, royally appointed council, the company was funded by a number of well-placed private investors. Among them was Sir Thomas Smythe, a wealthy backer of the East India Company and a former ambassador to Russia who, despite having run afoul of Elizabeth, had been knighted by James. His cousin by marriage, Bartholomew Gosnold, had explored New England in 1602, while Gosnold’s cousin, Edward Maria Wingfield, had served in Ireland and the Netherlands. John Smith came from more modest means, but his larger-than-life career fighting in northern France, in the Netherlands, and in Hungary against the Turks recommended him, even at the age of twenty-seven, for adventure in Virginia.
These men were not directly familiar with the Indians of Tidewater Virginia, but the Indians knew well the Europeans. In 1570 Spanish Jesuits had established a mission in the Chesapeake but were killed by one of their converts, Don Luís de Velasco (Paquiquineo), and other nearby Indians. Later, during the winter of 1585–1586, English colonists from Roanoke lived among the Chesapeake Indians and explored the Eastern Shore. The contact had been friendly, but Powhatan (Wahunsonacock), paramount chief of the land the Indians called Tsenacomoco, came to believe that tassantassas, or strangers, sailing from the east would be one of his kingdom’s major threats. (He was more worried, however, about the annual raids of other Indians, such as the Massawomecks to the northwest.)
Powhatan, meanwhile, presented a dilemma for these new English settlers. As mamanatowick, or paramount chief, he held more power and influence over the village-based Indians of Tsenacomoco than any single weroance, or chief, had among the Indians around Roanoke. Both groups were Algonquian-speakers with similar religions, politics, and—in the nearby Iroquoian- and Siouian-speakers—enemies. But Powhatan’s paramount chiefdom of twenty-eight to thirty-two groups, centered around the James, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey (York) rivers, could more quickly and easily mobilize against the Jamestown colonists. And Powhatan did not appear to trust the tassantassas. Some historians believe that shortly after the English landed in 1607, he ordered killed the last survivors of John White‘s “Lost Colony,” men, women, and children who possibly had, in the twenty years since their disappearance, assimilated among the Algonquian-speaking Indians.
The ships dropped anchor at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on April 26, 1607, and twenty to thirty men spent the day ashore before, at dusk, being attacked by Indians. Captain Gabriel Archer, an old comrade of Gosnold’s, was wounded twice and might have hoped to be rewarded with a leadership position in the colony. Remarkably, the Virginia Company had not yet informed the men who would sit on the Council, the seven-man body charged with carrying out the company’s orders in Virginia. Instead, that night Newport opened a sealed box containing the relevant names; to his horror, in addition to himself, Gosnold, Ratcliffe, Wingfield, Captain George Kendall, and Captain John Martin, the Council included Smith. Still in shackles, the prickly Lincolnshire native was not allowed to take his seat until the following June. In the meantime, the Council elected Wingfield president; on all matters he had two votes, but otherwise no significant power. As for Archer and George Percy—another high-ranking colonist denied a council seat—they resorted to grumbling about the council’s decisions.
The colonists planted a cross at Cape Henry, and on May 13 they situated their camp on a marshy jut of land fifty miles up the James River. They called it Jamestown. Although the Indians did not find the spot particularly habitable, it satisfied the Englishmen’s instructions by allowing them easy access to the shore and a good defensive position in case of Spanish attack. The historian J. Frederick Fausz has argued that because the land was not being used and so did not immediately threaten any of Powhatan’s people, the location was accidentally brilliant: “the only site along the James and York rivers where they had any prospect of surviving more than a few days.” By June 15, having explored the river up to the falls, having made contact with the Kecoughtans, the Paspaheghs, and the Quiyoughcohannocks, and having fought off a furious assault by the same (and others), the settlers finished their fort.
A week later, Newport sailed back to England full of wishful stories of gold mines. Only then did the men begin to die: “of the bloudie Flixe,” according to Percy, “of the swelling,” “of a wound given by the Savages,” or, in one instance, just “suddenly.” Gosnold died on August 22, and by the end of September, half of the other colonists had followed him, probably victims of polluted drinking water. In the shadow of all this, Ratcliffe, Smith, and Martin accused Wingfield of hoarding food, and replaced him with Ratcliffe. Wingfield accused Smith of planning to steal a ship and strike out for Newfoundland. And a blacksmith sentenced to hang for striking Ratcliffe confessed his knowledge of a plot to rebel by Captain Kendall. The blacksmith lived, while Kendall, who many historians suspect was a Spanish spy, was executed.
