Jamestown, the John Smith Years

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Jamestown, the John Smith Years


Adapted by Cameron Holbrook from Ted Morgan’s Wilderness at Dawn
The impetus for English settlement in the New World was private and mercantile – profit was the motive. The rising English merchant class had begun to organize joint stock companies, pooling their capital and selling stock to investors.
The timing was right. King James has finally ended the war with Spain, which had drained the government’s funds for colonization. (He also had crushed the English Catholic movement to dethrone him.) Private money would be necessary to pay for a new settlement attempt, but at least the settlers no longer had to fear a Spanish attack. Also, the rise of sheep farmers had run people off the farms and into the cities, crowding them with unemployed beggars. A colony would provide a place to send these unemployed, and clean up the cities.
In April 1606, a royal charter created two companies – the North Virginia Company of Plymouth (which sent two ships and 120 men to Maine who soon returned, discouraged by the wilderness they found) and the South Virginia Company of London (looking for gold, or course, and a passage to Cathay).
On December 19, 1606, the South Virginia Company of London sent three ships (Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery) under Captain Newport to the New World with 105 settlers and a crew of thirty-nine. The voyage took slightly more than four months to sail to the shores of Virginia, and on April 26, 1607 they arrived at the Chesapeake Bay.
The choice of location for the settlement proved to be a bad one. The colonists did not realize that they had landed in one of the most heavily populated Indian communities in North America (population ~14,000). The area lacked a fresh water supply, and the river proved to be a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Among the settlers, fifty-four were listed as “gentlemen” – a term implying wealth and no labor skills. Ill prepared for hardship, they brought wool clothing to wear in the summer and their footmen to do the work for them. Luckily, there were a few tradesmen who came along. John Smith later said that they were “ten times more fit to spoil a colony than to begin or maintain one.”
There was certainly a dire need for leadership among the Jamestown colonists whose mission was to hang on to the shoreline for England. One of their instructions had said, “In all your passages, you must have great care not to offend the naturals.” Violence, however, first occurred only four days later when an Indian tried to steal a hatchet and was struck by a settler. On May 23, Newport visited Powhatan who offered guides and roasted deer. But on May 24, there was more theft. Two bullet bags containing shot and trading toys were missing. They were eventually found, and Captain Newport let the Indians keep they toys, warning them, however, that in England, the punishment for such an offense was death.
On May 26, the Indians attacked the unfinished English fort, resulting in seventeen English wounded and one English death. The settlers soon organized daily and nightly watches for their protection. The Indians targeted stragglers. On May 29, Eustace Clovell came running into the fort with six arrows in him, crying, “To arms! To arms!” He died six days later. On June 4, the Indians shot another of the settlers in the head as he was going to the bathroom in the woods.
By June 15, they had finished their triangular fort. On June 22, Captain Newport sailed back to England promising to return in twenty weeks with supplies. The grain they originally brought with them was now filled with worms, but they were reduced to eating it anyway and drinking salt water from the river.
George Percy, in his diary, reported that in August alone there were nineteen deaths. It was not what they had been led to expect. Morale by September was understandably low, and much the resentment was focused on the president of the council, Edward Wingfield. Wingfield was one of the original London Company investors, and the only one of the group to sail with the settlers. Now the council drafted charges against Wingfield, who was accused of having plenty while others starved, and of playing favorites. Wingfield was found guilty of stealing supplies, imprisoned, and deported.
Captain John Ratcliffe took over as president of the council. Ratcliffe ruled during a period of anarchy and disease. George Percy reported that the settlers were still living in tents “and in holes in the ground.” They were in “miserable distress.”
When Newport returned in January of 1608, there were only thirty-eight settlers left alive of the original 104. But he brought with him 120 new settlers, more than making up for the losses. (The London Company was efficient in the recruitment of new settlers! One of their ads called Jamestown, “Earth’s Only Paradise.”)
Under instructions to bring back gold, Captain Newport had brought with him two gold refiners and two goldsmiths. John Smith remembered that “there was no talk, no hope, and no work but dig gold, refine gold, and load gold.” They dug and dug, but found only a little fool’s gold, and ended up sailing back to England with cedar tree trunks in the ships’ holds as ballast instead of gold.
In April, another ship arrived with twenty-eight gentlemen and twenty-three laborers, but by that time another twenty-eight settlers had died. In October, there were seventy more recruits, and the total population of Jamestown was somewhere around two hundred (and dropping daily).
In London, the investors were growing anxious to see profits. They now began to place their hopes on tar, pitch, and glass. John Smith had been named president of the Council, replacing Ratcliffe. Smith was a twenty-seven-year-old veteran of the English army, or, as Smith called it, the “University of War.” He claimed to have had so many improbable escapades that a fellow Englishman remarked, “Either thou are the cunningest liar, or thou hast done deeds the likes of which man has ne’re before ventured.” However, conditions had not improved. There was plenty of food, but it wasn’t worth and arrow through the head. Smith instituted a policy of, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” while complaining of the “trash” the London Company kept sending him disguised as settlers.
In the winter of 1608-1609, during a food shortage, Ratcliffe and twenty-six men traveled to meet and trade with Powhatan. When Ratcliffe accused the Indians of trying to cheat him in the way they bagged the corn, the Indians hid in the woods and attacked the Englishmen while carrying the corn to their ship, killing all but two. Ratcliffe, himself, was bound naked to a tree with a fire burning before him. Several women of Powhatan’s tribe scraped pieces of his flesh from his body with mussel shells, and, before his face, threw him piece by piece into the fire.
By the spring of 1609, there was some progress. Thirty acres of corn had been planted and they now had some sixty pigs and five hundred chickens. However, in May they discovered that their corn reserves had rotted in the casks.
Back in London, the Virginia Company increased its powers. Many of the stockholders believed that the Council government was not working. They voted for one-man rule, appointed a governor, Sir Thomas Gates, allowed for the first time private ownership of land, and pledged to improve the quality of the recruits.
August of 1609 brought seven ships and three hundred new settlers. In September, John Smith was injured in a gunpowder explosion, and on October 4, he left Jamestown for England, never again to return to the New World.

