On December 20, 1606, ships of the London Company set sail from England to
establish a colony in Virginia. The would-be colonists arrived in Chesapeake Bay in April
1607. On board were 105 men, including 40 soldiers, 35
"gentlemen," and various artisans and laborers.
The Company had instructed Captain Newport, the commander of the ships, to find a site
for a colony that was secure from Spanish discovery and attack but that also had easy
access to the sea. He therefore sailed up a river (which the English named the James) and
fifty miles from its mouth found a low-lying, marshy peninsula that seemed to meet all
specifications. There they established what they called James towne.
At first, things seemed to go well. The colonists cleared some land and erected a
palisade for protection. Inside the palisade they built small, rather rude, dwellings.
The colonists also began to clear some land for planting crops. Meanwhile the natives in
the area, a confederation of tribes led by Powhatan, seemed to change from initial
hostility to friendship and hospitality. With the natives' offers of food and friendship,
the English began to pay less attention to planting crops and more to exploring the region
for quick riches.
Despite the early promise of success, there were already danger signs. During the
summer and autumn, many colonists began to sicken and die. In part, we now know, illness
and death were caused by siting Jamestown at a very swampy, unhealty location. In
addition, many colonists had brought with them typhoid and dysentery (what people at the
time called "the bloody flux"), which became epidemic because the colonists did not
understand basic hygiene. Further, the water supply at Jamestown was contaminated
both by human wastes and seawater.
Moreover, by autumn it became obvious that the colonists had insufficient food to get
them through the winter. Not enough land had been cleared and not enough crops had been
planted and harvested. Part of the problem here was that the "gentlemen"
resisted working like mere laborers. Fortunately for the colonists,
Powhatan remained friendly and supplied the English with food. Even so, by the time the
"first supply" of more settlers and provisions arrived in early 1608, only 35 of
the initial colonists had survived.
Although the evidence is skewed in his favor, there is little question that Captain
John Smith saved Jamestown. He organized the colonists and forced them to work in
productive ways. He was also able to trade with the natives for food stuffs; when they
were reluctant to trade, he took what he needed, souring relations with the natives.
Although Smith soon returned to England, his and other colonists' reports back to the
London Company led that body to change some of its methods. Essentially it codified
Smith's dictatorial regime by bestowing much greater authority on the colonial governor.
A Note About Reading These Documents: You will
probably have difficulty reading some of these documents. The documents were
written in Early Modern English and people at the time spelled words differently
and often were inconsistent in their spellings. One source of help is a
Explanations of Early Modern English prose, from the Thomas Jefferson Papers.
You might also benefit by reading the documents aloud.
For additional documents related to this topic, we would suggest focusing on
the collection in American
Memory most pertinent to early Jamestown,
The Capitol and the Bay.
Within that collection are two essential sources: Captain John Smith's Generall Historie of
Virginia and the four volumes edited by Peter Force in the mid-19th century. Both of these
sources are full-text searchable via
The Capitol and the Bay.
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