Purpose and Significance
Location of Jamestown, 1607
Jamestown's first group of 105 colonists was led by a seven-man governing council selected by the Virginia Company. The colonists, all men, settled on a humid and marshy peninsula in the James River. The swampy climate would prove to be detrimental to their health, but the land and location had many benefits. Most notably, their choice complied with the standards and conditions established by the Virginia Company. These required that the area be surrounded by water on three sides deep enough to dock ships for trade purposes and supplies and that the area be currently uninhabited by Native American people. Not only did the peninsula meet these specifications, but it was connected to the mainland by only a thin strip of land, which greatly aided defense of the settlement from attack.
Hardships and Survival
Life in Jamestown was exceedingly difficult for the early English colonists. They arrived in the New World planning to survive on supplies from England, supplemented by whatever they could barter for with native tribes. The colonists were most intent on locating sites of gold and silver. Consequently, they neither farmed nor hunted for food. Furthermore, wealthy aristocrats among them lacked skills for farming and the will to hunt. Unaccustomed to hard labor, they had no intention of engaging in either. Soon, lack of food sparked conflict within the settlement and with local tribes.
In 1608 John Smith became president of the colony. To solve the need for practical work like farming, as opposed to looking for gold, he instituted a new policy: "He that will not worke shall not eate (except by sicknesse he be disabled)." As a result, food production increased, the colony survived the winter, and no colonist died from want of food.
Even so, potential starvation was not the only threat to survival in Jamestown. As early as August 1607, colonists began dying from bad water and diseases carried by mosquitoes, as well as illnesses brought from home. There was also the problem of local Native American tribes, who sometimes kidnapped and killed settlers.
The main conflict between settlers and native tribes centered on the food supplies. Though initially the local Tsenacomoco tribe had been willing to barter for provisions, the colonists had arrived one year into a prolonged drought. Native harvests were already sparse, and the settlers sometimes raided native stores of food. In 1609 Powhatan, the great chief of 30 Tsenacomoco tribes, spoke to John Smith in an attempt to establish peace between his tribes and the colonists. However, Smith returned to England, and relations between the Native Americans and the English colonists deteriorated. Finally, Powhatan finally cut off all trade with the colonists, hoping to starve them into returning to England. The colonists were reduced to eating frogs, snakes, rats, and shoe leather, and some resorted to eating their dead. This period, from autumn 1609 to March 1610, was known as the "Starving Time." When it began, Jamestown had between 400 and 500 inhabitants. When it ended, only 90 to 100 were still alive.
The colonists and Tsenacomoco tribes spent the next five years fighting one another in the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–14). In 1613 Englishman Samuel Argall kidnapped Pocahontas, Powhatan's young daughter, and held her hostage for a year. During that time, she converted to Christianity and developed a relationship with tobacco farmer John Rolfe. Their 1614 marriage eased tensions between Powhatan's people and the colonists and effectively ended the war. Peace between the groups, fostered by this union, endured for several years. Pocahontas died during a visit to England in 1617, leaving behind a child, Thomas Rolfe.
Agriculture, Labor, and Slavery
Jamestown colonist John Rolfe began growing tobacco in 1612. After deeming the local variety too bitter, he began growing a more palatable version from seeds he acquired in the West Indies. Part of that second crop was sent back to England, where it was received with great enthusiasm and a demand for more. Perhaps with the help of his native wife, Pocahontas—whose tribespeople cultivated tobacco—Rolfe engineered better ways to grow and cure the crop, making it even more profitable. Thus tobacco became the first cash crop—or crop cultivated for sale, not personal use by the grower—in the New World. Other colonists saw the success of Rolfe's enterprise and set up their own tobacco farms. By 1619 Jamestown was a one-crop economy and a boon to the colony. The money brought in by the tobacco trade ensured its survival since profitable natural resources such as gold were yet to be found.
Tobacco is a labor-intensive crop that requires many hands. The overseers of the tobacco farms owned by the Virginia Company could not handle all the work themselves, and there was not enough cheap labor available in the colony. So the Virginia Company began shipping indentured servants from England to North America. An indentured servant is a person who works in exchange for room and board for a specific period of time. The Virginia Company (and later private individuals) paid for impoverished English citizens to travel to the New World on the condition that they fulfill a multiyear work contract. In lieu of a salary, they were given room and board, and when their period of service was up, they were usually given a parcel of land, a supply of corn, a weapon, and in some cases a cow. Indentured servitude was a tough life, but it allowed many English men, women, and children the opportunity to start their lives anew in North America. It also boosted the profits of the Virginia Company and its investors.
In August 1619 an English warship arrived in Jamestown. Aboard were approximately 50 African slaves. Twenty were purchased by the colonists to work in the tobacco fields. At the time neither England nor Jamestown had any laws about chattel slavery—the practice of buying, trading, and selling people for lifelong servitude. Indeed, within the colony, Indian slaves were periodically purchased from indigenous slave markets. As chattel slavery is usually an inheritable status, it also may be passed down to offspring. However, historians believe these first Africans, though purchased, were treated as indentured servants and eventually given their freedom. As time wore on, however, individual colonies began making laws in favor of chattel slavery, which by the mid-17th century had all but replaced less profitable indentured servitude.
Jamestown was initially run by council members selected by the Virginia Company. These council members changed often, as they frequently died or returned to England, weakening their ability as a group to enforce the few rules they established. With the exception of John Smith, Jamestown lacked strong leadership. In May 1611 this changed with the arrival of Sir Thomas Dale, acting governor of Jamestown. Faced with a lazy, undisciplined population, Dale instituted the first English-language laws in the Western Hemisphere. Laws Divine, Moral, and Martial—originally set out by William Strachey, one of the original council members—outlined a code of conduct and provided for martial law, or the enforcement of law by armed forces. The new laws were harsh, but they provided the structure necessary for the colony's survival. Rooted in biblical law as well as English common law, they dealt as severely with blasphemy or failure to attend church on a daily basis as they did with failure to work, theft, murder, or violence toward friendly Indians.
As Jamestown and nearby settlements grew, so did Virginia's political system. The Virginia Assembly became the colony's legislative body in 1619 and was the first democratically elected governing body formed in America. It comprised the governor, the governor's council (known as the upper house), and 20 members elected from the surrounding settlements (called the lower house). This form of government was representative, but it was not entirely democratic. The Virginia Company controlled the members of the upper house, and it, as well as the governor, could veto legislation approved by the houses. Members of the lower houses were elected by the voting public, which was limited to male landowners.