A Brief History of Jamestown, Virginia

From http://www.tobacco.org


1606: ENGLAND: Sir Walter Raleigh imprisoned in the Tower

1606-12: ENGLAND: Admiral Christopher Newport takes the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery out of London, bound for Virgiinia with 140 Colonists. During the voyage, Newport places John Smith under arrest for mutiny.

1607-05-13: FIRST permanent English settlement in the New World begins.

105 men and boys land at Jamestown. Secret orders opened upon landing name Smith as one of the Councillors.

1607-05-26: Paspahegh Indians attack settlers, killing two, wounding ten.

1607-06-15: James Fort completed

1607-06-22: Chistopher Newport sets sail for London, loaded with treasure--fool's gold.

1607-08: Disease is rampant. The sixt of August there died John Asbie of the bloudie Fluxe. The ninth day died George Flowre of the swelling. The tenth day died William Bruster Gentleman, of a would given by the Savages.--George Percy

1607-09-10: Councillor George Kendall is accused of sowing discord and placed under arrest on the Discovery.

1607-09-12: President Edward M. Wingfield found guilty of libel; deposed as first president of colony. John Ratcliffe takes his place.

1607-09: Kendall convicted of conspiracy and is shot. At the trial, Kendall claimed President Ratcliffe's real name was John Sicklemore.

1607-12-10: Smith leads food-gathering expedition up the Chickahominy. Under attack, his men killed by Indians, he ties his Indian guide to his arm as a shield. Becomes stuck in swamp, is captured. Shows Powhatan's half-brother Opechancanough the wonders of his compass, which apparently saves his life.

1607-12-29: John Smith is brought before Powhattan, where the Pocahontas incident is said to have taken place. The possible ritual grants him Powhattan's acceptance.

1608-01-02: Smith returns to find the situation at the fort deperate. Only 38 of the original 105 colonists remain. Some are about to leave for home on the Discovery, but Smith aims one of the fort's cannons at the litle ship and and threatens to blow it out of the water. Smith is accused of causing the deaths of his men; is deposed from his position, tried, and condemned to hang, but by end of this very eventful day, the First Supply arrives--Newport on the John and Francis, carrying food & 60 new settlers. He puts a stop to Smith's execution.

1608-01-07: FIRE. Hope turns to desperation. Almost the whole town of thatch/wattle houses goes up in flames; everyone's clothes are burned, leaving colonists little protection during one of the century's most frigid winters.

1608-02: Smith brings his "father" (Christopher Newport) up the York to meet Powhattan. Newport almost botches the trading session by acceding unqualifiedly to Powhattan's desires; Smith salvages the situation by trading blue beads for substantial provisions. "Sons" are traded--young Thomas Savage is sent to live with the Indians; Namontack is sent to live with the English. These and others similarly traded will serve as interpreters and communications links between the two peoples.

1608-09: Christopher Newport arrives with the Second Supply, the Mary and Margaret. On board--besides an Elizabethan bed as a present for Powhatan and a 5-piece supposedly-portable barge with which to explore past the Richmond falls--are two women--"Mistresse Forest and Anne Buras her maide." Forest came over with her husband; Buras was unmarried. In the annals of Jamestown, we hear no more about Mrs. Forest.. .

1609-07-24: ATLANTIC OCEAN: A fleet of 9 ships led by the Sea Venture--carrying all the leaders--strikes the edge of a massive hurricane...

1609-09: John Smith, injured in gunpowder accident; is sent back to London

1609-09: Now-President Ratcliffe sails up the Pamunkey to bargain with Powhatan for food; he fails to keep his guard up, and is tortured to death by the Indian women.

1609-09 to 1610-05: The "Starving Time"

1610: ENGLAND: Sir Walter Raleigh notes to King James, "I long since presumed to offer your Majestie my service in Virginia, with a short repetitio of the commoditie, honor, and safetye which the King's Majestie might reape by that Planattion, if it were followed to effect."