The colonists happened to land in Virginia at the beginning of a seven-year drought (1606–1612)—it was the driest period in 770 years—and food was scarce. Moreover, they came intending to buy or trade for their food, or to be provisioned by England. Rather than hunt, farm, or fish, then, they depended on Smith, who showed a special talent for striking out with a few men and coming back with boatloads of corn, sometimes bargained for, often simply taken from the Indians. In December, while exploring the Chickahominy River, Smith ran into a communal hunting party under the leadership of Powhatan’s younger brother or kinsman, Opechancanough. The Indians captured Smith, killing his two companions and eventually delivering him to the paramount chief. While it is unlikely, as Smith later claimed, that Powhatan’s “dearest daughter” Pocahontas saved Smith’s life, some kind of ceremony took place, and Smith returned to Jamestown in January 1608 probably having been adopted by the mamanatowick, who was attempting to absorb the English into his chiefdom.
In Powhatan’s presence Smith had insisted on his allegiance to King James, but it hardly mattered to the surviving thirty-eight men back at the fort. The Council, now including Archer, accused Smith of causing his companions’ deaths and, citing the book of Leviticus, sentenced him to hang the next day. All that saved him this time was the arrival of Newport and the first resupply: 100 to 120 additional settlers and a store of provisions. Five days later, a bit of spark turned into a fire and Jamestown burned to the ground. While others cleaned up, Smith and Newport met with Powhatan, presenting him with a hat and a greyhound, and exchanging young men—Thomas Savage for Namontack—who would learn the other’s customs and language in order to serve later as interpreters. Newport took the Indian to England with him in April.
Smith, meanwhile, spent much of 1608 complaining about corruption and mismanagement; that year he published a long letter (A True Relation) that more than touched on the subject. When he wasn’t writing, Smith was exploring, undertaking two major expeditions up and down the rivers of the Chesapeake Bay, meeting the Accomacs on the Eastern Shore, fighting the Patawomecks, and negotiating peace between the Rappahannocks and the Moraughtacunds. His reports gave the lie to Newport’s earlier ones. Any discovery of riches was unlikely, the Indians being “ignorant of the knowledge of gold or silver, or any commodities.” And if Smith hadn’t found a passage to the Pacific Ocean, then, he believed, no one probably would. Smith made it clear that in Virginia there was “nothing to incourage us, but what accidentally we found Nature afforded.” But the investors in London would not adjust their thinking accordingly for a number of years.
In September, with his competitors largely dead or gone, Smith was finally elected president. After arriving with the second resupply in the fall—more than twenty-five additional gentlemen, plus assorted laborers and craftsmen, and even two women—Newport scolded Smith for dealing too harshly with the Indians. Company policy emphasized the gentle hand, but in September, in an attempt to symbolically submit the chief to King James’s rule, the two awkwardly crowned Powhatan at his capital Werowocomoco. The mamanatowick’s dignity was offended and relations, already shaky, only worsened.
In January 1609, Powhatan attempted, but failed, to have Smith killed, and not long after, if one believes Smith, the Englishman humiliated Opechancanough by challenging him to one-on-one combat; the weroance declined. In the meantime, four Germans assigned to build Powhatan an English-style house likely began to spy for the paramount chief. These events were unknown to Sir Thomas Smythe in London, but from his perspective, the Virginia undertaking already required a major reorganization. During the spring, he spearheaded an effort to defend, redefine, promote, and fund anew the struggling colony. Early in the year, the company announced that Virginia now was a joint-stock venture in which “adventurers” could buy shares at twelve pounds, ten shillings each; volunteers could win shares by paying their way to Virginia; and skilled laborers would be offered land. An English minister, the Reverend William Symonds, preached that as God had called Abraham in Genesis 12, so had he called the English to settle America. By May, Smythe had enticed investments from 55 guilds and 619 individuals, and on May 23 a new royal charter was approved. It transferred control from the Crown to private investors, extended Virginia’s borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and installed a new, more powerful governor who, it was hoped, would introduce discipline to Jamestown.
At about the same time, the company issued its Crown-appointed governor, Sir Thomas Gates, confidential instructions on Virginia’s priorities. The instructions still emphasized discovering gold, silver, and a passage to the Pacific as the primary purpose of the colony, but also included finding other natural resources; extracting tribute from the Indians; manufacturing various items for sale, such as wine, tar, iron, steel, hemp, and silk; and converting the native people to Christianity. Powhatan should be captured if at all possible and the capital city should be moved farther inland, away from disease-ridden Jamestown to the falls of the James, perhaps, and out of reach of the Spanish, who the English feared wanted to destroy the colony—rightly, as these letters between Spanish officials, from 1607–1608 and 1609–1610, suggest.
