History of Jamestown

“The thirteenth day, we came to our seating place in Paspiha’s country . . . where our ships do lie so near the shore that they are moored to the trees in six fathom water.” George Percy

In June of 1606, King James I granted a charter to a group of London entrepreneurs, the Virginia Company, to establish an English settlement in the Chesapeake region of North America. In December of that year, 104 settlers sailed from London with Company instructions to build a secure settlement, find gold, and seek a water route to the Pacific. The traditional telling of early Jamestown history portrayed those pioneers as ill-suited for the task. But 20 years of archaeological research at the site of James Fort suggests that Captain Bartholomew Gosnold and many of the artisans, craftsmen, and laborers who accompanied the gentlemen leaders made every effort to build a successful colony.

On May 14, 1607, the Virginia Company settlers landed on Jamestown Island to establish an English colony 60 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Discovery of the exact location of the first fort indicates its site was in a secure place, where Spanish ships could not fire point blank into the fort. Within days of landing, the colonists were attacked by Powhatan Indians. The newcomers spent the next few weeks working to “beare and plant palisadoes” for a wooden fort. Three contemporary accounts and a sketch of the fort agree that its walls formed a triangle around a storehouse, church, and a number of houses. Bulwarks (raised platforms) for cannons were built at the three corners to defend against a possible Spanish attack.

The Virginia Company tried to intensify the focus on money-making industry with The First Supply to Jamestown. But disease, famine, and sporadic attacks from the neighboring Powhatan Indians took a tremendous toll on the population of the settlement. There were also times when trade with the Powhatan revived the colony with food in exchange for glass beads, copper, and iron implements. Captain John Smith was particularly good at this trade. But his strict leadership made enemies within and without the fort, and a mysterious gunpowder explosion badly injured him and sent him back to England in October 1609. What followed was Jamestown’s darkest hour, the “starving time” winter of 1609-10. About 300 settlers crowded into James Fort when the Indians set up a siege, and only 60 settlers survived to the next spring. The survivors decided to bury the fort’s ordinance and abandon the town. It was only the arrival of the new governor, Lord De La Ware, and his supply ships that brought the colonists back to the fort and set the colony back on its feet. Some years of peace and prosperity followed the 1614 wedding of Pocahontas, the favored daughter of Chief Powhatan, to tobacco grower John Rolfe.

The first representative assembly in English North America convened in the Jamestown church on July 30, 1619. The General Assembly met in response to orders from the Virginia Company “to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia” and provide “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.” A few weeks later came the first arrival of Africans to Jamestown. These Africans became indentured servants, similar in legal position to many poor Englishmen who traded several years of labor in exchange for passage to America. (The legal system of race-based chattel slavery did not fully develop in Virginia until the 1680s.)

After Chief Powhatan’s death, his brother took leadership of the Indians of eastern Virginia and, in 1622, ordered a surprise attack on the English tobacco farms and settlements. More than 300 settlers were killed. A last-minute warning spared James Fort itself, but the attack on the colony and the continuing mismanagement by the Virginia Company convinced the King to revoke the Company’s charter. Virginia became a crown colony in 1624.

As Jamestown grew into a robust “New Town” to the east, written references to the original fort disappeared. In 1676 a rebellion in the colony led by Nathaniel Bacon sacked and burned much of the capital town. Jamestown remained the capital of Virginia until its major statehouse, located on the western end of the island, burned in 1698. The capital moved to Williamsburg in 1699, and Jamestown began to slowly disappear above the ground. By the 1750s the land was heavily cultivated, primarily by the Travis and Ambler families.

A military post was located on the island during the American Revolution, and American and British prisoners were exchanged there. French soldiers also sought refuge at Jamestown after the nearby Battle of Greensprings in 1781. In 1861 the island was occupied by Confederate soldiers who built an earthen fort near the 17th-century brick church tower as part of the defense system to block any Union advance up the James River. There was no battle at “Fort Pocahontas,” but after Confederate forces abandoned it in 1862, Union troops and freed slaves occupied the island the rest of the war.

In 1893 Jamestown was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Edward Barney. The Barneys gave 22 1/2 acres of land, including the 17th-century church tower, to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (now Preservation Virginia). By this time James River erosion had eaten away the island’s western shore; the common belief was that the site of 1607 James Fort lay completely underwater. With federal assistance, a sea wall was built in 1900 to protect the area from further erosion. The remaining acreage on the island was acquired by the National Park Service in 1934 and made part of the Colonial National Historical Park. Today, Jamestown is jointly operated by Preservation Virginia and NPS.