1610-05-23: BERMUDA: The Deliverance and the Patience, the boats built in Bermuda out of the wrechage of the Sea Venture, arrive to find Jamestown in ruins. They are met by 60 gaunt survivors out of the previous fall's 500-600.

1610-05-24: Liuetenant Governor Sir Thomas Gates implements martial law. The code is set down in Gates' "Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiail" (1612), which will remain in effect until 1619.

1610-06-07: Jamestown is abandoned

1610-06-08: Lord de La Warr's ships arrive; he orders the colonists to return to Jamestown

1611: ENGLAND: Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest is performed. It is thought to be based on William Strachey's account of the Sea Venture's shipwreck on Bermuda..

1612: John Rolfe Tries A Tobacco Crop To Help Save The Desperately Struggling Jamestown Settlement.

1613-04-13: The captured Pocahontas is brought to Jamestown as a hostage by Capt. Argall.

1614-06-28: John Rolfe ships his first cargo of tobacco to England..

1614: ENGLAND: FIRST sale of Virginia tobacco

1614-04-24(?): John Rolfe and Pocahontas (Rebecca) are married

1616-06-03: ENGLAND: John Rolfe and Pocahontas arrive in London

1616: ENGLAND: Sir Walter Raleigh is paroled. Makes another expedition to the Orinoco

1617-03-17: ENGLAND: Pocahontas dies in Gravesend

1618-23: "THE GREAT MIGRATION:" Jamestown grows from 400 to 4,500.

1618: Sir Walter Raleigh, with four ships limping home from a disastrous Orinoco expedition, passes the North Carolina and Virginia coast, but does not stop..

1618-04: Powhatan dies..

1618-10-29: ENGLAND: Sir Walter Raleigh executed for treason. He smokes a pipe of tobacco just before. When he lays his head on the block, he is facing West, toward the New World. Someone suggests he turn his head to the East, toward Calvary. Raleigh replies, "What matter how the head lie, so the heart be right."

1619: 90 "Young maids to make wives for so many of the former Tenants" arrive. The Virginia Company dictates they are to be priced at not less than "one hundredth and fiftie [pounds] of the best leafe Tobacco."

1619-07-30: FIRST representative legislative assembly is held.

The General Assembly meets in the choir of the Jamestown church from July 30-August 4. First law: tobacco shall not be sold for under 3 shillings per pound.

1619-08: FIRST 20 blacks are purchased as indentured servants from a passing Dutch ship.

John Rolfe writes in his diary, About the last of August came in a dutch man of warre that sold us twenty negars.

1622-03: "Jack of the Feathers" killed. Thought to be the final straw leading to the Indian Massacre.

1622: The Indian Massacre of 1622.

350 killed by surprise uprisings at plantations in Opechancanough's attempt at ethnic cleansing; Jamestown itself spared by warning from Indian boy, Chanco. Colony goes from 1,400 to 1050.

1622-12-20: The Abigail arrives, not only bringing no food to replenish the losses from the massacre, but infecting the colony with a shipload of diseased survivors poisoned by one Jeffrey Dupper's contaminated, "stinking beere." The resulting plague and starvation reduce the colony to 500, as survivors desperately await the Abigail's companion-ship, Seaflower. It will never arrive. . .

1623-04: Henry Spelman and over 20 others are killed in a botched trading expedition; Indians capture men, armor and guns.

1623-05: Tucker & Potts Poison a Village.

Captain Willam Tucker concludes peace negotiations with a Powhatan village by proposing a toast. The drink has been laced with poison by Dr. John Potts. 200 Powhatans die instantly. 50 more are slaughtered.

1624-05: The Virginia Company loses its charter; Virginia becomes a royal province..

1631: ENGLAND: John Smith dies at the age of 51.

1631: ENGLAND: George Percy dies.

1638: First slave markets in English America are being run.

1639-01-11: King Charles I grants colonists the right to call their General Assembly. Charles' ruling sets precedent of semi-self-rule for all British colonies.

