May 14, 1607 – the first permanent English settlement in North America was established at Jamestown, Virginia, by settlers sent by the Virginia Company of London.
England’s first attempt at colonizing the New World failed with the disappearance in 1590 of the colony on Roanoke Island, in modern day North Carolina. Fifteen years later, England’s King James I granted a charter to the Virginia Company of London to try to plant an English colony in the Americans once again. James hoped to find gold and silver as had the Spanish, harvest wood from the vast forests in the New World, find the fabled Northwest Passage, and have a place to send criminals and the poor to settle away from the Mother Country.
In December 1606 three company ships (the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery) set sail with 105 men and boys. On board was a soldier, adventurer, explorer and notorious self-promoter, John Smith. Although Smith quickly antagonized his fellow passengers and was sentenced to hang for mutiny upon arrival in the New World, the secret Virginia Company orders, opened upon arrival, named his as a member of the new colony’s governing council. It would not be the last time Smith received a last-minute reprieve.
Arriving on the coast of Virginia in April, 1607, the colonists spent several weeks looking for an ideal location to found their colony. They finally settled on a site located on the James River, near the southern end of Chesapeake Bay. They chose their site because it was not occupied by Indians and it provided an excellent view down the river, making it more easily defended against any possible Spanish attack. After early conflict with the local Natives, the colonists hastily built a triangular fort with a storehouse, church, and a few huts. They named their new settlement Jamestown, after their king and patron.
It soon became clear, however, why their chosen site was not already occupied by local natives. Jamestown was on a swamp infested with malaria carrying mosquitoes, and the James River’s water was brackish and undrinkable. Game was scarce, the colonists did not know how to farm in the unfamiliar climate, and soon their food stores ran out. Making matters worse, their plans to engage in peaceful trade with the local natives quickly fell apart, as the neighboring Powhatan Confederacy of tribes, on whose land they had decided to settle, were not interested in letting them peacefully do so.
Illustrative was the fate of one unlucky colonist, George Casson, who was captured by the Powhatan, and, as an apparent warning to the colony, was staked to the ground, had his joints and limbs cut off with mussel shells, then his face peeled off and his guts ripped out before all of his body parts were tossed into a fire. Not surprisingly, with hunting and trading expeditions becoming life-threatening, the colonists became virtual prisoners inside the fort. Soon they began dropping like flies from disease, starvation, and Indian attacks.
Fortunately for the colony, they had John Smith. Smith, also captured by the Powhatan, managed to avoid Casson’s fate. According to Smith, he was brought before the Chief, Wahunsunacock (called Chief Powhatan by the English), and was about to be executed when his daughter Matoaka (Pocahontas) laid her head on his and demanded that he be spared. Powhatan agreed, told Smith he would now be a son to Powhatan, and let him go. Whether the story is true or not nobody knows, although for the next few months Powhatan stopped trying to kill the colonists and was willing to trade food with the colonists, allowing the colony to survive. The colony rewarded Smith by making him the president of the governing council, which pleased him immensely.
In 1609, however, Smith was badly burned in a particularly sensitive area and had to return to England, never to set foot in Virginia again. Once he was gone, the Powhatan resumed their attacks, trapping the colonists within the fort once again. The winter of 1609-16110 was so bad that it was given its own name: the “Starving Time.” Colonists ate their livestock, pets, rats, and each other – many turned to cannibalism, sneaking out at night and risking Indian ambush to dig up the freshly dug graves of their comrades and eat what remained. One man, Henry Collins, killed his pregnant wife while she slept, salted and ate her until only her head remained. By Spring 1610, 90% of the colonists died from starvation, disease, exposure and Indian attacks.
In May of 1610 the desperate survivors gave up and agreed to abandon the colony. Just as they were leaving, however, ships arrived with supplies, more colonists, and a new governor, De La Warr. For the next few years De La Warr and his successor, Thomas Dale, prosecuted a brutal, all-out war against the Powhatan, eventually gaining control of the Jamestown environs and establishing both the future survival of the colony and the demise of the Powhatan Confederacy. By 1650 the English were in firm control of the Chesapeake, and the Powhatan were gone as a meaningful force.