on-line book icon

table of contents

National Historic Site
NPS logo

The Story of Jamestown (continued)

THE FIRST DAYS IN VIRGINIA. The expedition of 1607 included a cargo of supplies and 144 persons, of whom 104 or 105 (depending on which of the more detailed contemporary accounts is accepted) were to remain in Virginia as the first settlers. The expedition left England late in 1606. The ships sailed down the Thames River from London on December 20 and, after a slow start, they proceeded over the long route through the West Indies. There were stops in the islands, new experiences, and disagreements among the leaders. Captain Newport was in command, and the identity of the councilors who were to govern in Virginia lay hidden in a locked box not to be opened until their destination had been reached. Dissension at one point led to charges against Capt. John Smith who reached the New World in confinement. This was suggestive of the later personal and group feuds and disagreements that plagued the first years of the Virginia Colony.

The "Land of Virginia" was first seen by the lookout on April 26, and just a little later in the same day a party was sent ashore at Cape Henry to make what was the first landing in the wilderness which they came to conquer. Having been aboard ship for many weeks, the settlers found the expanse of land, the green virgin trees, the cool, fresh water, and the unspoiled landscape a pleasant view to behold. At Cape Henry they saw Indians and several of the party were wounded by their arrows, notably Capt. Gabriel Archer, one of the experienced leaders. They built a "shallop" (a small boat), went exploring into the country for short distances by land and water, enjoyed the spring flowers, and tasted roasted oysters and "fine beautiful strawberries." On April 29, a cross was set up among the sand dunes. The next day the ships were moved from Cape Henry into Chesapeake Bay to the site on Hampton Roads which they named Point Comfort (now Old Point Comfort).

For about 2 weeks, explorations were made along both banks of the James, below and above Jamestown, from its mouth to a point as far upstream perhaps as the Appomattox River (Hopewell, Va.). Parties went ashore to investigate promising areas, and communication was established with the native tribes. On May 12, a point of land at the mouth of Archer's Hope (now College) Creek, a little below Jamestown, was examined in detail. Capt. Gabriel Archer was particularly impressed with this location and urged that it be the point of settlement. The soil seemed good, timber and wildlife were abundant, and it appeared adaptable for defensive measures if these should become necessary. It was not possible, however, to bring the ships close to the shore, and consequently Archer's Hope was rejected. From this site the ships moved directly to Jamestown, where they arrived May 13. On May 14, they landed and broke ground for the fort and the town that ultimately won the distinction of the first permanent English settlement in America and the capital of the Virginia Colony for almost a century.

In May 1607, the days were warm, the nights, cool. Life was stirring in the wilderness and nature had been generous, the colonists thought. There were fruits, abundant timber, deer and other animals for food, and a not too numerous native population. The hot, humid weather of mid summer and the snow, ice, and emptiness of winter were not in evidence. The choice of a site for settlement was both good and bad. The anchorage for ships at Jamestown was good. The island had not then become a true island and had an easily controlled dry land isthmus connection with the mainland. As the river narrows here, it was one of the best control points on the James. It was not used by the Indians; and it was a bit inland, hence somewhat out of range of the Spanish menace. Arable land on the island was limited by inlets and "guts." The swamps were close and bred mosquitoes in abundance and, with contamination so easy, drinking water was a problem. All of these facts became evident to these first English Americans as the months went by.

When the orders were opened after arrival in Virginia, it was found that the governing body in the colony was to be made up of seven councilors. They were Edward Maria Wingfield, of gallant service in the Low Countries; Bartholomew Gosnold and Christopher Newport, both seasoned seamen and captains; John Ratcliffe, who piloted the Discovery to Virginia; John Martin, an earlier commander under Drake; John Smith, already an experienced adventurer; and George Kendall, a cousin of Sir Edwin Sandys who later was to play a dominant role in the Virginia Company. To this list can be added other prominent names—George Percy, brother to the Earl of Northumberland and a trained sailor; Gabriel Archer, a lawyer who had already explored in the New England country; and Rev. Robert Hunt, the vicar at Jamestown, whose pious and exemplary living was noted by his associates.

THE FORT. The work of establishing Jamestown and of exploring the country round about began almost simultaneously. The several weeks between May 13 and June 22, when Newport left Virginia for a return to England, were busy ones. At Jamestown an area was cleared of trees and the fort begun. The soil was readied and the English wheat brought over for the purpose was planted. At this point Newport, in one of the small boats, led an exploring party as far as the falls of the James (near present Richmond). He was successful in learning a great deal about the country, but did not succeed in his search for gold or silver. He was absent from Jamestown about a week and returned to find that the Indians had launched a fierce attack on the new settlement which had been saved, perhaps, by the fact that the ships were near at hand. These afforded safe quarters and carried cannon on their decks that had a frightening effect on the natives.