1639-44: Jamestown's brick church is built

1642-02: Sir William Berkeley begins his Governorship..Puritans are persecuted for next 6 years.

1644-04-18: Powhatan's reputed half-brother, Opechancanough, orders a second Massacre throughout Virginia/Maryland region. Over 500 English killed..

1644-10: The captive Opechancanough is shot in the back by a resident in Jamestown..

1651: FIRST Indian Reservation created near Richmond, VA for the remnants of Pocahontas' people.

1652: Parliamentary fleet lies off Jamestown; Berkeley surrenders Virginia. Colony government dominated by Burgesses until 1660.

1660-03-03: Virginia Assembly elects Berkeley to Governorship.

1661: Virginia Assembly begins institutionalizing slavery, making it de jure.

1662: Jamestown's status as mandatory port of entry for Virginia removed..

1665: Tobacco overproduction has led to price of a penny per pound.

1676-09-19: Bacon's Rebellion. In retaliation for an attack by Berkeley, Bacon burns down Jamestown..</.i>

1698-10-21: Jamestown's fourth statehouse burns down.</.i>

1699: Capitol of Virginia moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg. As a city, Jamestown dies.

1807: As Jamestown Island has been given over to two large plantations, the Ambler and the Travis, the bicentennial's focus is the mansion of the Travis plantation.</.i>

1895: Association for the Preservation of Virginia's Antiquities (APVA) formed..</.i>

1899: Only two ruins--the brick church and Ambler House--are left to indicate history of Jamestown Island..</.i>

1899: 22 1/2 acres on Jamestown Island given to APVA by Mr. and Mrs. Edward E. Barney.</.i>

1907: Tercentennial Celebration of Jamestown held.

1957: Jamestown Exposition celebrates the 350th anniversary of the establishment of Jamestown.

1992: BERMUDA: The Sea Venture's contents are recovered off Bermuda and fully documented.

2007: Celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the establishment of our nation to be held at Jamestown.


By the dawn of the 17th century, despite several disastrous attempts, England still lacked a viable claim to some part of the New World.

In 1606, James I tried once more to fruitfully impregnate the mythicaly rich, virgin land. He established 2 companies made up of merchant-adventurers eager to plumb the tantalizing riches of North America--these were the London Company and the Plymouth Company.

The first to send ships was the London Company, which sent forth three in December of 1606. James gave them three objectives: find gold, find a route to the South Seas, and find the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

Adverse winds held their ship near England for 6 weeks, and seriously depleted their food reserves. Forty-five died on the voyage, but 101 men and 4 boys finally landed on a semi-island in May, 1607. A record log tells us that within a month they were able to compete the building of a large triangular fort on the banks of a river they named the James, after their King.

At first the climate seemed mild, the Indians friendly. As John Smith said, "heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitations."

Then came blistering heat, swarms of insects spawned in the nearby wetlands, typhus, unfit water supplies, starvation, fierce winters, Indian attacks, influxes of inappropriately-prepared "Colonists" sent from a changing England that had no other place for them, and a period of tyrannical martial law when missing church 3 times was a capital offense.

Many of the colonists we could call gentlemen-adventurers, "whose breeding," a contemporary said, "never knew what a day's labour meant." These were men, often lesser scions of nobility, with no future in England, who were lured by the Virginia Company by promises of land and wealth, much as people were lured to California during the Gold Rush. But there was no gold in Virginia, and these "prospectors" didn't know how to farm, didn't know how to hunt, and--possibly feeling betrayed by the Virginia Company's promises, and lacking any land of their own--were not known for their spirit of cooperation either among themselves, nor with the local Indians of the Powhattan confederacy.

In 1609, a fleet of 9 ships from England had been caught in a tremendous hurricane, and the lead ship, the Sea Venture, had been wreched off Bermuda, its passengers--including many of the proposed new leaders of the colony--stranded for months. The rest of the ships had limped into Jamestown in August of 1609, its passengers mostly sick or hurt--one ship was said to carry the plague--and provided nothing but extra mouths to feed--400, in fact.

