On May 14, 1607, English settlers arriving under the authority of the Virginia Company of London chartered by King James I established the first permanent English settlement in North America at a place they named Jamestown, Virginia.1 We landed all our men,” George Percy wrote in his account of the event, “which were set to worke about [i.e., on] the fortification, and others some to watch and ward as it was convenient.” 2 The land was already inhabited by Native peoples, as it had been for some 15,000 years.
The Jamestown colonists struggled with leadership and survival from the beginning. Captain John Smith spent his first months in Virginia exploring in the Chesapeake region, undergoing capture by Powhatan, paramount chief of the area’s allied Algonquian-speaking peoples, with whom he subsequently developed a mutually wary and respectful relationship. In 1608 Smith was chosen to be president of Jamestown’s governing council and proved to be an able leader. Yet Smith returned to England in 1609, and only 60 of the 214 colonists survived the Starving TimeExternal of the ensuing harsh winter. The arrival of fresh supplies from England in the spring fortified the colony and enabled it to endure.
On July 30, 1619, under the provisions of the Virginia Company Charter, the General Assembly met in Jamestown “to establish …one uniform government over all Virginia,” thereby becoming the first representative legislative assembly of European Americans in the Western Hemisphere. (Tradition dates the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy of five Indian tribes in upper New York state between 1570 and 1600.) Jamestown was also the site of the Americas’ first Anglican church. 3
Another event of momentous consequence took place in August 1619 when a Dutch ship exchanged a cargo of some twenty captive Africans for food. Although the Africans’ legal status in these early years was probably more fluid than under the full-fledged slavery that hardened in Virginia by the end of the century, this event represented both the founding African presence and the foundation of slavery in British North America.
Despite the stability represented by the colony’s survival and political organization, relations with the Powhatan chiefdom were volatile and at times violent. In March 1622, alliance warriors killed more than three hundred colonists just outside Jamestown — and more than twice that number died in an epidemic the next December. Following these events, King James revoked the Virginia Company’s charter in 1624. In 1625 his son King Charles I made Virginia a royal colony.
- It should be noted that because of the then-ten-day difference between the “Old Style” (Julian) calendar used by Englishmen until 1752, and the “New Style” (Gregorian) calendar in use since 1752, the date when settlement began was actually May 24 in modern terms. (Return to text)
- The words of George Percy are quoted in a timeline External about the Jamestown settlement in the Encyclopedia Virginia External. The timeline is part of an essay on the early Jamestown settlement External.(Return to text)
- Church of England in Virginia External, in the Encyclopedia Virginia External. (Return to text)
- See a timeline of early Virginia history in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827.
- Explore the Virginia Records, 1606-1737 within the Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827. The Virginia Records volumes were part of Jefferson’s personal library and are now held by the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
- Read John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia, Edward Maria Wingfield’s Discourse of Virginia, and Ralph Hamor’s True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia in the Capital and the Bay: Narratives of Washington and the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1600 to 1925.
- See Early Settlement of Virginia and Virginiola… in African American Perspectives: Materials from the Rare Book Collection for an historical account from English sources and letters about Jamestown and the Virginia Company, including an alleged long-lost poem on Virginia by Shakespeare.
- The exhibition and resource guide The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History & Culture contains an historical map that makes reference to the introduction of slavery to the colonies in Jamestown.
- Search the collections of photographs and prints on Anglican churches to see several buildings from the colonial era, including Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, completed in 1773, Pohick Church in Fairfax County, completed in 1774, and St. John’s Church in Richmond, completed in 1741.
- See Today in History for December 4 to learn about another English settlement in Virginia near Jamestown; and Today in History for September 10 to learn more about John Smith’s leadership.
- Read excerpts of writings by George Percy, one of the thirty-eight nobleman in the Jamestown expedition in Jamestown: 1607, The First Months. Observations Gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southern Colony in Virginia by the English, 1606. Excerpts. External, compiled for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia AntiquitiesExternal
- The Percy excerpts are from the book, Narratives of early Virginia, 1606-1625External by Lyon Gardiner Tyler (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), which is available online. The book also includes writings by Captain John Smith and many others.