Gates departed England early in June 1609 aboard the flagship Sea Venture; eight other ships followed carrying, in all, 500 settlers, including Newport; John Rolfe; the colony’s new secretary, William Strachey, and his Indian interpreter Machumps; the Reverend Richard Bucke; and one of the company’s founding members and the current fleet’s second-in-command, Sir George Somers. A tempest—later dramatized by William Shakespeare—struck the fleet, sinking two ships. While two ships made it directly to Virginia, the Sea Venture was driven by the storm to a fishhook-shaped group of islands thought to be dangerous and devilish. To everyone’s surprise, however, the Bermudas, and particularly the island the colonists dubbed St. George, were heavenly. There was dissension, of course—Gates and Somers soon formed two opposing camps—but the colonists lived well over the winter and built a pair of seaworthy ships out of the Sea Venture‘s wreckage: Patience and Deliverance. Having long been presumed lost, they triumphantly arrived at Jamestown on May 24, 1610, but what they found there shocked them. Of a population that had peaked at almost 400 the previous August, only 90 half-starved colonists survived.
During the previous summer, sickness had arrived anew to Jamestown. It was the product of malnutrition caused by hunger and poor conditions that, in turn, had bred lower resistance to various diseases, including those brought by the colonists themselves. In an effort to lighten the burden on Jamestown, Smith sent two groups of men to live off the land and, by extension, off the Indians. To the north, he sent a rival, Francis West, to occupy the town of Powhatan at the falls of the James River. After fighting there cost West about half his men, George Percy claimed the whole affair amounted to a conspiracy to have West killed. To the south, meanwhile, Smith sent Percy and John Martin, who ended up battling the Nansemond Indians and also lost about half their men. The Indians, they discovered, suffered during the drought like anybody else and had no interest in relinquishing their precious food supplies. Nansemond warriors even stuffed bread in the mouths of some English dead “in Contempte and skorne,” according to Percy.
In September, Percy became president, and the next month Smith—the victim of a gunpowder explosion that some historians believe may not have been an accident—left the colony altogether. Beginning in November, the Indians blocked all access to James Fort and to any outside food supplies. This opening gambit in the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614) was, from the Powhatan point of view, gruesomely successful. Many English arrived to America thinking the Indians were cannibals; now, during what came to be known as the Starving Time, it was they who reportedly exhumed their own dead for nourishment. By spring, when the Indians lifted their siege, only 60 of about 240 colonists in the fort had survived.
The Virginia Company published A True and Sincere Declaration that tried to make the best of a real mess, but when Gates arrived in May 1610, he soon decided the colony must be abandoned. In fact, having packed everyone aboard ship, he was sailing down the James en route to Newfoundland when by chance he encountered the new company-appointed governor, Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, who was entering the James River with supplies and reinforcements.
With the population now up to approximately 375, De La Warr set to work implementing the Second Charter. The governor dispatched Somers and Samuel Argall to Bermuda for supplies (Somers died there), ordered fishing in the Bay, and the construction of Forts Charles and Henry at the mouth of the Southampton River (now the Hampton River). War with the Powhatans, meanwhile, continued unabated. In July 1610, the colonist Humphrey Blunt was captured and tortured to death, and Gates responded by driving the Kecoughtans from their town and corn. The next month, George Percy led an attack on the Paspaheghs, killing fifteen or sixteen, burning the town, and decapitating captured warriors. The wife and two children of the weroance Wowinchopunck were also seized, and Percy later wrote that “my sowldiers did begin to murmer becawse the queen and her Children weare spared.” To satisfy them, he allowed the youngsters to be tossed into the river and shot; their mother was executed at Jamestown that night.
A few months short of a year after he arrived, De La Warr left Virginia because of illness. A third of the colony’s population was dead, mostly from disease. Miners, brought to Virginia to search for gold, silver, and copper, had planned a mutiny and seen their ringleader hanged. The governor’s nephew, Captain William West, had been killed in battle, while the Paspahegh weroance Wowinchopunck, fell, like his wife and children, at the hands of Percy’s soldiers.
Arrival of Sir Thomas Dale
The arrival of Sir Thomas Dale on May 19, 1611, marked a turning point in the history of Jamestown. Already in England the colony’s fortunes were rebounding thanks to a public struck by the miraculous survival of the Sea Venture. Perhaps the Reverend Symonds had been correct all along: rather than God’s curse, Virginia was God’s calling. In Dale, who served as acting governor in the absence of De La Warr and Gates, the colony found a leader with the stubborn ruthlessness to make it work. (Smith, undoubtedly, shared that quality, having once declared that “he that will not worke shall not eate,” but the Virginia Company would not allow him to return.) On Dale’s first day, the colonist Ralph Hamor later wrote, the governor “hastened” to Jamestown only to find his charges at “their daily and usuall works, bowling in the streetes.” Archaeologists such as William M. Kelso and historians such as Karen Ordahl Kupperman have countered frequent charges that the colonists were lazy with the observation, in Kupperman’s words, that malnutrition and disease “interacted with the psychological effects of isolation and despair and each intensified the other”—producing behavior that could be mistaken for idleness.