Apparently the only man who had been able to keep a modicum of peace, both in the colony and with the Indians, was John Smith. Even so, by 1609, the settlers had suffered one horror after another. Hundreds had died, but the worst was yet to come. Smith, injured in a gunpowder explosion, was shipped back to England, and with other leaders stranded on Bermuda, the colony of as many as 600 fell into chaos.

Then another river-freezing, icicled winter hit, and with it a period so bad it was later called the Starving Time. Arms and valuable worktools were traded for a pittance in food. The fields lay fallow. Housing was used as firewood. The weak settlers were easy pickings for the contemptuous Indians. Trapped within their walls by Powhattan's renewed enmity, the Jamestown residents ate their way through their livestock, their pets, mice, rats--and each other. Many turned to cannibalism, digging up the graves of both English and Indian dead. One contemporary wrote, in a joke that has spanned centuries, of a man who killed his wife and ate her, until only the head was left. The author appended to the story, "Now, whether she was better roasted, boiled or carbonadoed (grilled), I know not, but of such a dish as powdered (salted) wife I never heard of."

While in relative paradise, in Bermuda, the hurricane survivors--including one passenger named John Rolfe, who had learned to smoke tobacco in London--built two ships from the wreckage of the Sea Venture, and finally resumed their journey. On May 24, 1610, approaching Jamestown, they came upon only 60 gaunt survivors of the Starving Time--nearly 90% of the colony had died.

The ships from Bermuda brought only more mouths, and few reserves of food. There were no crops, no tools, no housing, no hope. It was the end. Survivors and rescuers packed what they could on the ships, and headed down the river. Jamestown was abandoned..

But the ships were not 10 miles down the James when they were met with a boat whose occupants told them Lord De La Warr, newly appointed Governor of Virginia, was on his way with three ships filled with supplies and 150 new colonists. They were ordered to return to await the Governor.

Jamestown had been given a dramatic reprieve. Yet life remained onerous, and Jamestown had yet to find a crop, or a mineral, or an industry to make the colony economically viable. The Virginia Company continued to pour people and resources into a venture with virtually no return of investment.

It was in 1612 that John Rolfe began growing tobacco. But London-trained Rolfe shunned the harsh product grown by the local Indians, Nicotiana Rustica. Somehow he obtained seeds from the coveted Nicotiana Tabacum strain then being grown in Trinidad and South America.

Then Pocahontas entered Rolfe's life. Relations with the Indians continually plagued the settlers. Once, when the Indians held several English captive, the colonists captured and held hostage the chief's beloved young daughter, Pocahontas. John Smith's later writings tell us that a few years earlier at the age of 12, Pocahontas had dramatically saved Smith from her father, the Powhattan's, wrath. The incident could more likely have been a ceremonial "saving," or nonexistent, but it is more verifiably established that in the early days she did indeed help the colony--with food or with warnings of attack.

But now she was held by the English, and it was in his Virginia tobacco fields that Rolfe began to woo--and win--Pocahantas. How much did Pocahontas know about tobacco? It is true that Powhattan women grew the food, while in a completely separate sector, in a sort of back area of the village, the men grew the tobacco. Pocahontas, however, had a seemingly insatiable curiosity, and tended to roam where she wanted. (Her given name was Matoaka; we know her by Pocahontas, a sort of Indian nickname which meant "Frisky," or "Playful One"). It is likely she either knew a great deal about tobacco cultivation, or knew how to find answers. The dramatic success of Jamestown's tobacco crop is credited not only to Rolfe's importation of the Spanish strain, but to his finding better ways of growing and curing it. We may only conjecture how much he was guided in this by Pocahontas.

During captivity, Pocahontas received daily bible lessons, and eventually converted to Christianity, changing her name to "Rebecca." Rolfe married herin April of 1614, with Powhattan's approval. This act is credited with bringing 8 years of peace. with the Indians, a period when the energies of the colonists could be devoted to the growing of the new cash crop, which was indeed soon to become the New World's currency.

