In the early seventeenth century, gentlemen adventurers and common tradesmen voyaged to Jamestown and established the first permanent English settlement in North America. They were free and independent Englishmen who risked their lives and fortunes to brave the dangers of the New World for personal profit and the glory of England.
The settlement was part of the grand national political, economic, and religious European struggle for imperial preeminence. Unlike their Spanish counterparts who received official financial backing, the enterprising individuals created an entrepreneurial joint-stock company.
In 1606, John Smith and other wealthy adventurers and merchants organized the Virginia Company and received a royal charter to colonize the territory. They were promised the rights of Englishmen “as if they had been abiding and born within our realm of England.” The crown charged them with the religious purpose of spreading the Protestant faith to the Native Americans. While primarily interested in getting wealthy from gold and silver and the discovery of the fabled Northwest Passage to Asia, the company received rights to the commodities it found.
Almost 150 adventurers and sailors crossed the Atlantic in a harrowing voyage that took some five months. They sailed on the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. They suffered a variety of contrary winds and storms that impeded their progress and caused tensions to escalate aboard the ships. The contentious John Smith ran afoul of the leaders of the armada and was clapped in chains and nearly hanged in the Caribbean.
The ships finally sighted Virginia and over the next few days went ashore where they erected a cross, encountered several groups of Indians who alternatively attacked and traded with them, and explored the James River. On May 14, 1607, they disembarked at Jamestown because they thought it bountiful and defensible against expected Spanish attacks. The instructions from the company were opened and the appointed leaders of the colony—including John Smith—were sworn into their offices.
While they had several peaceful trading encounters with the local Indians, the settlers suffered a large, deadly attack a few weeks later and decided to build a fort. That was only the beginning of the colony’s troubles. That summer, most of the company was sickened by drinking brackish water from the tidal James. They suffered a variety of maladies including salt poisoning, typhoid fever and dysentery. The settlers were mostly too sick to work or plant food. However, the gentlemen leaders of the colony believed that the colonists were being lazy. Moreover, disputes among the councilors resulted in the imprisonment of President Edward Maria Wingfield. The colony was in chaos.
The remedy was worse than the problems the colony faced. The leaders imposed draconian laws on the settlers, and Smith forced men to work or suffer punishment. The settlers did not enjoy the rights of Englishmen they were promised. They also had very little incentive to work because they did not own land or the fruits of the labor as they toiled for the company and consumed food from the common storehouse. They also completely depended on the goodwill of the Indians for food through trade or coercion at gunpoint.
The situation over the next few years did not improve because the colony was still governed poorly and based upon the wrong incentive structure. They depended upon regular resupply from England but sent scant precious metals or valuable raw materials back to England.
In 1609, the company dispatched a fleet of ships with 500 settlers and supplies led by the flagship, Sea Venture. A massive hurricane dispersed the fleet and sank the Sea Venture near Bermuda with the admiral of the fleet, the new president of the colony, its instructions, and most of the supplies destined for Jamestown. The shipwrecked survivors were stranded there for nearly a year.
Meanwhile, in Jamestown, the rest of the fleet had arrived with hundreds of tempest-tossed settlers but few supplies. In addition, people tired of John Smith, and he barely survived an assassination attempt and departed the colony. With the dearth of food and the leadership vacuum, the winter of 1609-1610 became known as the “Starving Time.” Desperate colonists ate rats, dogs, and snakes, and resorted to trying to eat leather goods and even each other. The colony was hanging by a thread.
In May 1610, Gates and the Bermuda castaways finally arrived in Jamestown but quickly decided to return to England before all starved to death. As they were sailing down the James, they encountered another supply fleet bringing the new governor, Lord De La Warr, who ordered the colonists to return to Jamestown. The governor attempted to rebuild the colony through the same methods that had failed the colony to date: martial law, harsh discipline, forced work, and communal ownership.
The colony barely survived over the next few years even with the arrival of tons of supplies and additional settlers to make up for the horrific death toll. Even the planting of tobacco did not fundamentally alter the structure of the colony or facilitate lasting success as commonly assumed.
Only in 1616 and 1617 did the colony find the path to permanent success and prosperity in Jamestown. The introduction of private property gave colonists the right incentive to grow crops including food and tobacco to sustain themselves. Moreover, the company finally guaranteed the traditional rights of Englishmen rooted in the common law including liberties and trial by jury. Most importantly, in 1619, the House of Burgesses—the first representative legislature in America—was created for just laws and good government.
Jamestown began to thrive over the next few years as opportunity beckoned despite the still frighteningly high death rate from disease. Approximately 4,000 settlers migrated to Virginia for greater opportunity. Women finally arrived in large numbers to support families and a lasting colony. The first Africans arrived in 1619 and had a largely obscure status until slavery was codified over the next several decades.
The settlement of Virginia had entrepreneurial origins that developed only in fits and starts and after almost a decade of failure. The introduction of private property, freedom, self-government, and a capitalist ethos laid the foundations of a successful colony and shaped the colonists’ thinking. Those ideals rested uneasily with the development of slavery, and this contradiction of slavery and freedom would continue for more than two centuries. However, the founding ideals of America were established along the James in Virginia.
Republished with gracious permission from Constituting America.
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The featured image is a detail from a “Print of Captain John Smith landing in Jamestown, Virginia, 1607” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.