Regardless, the behavior did not last. Dale ordered crops to be planted, with the garrisons at Forts Charles and Henry specializing in corn, and the colonists at Jamestown and Fort Algernon, on Point Comfort, raising livestock and manufacturing goods. To instill discipline, Dale enforced what came to be known as the Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, which included a law martial for soldiers as well as a strict code of conduct for civilians. The first English-language body of laws in the western hemisphere, the orders (they were not a legal code in the modern sense) were harsh enough to invite much criticism, both in Virginia and England. Convicted of stealing oatmeal, one man suffered a needle through his tongue, after which he was lashed to a tree until he starved.
In June Dale’s men faced down a Spanish reconnaissance ship at Point Comfort at the mouth of the James. They managed even to capture three of its men, including the commander, Don Diego de Molina, and a turncoat Englishman, Francis Lembry, who in 1588 had piloted a ship in the Spanish Armada. The Spanish seized one of Dale’s men, John Clark—he later served as master’s mate on the Mayflower—increasing the fear that Spain might return in force and finish off a colony that seemed perpetually to be on the verge of the abyss. But the Spanish never came, and in August Sir Thomas Gates did, along with 300 new colonists who boosted the population to about 750. In September, Dale and Edward Brewster led an expedition to the falls of the James where they managed, finally, to found a settlement outside of the by-now cramped Jamestown. They called it the City of Henrico, or Henricus, in honor of Dale’s patron and the king’s heir, Henry, Prince of Wales. In December, Henrico became the launching point for an attack on the nearby Appamattucks, whose defeat allowed for the founding of another settlement, Bermuda Hundred.
Expanding Virginia outside Jamestown was critical to its survival, but hardly solved all of the colony’s problems. By 1612, the settlers were mutinous again and the Virginia Company worried about a public-relations backlash against Dale’s stringent application of the law. Instead, in April 1613, Samuel Argall used his connections with a Patawomeck weroance to capture Pocahontas, a feat that eventually allowed Dale to negotiate an end to the long and bloody war. John Rolfe, meanwhile, who married Pocahontas in 1614, introduced to Virginia a West Indies variety of tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) that eventually, and against the wishes of the king and company, transformed its economy.
A Permanent Foothold
The end of the First Anglo-Powhatan War and the introduction of marketable tobacco marked another important turning point in the early history of Virginia. The first English colonists had survived only with the help of the Indians of Tsenacomoco, and when that help was withdrawn, the Starving Time resulted. Yet more and more settlers continued to chance a new life in Virginia. They were motivated by potential riches, by lack of opportunity at home, by the search for adventure, and by the religious exhortations of men like the Reverend Symonds. Although death awaited most, the colony slowly expanded. By 1614, the English controlled much of the James River. They had made peace with the Powhatans and Chickahominies, while the Patawomecks were something closer to allies. Now the marriage of Rolfe and Lady Rebecca (née Pocahontas) created an opportunity to pursue the large-scale conversion of the natives. Powhatan likely did not see his daughter’s marriage as a signal that he and his people were ready to accept Christianity, but many colonists became hopeful.
Tobacco provided a staple crop fed by an abundance of land and labor, the latter in the form of indentured servants and, eventually, African slaves. Despite the growth of the tobacco trade, though, the organization of the Virginia Company prevented settlers from having a personal stake in the colony’s success. The so-called Great Charter of 1618 changed that, creating the headright system, which awarded 50 acres of land for each person who paid his or her own way or any other person’s passage into Virginia. In addition, the General Assembly was established in 1619, with elected burgesses sitting in its lower house and members of the governor’s Council in the upper. The Virginia Company treasurer Sir Edwin Sandys saw the assembly as a way of building personal and political investment in the colony, while also, perhaps, muting growing criticism of the Virginia Company at home. But this diffusion of power and influence into the greater James River Valley had another effect: it diminished the primacy of Jamestown. It would remain the often-bustling capital of Virginia until 1698, but its influence was already on the wane.
As for the Indians of Tsenacomoco, their paramount chief Powhatan died in 1618. Their peace with the English, meanwhile, held for seven years, with some—including the powerful weroance Opechancanough—seeming to flirt with conversion. Even so, on March 22, 1622, Opechancanough’s warriors launched a massive and sudden attack on settlements up and down the James, killing perhaps a quarter of the colonists and inaugurating the long Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632). By 1644 and the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646), however, Virginia’s population was too large and the Indians too weak to pose a serious threat to the colony.