Jamestown, the Later Years

1610 – 1624

The winter of 1609 – 1610, with a crowd of new settlers and inadequate food reserves, became known as “the starving time.” Percy had to string up men for robbing the storehouses. Soon they were down to eating their horses, their dogs, their cats, and later, rats and mice. Having eaten all the animals, the Jamestown settlers soon fell to eating humans. An Indian they had killed and buried was disinterred and “boiled and stewed with roots and herbs.” One man murdered his wife and ate her “save her head.” (He was executed for the crime.)
The settlers still had negotiated no peace with the Indians. To paraphrase a settler, they were being killed outside the fort by Indians at a rate equal to the death rate inside the fort from disease. On May 24, 1610, Lt. Governor Thomas Gates arrived from London and found only sixty of the approximately three hundred settlers left alive, if you could call it that! On June 7, 150 new settlers arrived, and in March 1611, Governor Thomas Dale arrived with three hundred more men. The turnaround at Jamestown had begun.
Dale’s governance was strict. Stealing an ear of corn was punishable by death, swearing by a sewing awl through the tongue. Deserters were hanged, work was mandatory, and idlers were given the lash. Twice daily, the bell tolled for church services.
Dale introduced a policy of giving three acres of land to settlers who had satisfied their obligation to the company (those who had not paid their own way were required to work on seven-year indentures). All of these reforms began to work.
Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, had been taken hostage in 1613 because Powhatan was holding eight English soldiers. A hostage exchange was proposed, but John Rolfe, a settler who had arrived in Virginia in 1610, had developed a strong attraction to the young princess. It was love in the new world, but it was also a good move to improve foreign relations with the Indians.
(In a 1614 letter to Governor Dale, Rolfe requested permission to marry Pocahontas. He claimed he was motivated not by "the unbridled desire of carnal affection, but for the good of this plantation, for the honor of our country, for the Glory of God, for my own salvation, and for the converting to the true knowledge of God and Jesus Christ an unbelieving creature, namely Pocahontas, to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled, and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth that I was even a-wearied to unwind myself thereout." We forget that this first American interracial marriage was originally not popular among his English Jamestown neighbors.)
As a result of the marriage, the peace with Powhatan lasted eight years. Farmers were safe to plant tobacco. John Rolfe seems to have collected some West Indian seed, and after a few years of trial and error, he found the right combination of soil and seed. In March of 1614, he shipped the first four barrels of the Virginia leaf to London.
The cultivation of tobacco saved Virginia. Despite some who believed that smoking was harmful, including King James, an active tobacco lobbyist group claimed that the more you smoked, the better you felt and made up jingles such as “Earth ne’er did breed such a jovial weed.”
The reason for planting tobacco was simple: in England it sold for a high price (three shilling a pound). Virginia became a one-crop economy, exporting twenty-five hundred pounds in 1616 and more than one million pounds by 1628. Tobacco depleted the nutrients in the soil and was labor intensive, but tobacco provided the road to wealth, a substitute for the undiscovered gold. At first, indentured servants were used as the labor force, but as they earned their freedom and became landowners themselves, slavery was slowly introduced. The first Africans were brought to Jamestown in a Dutch slave ship in 1619, and in a 1625 census, ten were listed as living in Jamestown proper.

There was a period of time in which blacks and whites worked and lived side by side, but over time the planters tended to shift toward an all-slave work force. They concluded that black slaves were cheaper to keep than indentured servants, and, because of their skin color, it was difficult for them to run away and “blend in” with the still mostly white population.