It was in 1614, in what has been called the most momentous event of the 17th century, that Rolfe's first shipment of Virginia tobacco was sold in London.

Two years later, in June, 1616, Rolfe and other leaders of the colony arrived in London. Rolfe brought Rebecca with him, where her exotic beauty and regal bearing made her a popular rage, and she was presented to the King and Queen at court as a princess. At the same time, the spectacle of a "savage" princess married to a tobacco farmer may have given rise to exceptionally cutting Elizabethan humor.

But Rolfe's trip was very much about the colony's major export--tobacco. Despite James I's disapproval of the colony's dependence on a crop he despised*, the very survival of the colony could be at stake. And, of course, James could not ignore the enormous import duties Rolfe's Virginia tobacco, "Orinoco"*, brought to the royal treasury--Londoners and others around the world liked its taste and began demanding it. Since all sales had to be made through London, the English treasury grew with every transaction. Rolfe's trip was a success..

Tobacco became the rage, tobacco and nothing else. We have reports of it being grown in the very streets of Jamestown. Laws were passed forcing farmers to devote a percentage of their efforts to growing food.

By 1619 Jamestown had exported 10 tons of tobacco to Europe and was a boomtown. The export business was going so well the colonists were able to afford two imports which would greatly contribute to their productivity and quality of life. 20 Blacks from Africa and 90 women from England--both were paid for in tobacco.

By 1639 Jamestown had exported 750 tons of tobacco. Tobacco was the American colonies' chief export. The Jamestown colonists had not found gold, nor a route to the South Seas, nor the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island. What they had found was tobacco. Tobacco had turned the settlement from a dismal failure to a roaring success. Tobacco had fed the need for labor and--since it wore out the soil every 7 years--the mad rush for land all through the waterways of the Chesapeake Bay--or as the entire area became known, the "Tobacco Coast."

Tobacco can well be credited with establishing Jamestown as the first permanent English colony in the New World.

Economics:and politics

It's often forgotten that the first two successful settlements in America were commercial ventures, licensed by the King. A part of the problem in the early days of Jamestown was its population of men sold a promise of riches by the ever-recruiting companies.

England is credited for recognizing this, and for implementing what was then a radical idea for successful colonizations-- a permanent settlement had to have women. Thus the English were successful in creating a permanent presence in the New World, unlike the more adventuring French, and especially the Spanish, who probed more deeply into the land, and brought back more immediate riches, yet whose hold was more temporary.

The London company (Jamestown) never made any money and was dissolved in the 1620s.

The prohibition against direct sales of tobacco to other countries (all such sales had to be made through London, where hefty excise taxes were levied) was one of the main aggravations leading to the American Revolution.

The People

"Rebecca" never returned to America. She had barely begun the voyage back when her illness became so severe that the ship had to stop in Gravesend. It was there she died--some say of influenza, some of pneumonia, some of smallpox--in 1617 at the age of 22. She was interred somewhere in the nave of St. George's Church, which burned down in 1727, and was rebuilt in 1731.

The Rolfe's son, Thomas, was also sickly, and was left to be raised in England also. John Rolfe never saw his son again. Thomas returned to Virginia in 1640.

John Rolfe returned to Virginia in 1617, and married Joane, the daughter of William Pierce, who had come to Jamestown in 1609. Rolfe made out his will in 1622, confessing to being "sick and weak in body." His name does not appear on the list of the dead, but since his farm at Bermuda Hundred was destroyed, some believe Rolfe died in the Indian Massacre of 1622 at the age of 37.

As an adult, Thomas returned to Virginia, married and began a family. Many Virginians--and many British--today are understandably proud to trace their lineage back to the remarkable, storybook union of the Indian princess Pocahontas and John Rolfe.

Powhattan died in 1618. His confederacy, decimated by disease and a futile war against a never-ending wave of immigrants, was completely subjugated by 1644. It was in Virginia, in 1651, that the country's first Indian Reservation was established--for the remnants of Pocahontas' people.