The fort was completed about mid-June. It was triangular in shape, with a "Bulwarke" at each corner which was shaped like a "halfe Moone." Within the "Bulwarkes" were mounted 4 or 5 pieces of artillery—demiculverins which fired balls of about 9 pounds in weight. The fort enclosed about 1 acre with its river side extending 420 feet and its other sides measuring 300 feet. The principal gate faced the river and was in the south side (curtain) of the fort, although there were other openings, one at each "Bulwarke," and each was protected by a piece of ordnance. The church, storehouses, and living quarters were flimsily built of perishable materials, within the walls of the palisaded fort, along fixed streets arranged around an open yard. For the first few years this fort was Jamestown.

Before the fort was completed the wheat had come up and was growing nicely, as George Percy wrote in what was probably the first essay on farming along the James River. About June 10, John Smith, partly through the intercession of Robert Hunt, was released and admitted to his seat on the council. Relations with the Indians improved. On June 21, the third Sunday after Trinity, the first recorded Anglican communion at Jamestown was celebrated. "We had a comunyon. Capt. Newport dyned ashore with our dyet, and invyted many of us to supper as a farewell." The next day, Christopher Newport raised anchor and began the return trip to England. He took letters from those to remain in Virginia and carried accounts describing Virginia and the events that had occurred. The settlement had been made, and the future seemed promising.

Statue of Capt. John Smith, by William Couper. The Old Church Tower is in the background.

SUMMER AND AUTUMN, 1607. Within the short span of 2 months, conditions changed drastically. The Indians became cautious and distrustful, and provisions, not sufficiently augmented from the country, began to run low. Spoilage destroyed some food, and, with the coming of the hot, humid weather, the brackish drinking water proved dangerous. In August, death struck often and quickly, taking among others the stabilizing hand of Captain Gosnold. Inexperience, unwillingness, or in ability to do the hard work that was necessary and the lack of sufficient information about how to survive in a primeval wilderness led to bickering, disagreements, and, to what was more serious still, inaction. They forgot a most important bit of advice that had been given them by "His Majesties Council for Virginia": " . . . the way to prosper and achieve good success is to make yourselves all of one mind for the good of your country and your own . . . ."

On arrival in Virginia the resident councilors, as outlined in their orders, met and named one of their number as president. Real power was with the council, however, and the president was without actual independent authority. This was a serious defect (corrected in the second company charter in 1609) which prevented a well-directed and coordinated program at Jamestown during the first 3 years. As the first summer wore on it was natural that hostility should develop toward the titular head of the colony. Had the first president, Edward Maria Wingfield, been a stronger, more adventurous, and more daring man, conditions might have been a little better, despite his lack of real authority. He was not the leader, however, to act and to reason later. Consequently, opinion was arrayed against him and charges, some unjust no doubt, were formed that led to his deposition and replacement in one of the two celebrated jury trials which occurred at Jamestown about mid-September. His successor, perhaps no more able, was John Ratcliffe who continued for about a year until deposed and replaced by Matthew Scrivener, one of those who came over with the first supply. It was a little later, in 1608, that Capt. John Smith took the helm as chief councilor, which was what the president really was. It was under the presidency of Ratcliffe, however, that Smith emerged as an able, experienced leader, who preferred action to inaction even though it might be questioned later. His work and his decisions, sometimes wise, sometimes not so wise, did much to insure the survival of the colony.

When the first cool days of approaching autumn touched Jamestown in 1607, spirits rose and hopefulness supplanted despair. Disease, which had reduced the number to less than 50 persons, subsided; the oppressive heat lessened; and Indian crops of peas, corn, and beans began to mature. Friendlier relations were established with the natives, and barter trade developed. As the leaves fell, game became easier to get, ducks multiplied in the ponds and marshes, and life in general seemed brighter. Work was resumed at Jamestown in preparation for the coming winter, and exploration was undertaken. It was in December, while investigating the Chickahominy River area, that Smith was taken by the Indians. He was eventually carried before Powhatan who released him, some say through the intercession of the young Pocahontas. This incident Smith did not mention in his detailed account of the events of the Colony written several months later. It was not until a number of years later, in fact, that this romantic story evolved in its present form.


top of page

History  |   Links to the Past  |   National Park Service  |   Search  |   Contact

Last Modified: Mon, Dec 2 2002 10:00:00 am PDT

ParkNet Home