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Colonial Jamestown Essay, Research Paper

Colonial Jamestown

In 1606 King James I set two companies, the London and the Plymouth, out with three instructions: find gold, find a route to the South Seas, and find the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Five months later, and forty-five men less, the London Company landed on a semi-island along the banks of a river the Indians knew as ?Powhatan?s River?. On May 13, 1607, the first permanent British colony had been established in the form of a triangular fort. The men named their fort Jamestown, in honor of their King, and named their land Virginia, in honor or Queen Elizabeth I, the ?Virgin Queen?.

?The company defined Virginia as the entire North American coast between 30? and 45?N, and extending inland for 50 miles (80 kilometers). Virginia at one time stretched from southern Maine to California and encompassed all or part of 42 of the present 50 states, as well as Bermuda and part of the Canadian province of Ontario.? (Gale group) At first, the men believed they had found paradise. The climate appeared mild, and the natives had reacted friendly. John Smith wrote, ?Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man?s habitations.? (Colonial History) Then, the beautiful new world turned to blistering heat, swarms of insects, unfit water, starvation, fierce winters, Indian attacks, and shiploads of inappropriately-prepared ?Colonists? ?whose breeding,? a contemporary said, ?never knew what a day?s labor meant.” These were men, often lesser scions of nobility, with no future in overpopulated England, who had been lured by the Virginia Company with promises of land and wealth–much as people were lured into going to California during the Gold Rush. But there was no gold in Virginia, and these “prospectors” didn’t know how to farm, didn’t know how to hunt, and–possibly feeling betrayed by the Virginia Company’s promises, and lacking any land of their own–were not known for their spirit of cooperation either among themselves, nor with the local Indians of the Powhatan confederacy.

The only man who was able to somewhat keep peace, both in the colony and with the Indians, was John Smith. Despite the attempts of John Smith, the settlers still suffered one horror after another. Then, to make things worse, Smith was injured in a gunpowder explosion, and had to be shipped back to England. The colony quickly succumbed to anarchy when Smith returned to England just two years after Jamestown was founded. Tensions mounted with the native Powatan Indians, as in Smith’s absence, settlers opted to raid Indian food supplies when staples ran out and British ships failed to arrive to replenish supplies (Taylor 127). Disease struck most of the first settlers within the years of 1609-1610. “Only 60 of the original 300 settlers were still alive by May, 1610,” according to historian Edward Dodson. That same year, colonists founded Henrico (which later became Richmond), easing the isolation problems and food shortages experienced at Jamestown. The one factor that revolutionized Jamestown and Virginia’s economy, though, came in 1612. Native plants crossbred with West Indies’ seed produced tobacco. Within a decade, it became Virginia’s primary source of revenue.

The area soon became controlled by a handful of large plantation landholders with indentured laborers. Since few British colonists could finance their cost of passage, colonizing agencies fronted transportation costs. In exchange, emigrants agreed to work for the agencies as contract laborers for usually between four and seven years. Often, these contracts were sold to colonists with large estates. Though many indentured servants earned their freedom over time, more wealthy colonists were able to absorb New World land rapidly during early colonization. As experienced in other colonies, indentured servitude created an imbalance of economy and political power as Jamestown and the Chesapeake Bay colonies developed (Gordy 134). After indentured emigrants won their freedom, the situation also created a need for work force, which came in the form of a burgeoning slave trade.

Unlike the fertile, lush Virginia landscape, New England was made up of thin, stony soil with a lack of level land for farming, and cold, harsh winters. New England colonists quickly turned to other pursuits for survival. The sea became a source of great wealth. Shipbuilding and trade along the harbor regions flourished, and New Englanders soon learned that rum and slaves were commodities in demand in the early colonies (Davies). As historian Norman Davies explains, “One of the most enterprising–if unsavory?trading practices of the time was the so-called triangular trade. Merchants and shippers would purchase slaves off the coast of Africa for New England rum, then sell the slaves in the West Indies where they would buy molasses to bring home for sale to local rum producers” (Colonial History of Jamestown).

A number of emigrants called Puritans, who had unsuccessfully sought to reform the established Church of England, arrived on the ship The Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in New England in 1620. Though nearly half of the colonists died of exposure and disease, native Wampanoag Indians provided vital information to the settlers on how to grow maize and survive. Crops flourished and colonists learned to support themselves through trade in furs and lumber. In 1630, armed with a grant from the British king for colonial authority, a large wave of Puritan emigrants arrived on the shores of the Massachusetts Bay and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colony’s charter established a rigid orthodoxy for both church and government affairs. Likewise, bitter persecution of Quakers, who were extreme dissenters of the Church of England, helped to settle the British Middle Colonies in Pennsylvania and Delaware. Bringing personal libraries with them from England, both the Puritans and Quakers were instrumental in establishing America’s first libraries and school systems (Gordy 210).

Key factors influenced and shaped England’s earliest colonies in varied ways. Land-versus trade based economies; cooperation and conflict with Indians, religion, and even the types of people emigrating from England defined distinctly individual cultures for each of the early colonies of the New World.

-Matt Wetherington-



Matt Wetherington

?A Brief History of Jamestown.? History: 6-23-2001. Tracstar #9799. Accessed

8-23-2001. http://tobacco.org/history/.

?Colonial History of Jamestown.? Colonial History: 6-11-2001. Accessed 8-23-

2001. http://papa.essortment.com/colonialhistory_research.htm.

Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Dodson, Edward. ?The European Conquest of the Americas.? The American

Revolution. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.

Gordy, Wilbur. History of the United States. New York: Charles Scribners?

Sons, 1925.

?NGET Culture.? 5-18-2001. Tracstar #11537. Accessed 8-23-2001.


Taylor, Colin. The Native Americans. New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1991.

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