The Physical Site

Jamestown was picked for its military advantages. It had a deep-water mooring for the ships, it was far enough up the James to be out of sight of the fearsome Spanish, and it was a semi-island--protected on three sides by the river and marshes.

But it was a swamp, and a phenomenally unhealthy location. Fresh water was a major problem, and often the colonists were reduced to drinking the brackish river water. Malaria and dysentery periodically raged through the community. It suffered numerous disastrous fires and explosions in the early days, and even as a city it was burned down twice. Bacon burned it during his Rebellion, and a few years later it burned down again by accident. When the fourth State House burned in 1698, the site was abandoned, and the capitol moved to Williamsburg. Jamestown, out of the mainstream of the bustling colony now, gradually fell into ruins.

The Present

Preparations are now underway for a grand festival in 2007 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. Archeological efforts are attempting to establish more accurately the original location of the triangular wooden fort completed on June 15, 1607. A paddlewheel boat churned up the earth under the original site, and it caved in early in the 20th century. It was thought the original site of the fort was now out in the James, but there is speculation that churches would never move from hallowed ground, and that the site of the ruins of the brick church may well be situated at a corner of the fort still on land.

Many artifacts were lost when the site was a ferry landing, and travelers simply picked them up for souvenirs. Jamestown, 1995

The Landing Site

PItch-and-Tar Swamp

Kids Learning about Tobacco

Statue of John Smith Overlooking the James

A Sign on the Road Tour of Jamestown Island


At least one reference lays the blame for the explosion that sent John Smith back to England to a careless pipe-smoker.

The story of the gale and the survival of the ships' passengers on a tropical island much caught the fancy of Londoners; it is thought that Shakespeare based his last play, "The Tempest" (1619) on this very event.

James I of England wrote what many consider the first anti-smoking tract, "De abusu tobacci" ("A Counterblaste to Tobacco,") in 1603.

Rolfe was castigated by James for marrying Pocahontas without consulting him first. James was upset not because Rolfe had married someone outside his race, but because he, a mere commoner, had married very much outside his class. In a laughable travesty of a ceremony a few years earlier, James had actually had a reluctant Powhatan crowned "King of Virginia." Therefore Pocahontas was indeed a true Princess. James was outraged that should Powhatan die, Rolfe could conceivably succeed him as King, and thus suddenly become an equal in the brotherhood of royalty.

Pocahontas also met John Smith once again in London, but as she was royalty and he but a commoner, Pocahontas reportedly had a difficult time rekindling their old relationship.

According to Ivor Hume in The Virginia Adventure, "John Smith died at the age of fifty-one in London in 1631, leaving as his legacy his books, his maps, and his controversial personality, which together will keep his memory flamboyantly alive as long as there is a a Virginia."

Rolfe named his brand of tobacco "Orinoco" undoubtedly to evoke the mystery and exotic adventure of tobacco-popularizer Sir Walter Raleigh's expeditions up the Orinoco river in Guiana in search of the legendary City of Gold, El Dorado.

Raleigh was on difficult terms with James; a favorite of Elizabeth I, he had tried 3 times in the 1580s to establish a permanent English settlement in Virginia (the last had been the especially ill-fated "Lost Colony" on Roanoke Island), and had named the state itself for the Virgin Queen.

James held Raleigh prisoner in the Tower of London for 13 years (where he grew his own tobacco). Raleigh must have followed the Jamestown developments avidly from his cell, and even wrote a letter to Queen Anne in 1610, begging to lend his services in person to the colony. But he was never again to land in the Virginia that once was his, though he would come close. In 1618, after a brief but disastrous mission back to the Orinoco, his ship passed close by the Virginia coastline on its return to England, where Raleigh was beheaded later that year for treason. It is said that even to the very end he kept his pipe.

The Blacks were bought as indentured servants from a passing Dutch ship, and the women were supplied by a private English company. Those who married the women had to pay their passage--120 pounds of tobacco.

Middle of Nowhere Brad Cox

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