From the colony's founding until it stabilized by mid century, Virginia's early settlements clung tenuously to the James River. By the close of the seventeenth century, settlement had pushed west to the fall line of the James (at Richmond) and a stable and growing English population filled the colony.
Founded in 1607, Jamestown was not the only settlement for long. In 1609, Captain John Smith decided to disperse his numerous settlers from the small fort at Jamestown. Several were sent west to the falls of the James, where they purchased a fortified town from some local Powhatans. One detachment was sent south to settle on the Nansemond River, and another group began to build several forts at the tip of the Peninsula, Forts Henry, Charles and Algernon. These forts near Old Point Comfort (modern day Fort Monroe) provided defense against the Powhatan, as well as lookouts for possible Spanish incursions. Hampton, founded in 1610, remains the oldest English-speaking city in North America. During the early years, the few isolated outposts beyond Jamestown were military bases, not yet permanent settlements.
In the next few years, communities branched out along the river to form domestic housing sites for families. Governor Thomas Dale founded the city of Henricus in 1611 near Richmond, intending to replace Jamestown as the colony's capital. Henricus never prospered as was hoped, however, and suffered heavily in the 1622 Powhatan uprising. By 1613, under the aggressive leadership of Dale, settlements began to branch out from Jamestown along both sides of the James. Hundreds, patented tracts of land which were often palisaded for defense, soon sprung up along the river. These included Bermuda Nether Hundred, Bermuda Upper Hundred, Digges Hundred, West Hundred and Shirley Hundred. This area of settlement was concentrated near modern Hopewell. In 1614, an expedition settled the Eastern shore on Smith's Island for fishing. Permanent settlement of the Eastern Shore dates to 1619.
In 1618, Governor Sir George Yeardley founded Flowerdew Hundred, on the south bank of the James. It would also soon to be home to 15 of the 20 odd Africans who arrived in 1619. The James River served as a highway of traffic and commerce, much like modern interstates. Early settlements spread along the rivers, sources of reinforcement and communications. Throughout this time, Virginia's population was primarily single, male and died young. With few families arriving and high mortality rates form diseases, immigration rather than natural increase accounted for growth.
Heightened efforts at recruiting settlers by Treasurer Sir Edwin Sandys increased the colony's population with offers of land and political authority. Known as particular plantations, these settlements offered incentives to both investors and settlers. In Virginia, new laws passed by the General Assembly of 1619 also fostered new growth beyond Jamestown to accommodate the increasing arrivals from England. The same year the Assembly divided Virginia into four counties: James City, Charles City, Henrico and Keghoutan (Elizabeth City), each of which sent representatives to the assembly and formed county courts. The beginnings of a legal and political framework were taking hold. New immigrants to the colony would receive 50 acres, as well as an additional 50 for any persons whose passage they financed. This helped increase the flood of immigrants arriving in Virginia. Also fostering the colony's growth was the first substantial influx of unmarried women in 1620. Virginia's population grew rapidly from 1618 until 1622, rising from a few hundred to nearly 1,400 people.
A tobacco boom swept Virginia in the 1620s, further increasing the population and spreading settlers out in search of new lands to cultivate. By 1622, English settlements lined both banks of the James from Hampton Roads to the present site of Richmond. At this point, Powhatan Chief Opechancanough launched a concerted effort to drive the English out by simultaneously attacking these settlements. Despite suffering heavily, the English retaliated and soon forced the Powhatans to sue for peace. In the decades following the attack, English settlement spread further into the interior as immigrants arrived in even greater numbers. In 1646, the first Indian reservations in America would be established in King William County for the surviving Powhatans.
With the founding of Maryland in the 1630s and continued immigration and natural increase, English settlement moved west and north of the fall line from its fragile toehold on the Peninsula. Increasingly, these new communities were domestic villages, rather than military outposts. As settlement continued to branch out and move inland, Jamestown remained the administrative center of Virginia. Here the governor resided and the Assembly met. Jamestown also functioned as the colony's official port of entry. A new town of brick began to rise over the ruins of the wooden fort.
Author: Robert Dunkerly
Seasonal Ranger, COLONIAL NHP