The early practice of “barter” would become Virginia law in 1640. Public servants and soldiers, as well as taxes and court fines, were paid in tobacco leaf. Tavern bills were settled in tobacco. When ninety young ladies arrived at Jamestown in 1619 as prospective brides, each was “redeemed” off the boat with 120 pounds of Virginia leaf. There were drawbacks, however. Using tobacco as currency meant that debts could only be paid seasonally, and the tobacco itself was perishable. King James, who detested tobacco, could not ban it because he needed the revenue, and he had no wish to ruin the colony.
In 1616, John Rolfe and Pocahontas left Jamestown for England, where she would die of smallpox. By this time, the colony had spread up and down the James River, and contained around four hundred settlers. The Indians at that time were friendly, lulling the settlers into a false sense of security. Some were taught to fire muskets to help bring in game, and by 1617, the “savages” were noted as proficient in the use of guns, many of which were now possessed by the natives. The Indians were also observed to be frequent guests in the settlers’ homes.
Jamestown was entering the boom years. In 1619, 1620, and 1621, the London Company sent forty-two ships and 3,570 men and women to Jamestown. The Company’s vision had changed. The goal was no longer simply commercial. Jamestown was now seen as a permanent outpost of England in the New World, and wives and kids would help “fix the people on the soil.”
The biggest inducement to settle was the head-rights system launched in 1618. This awarded fifty acres for every person whose passage over was paid. If you paid to bring over ten servants, you were entitled to five hundred acres provided that it be farmed within three years.
Most of the head rights were awarded for bringing over indentured servants. The recruiting of servants became an industry. London Company agents roamed England registering men. At a time when the penalty for stealing anything worth more than a shilling was death, the New World attracted a number of convicts who were given the choice of a Virginia indenture or jail. It was said that to make them more desirable, fictitious trades were invented for them as the ship neared the Virginia shore.
The lies went both ways. The new arrivals found the New World to be a big letdown after what the recruiters had led them to expect. Rather than “Earth’s Only Paradise,” they found disease, poverty, and malnutrition.
On July 30, 1619, in the choir of the Jamestown church, Governor Yeardly presided over the first legislative assembly ever convened on the North American continent. It was called the House of Burgesses, and consisted of the governor, six counselors, and two burgesses from each of the ten settlements. According to the proceedings of the first assembly, laws were passed against idleness, gaming, drunkenness, and excess in apparel.
Generally, from 1619 to 1621, things seemed to be going well. But, the Indians had begun to see the colony for what it was – an invasion of fresh settlers arriving by the thousands and spreading inland. In the fall of 1621, Powhatan’s brother, who had taken over after the death of the chief, pledged an attack of the plantations to rid the area of the settlers. On the morning of March 22, 1622, the Indians came as usual with provisions to sell. They sat down for breakfast with the settlers, and then “the Indians attacked … most barbarously.” The attack was devastating. Almost one-third of the settlers were killed, including Pocahontas’s widower, John Rolfe.
The attack created a loss of royal support for the colony. In 1624 the London Company lost its charter and the King took over Jamestown as a royal colony. It is estimated that the company had sent over a total of 7,289 settlers, of whom 6,040 either died or returned to England.

JAMESTOWN REVIEW for parts 1 and 2

Identify and Explain the historical significance of each item.
“Sheep Eat Men”

joint-stock companies

North Virginia Company of Plymouth

South Virginia Company of London


Captain John Smith

the starving time

the Powhatan Confederacy

tobacco cultivation

John Rolfe

the Gunpowder Plot

the headrights system

House of Burgesses


George Percy

indentured servants

Anthony Johnson

John Punch


the “seasoning process”

Why did the Enclosure movement occur?

What changes happened in English society as a result?

How did the development of joint stock companies help the colonization of Virginia?

What problems did the Jamestown settlers face from 1607 – 1624?

What factors helped them survive?

The needs of the growing tobacco industry created three major changes for Jamestown. Explain the changes.

Why was the formation of the House of Burgesses necessary?

Why was the formation of the House of Burgesses an important landmark in the history of America?

Explain the changes in the social status of Virginia’s African Americans from 1619 to 1650?

Why does the King take over Jamestown in 1624?

John Smith meets Powhatan

At his (John Smith’s) entrance before the King, all the people gave a great shout. . . . A long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beat out his brains, Pocahontas the King's dearest daughter, when no entreaty would prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death.
- J. Smith, Generall Historie, 1624

John Smith meets Powhatan

Powhatan, with such a grave and Majesticall countenance, as drave me into admiration to see such state in a naked Salvage, hee kindly welcomed me with good wordes, and great Platters of sundrie Victuals.
- J. Smith, A True Relation, 1608
A Counterblaste to Tobacco, King James

Have you not reason then to bee ashamed, and to forbeare this filthie noveltie, so basely grounded, so foolishly received and so grossely mistaken in the right use thereof? In your abuse thereof sinning against God, harming your selves both in persons and goods, and raking also thereby the markes and notes of vanitie upon you: by the custome thereof making your selves to be wondered at by all forraine civil Nations, and by all strangers that come among you, to be scorned and contemned. A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs….

- King James, A Counterblaste to Tobacco

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