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.

Virginia…[detail showing Jamestown]. William Hole, engraver; [London: 1624]. Discovery and Exploration. Geography & Map Division

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.

Virginia…[detail showing Powhatan chief]. William Hole, engraver; [London, 1624]. Discovery and Exploration. Geography & Map Division

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 English 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.

Old Church, Jamestown, Va. William Henry Jackson, photographer, c1902. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division.

This 1639 church tower was one of the few remnants of the Jamestown Settlement visible in the 1890s, when the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities began excavating the site.

  1. 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)
  2. The words of George Percy are quoted in a timelineExternal 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)
  3. Church of England in VirginiaExternal, in the Encyclopedia VirginiaExternal.(Return to text)

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