Tuesday, April 2, 2013

James River: Jamestown 1607-1610

James River

As far as the English were concerned, the first American superhighway was the James River. Named after King James I, it was here that the Virginia Company established the first permanent settlement in America in May 1607 at James Fort, thirteen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

After being granted a charter by King James that instructed them to establish a colony, find gold, and locate a water route to the Orient, 105 colonists led by Captain Christopher Newport departed England in December 1606 aboard the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. After one death on the voyage, the survivors reached Chesapeake Bay four months later. During a two-week survey, they found a military stronghold on a narrow peninsula in the James River where deep water offered them navigation, yet was isolated enough to provide defense from Spanish warships.

Initially, the colonists considered it a bonus that the peninsula was not inhabited by any of the nearby Native American tribes. Within a few months, they would figure out why the Indians didn’t want it: surrounded on three sides by a tidal estuary and marshes, the island was swampy, plagued by mosquitoes, and not good farmland. Malaria and dysentery were common, and fresh water was difficult to get. Settlers often had to drink brackish river water.

While about half the settlers were craftsmen, laborers, or boys, the other half were by occupation “gentlemen”, untrained and unused to manual labor. That, and the late spring arrival and a drought, did not engender immediate agricultural success. Food gathering expeditions into Algonquian territory sparked conflict with the local confederation of tribes under the rule of Powhatan, including the capture of Captain John Smith in December 1607 as he explored the Chickahominy River, during which he claimed to have been spared from death by Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas.

The colonists did not find gold, although in June, Newport departed for England with a load of treasure which turned out to be pyrite (fool’s gold). Nor did they find a river passage to the Pacific. They did, however, manage to construct a triangular fort for defense and a few buildings for shelter and storage.

The settlement was ravished by disease in August and September 1607. Sickness, hunger, discouragement from their lack of success, and the capture of Smith took it’s toil on the 38 survivors left as the new year dawned. Smith returned on January 2, 1608 to find some of the men about to leave for England aboard the Discovery. To prevent their departure, Smith turned one of the fort’s cannons on the small ship and threatened to sink it.

Smith had a way of finding trouble. As a soldier for hire, he had been captured by Turks in Hungary and enslaved. Harshly treated, he killed his master and escaped back to England. En route to Virginia, Captain Newport charged Smith with mutiny and sentenced him to hang, but upon arrival in the Chesapeake, secret orders were opened that named Smith part of the colony’s council. Now Captain Smith was accused of causing the death of some of his men on the Chickahominy expedition and again condemned to hang. He was spared by the return of Captain Newport that same day on the John and Francis with supplies and new settlers. In 1609, a serious burn from exploding gunpowder would send Smith back to England.

A few days after the return of Smith, almost the whole Jamestown settlement burned, including their supply of food and clothing, leaving the colony hungry and exposed to the bitter winter. Pocahontas ensured the survival of the colonists with gifts of food and clothing, and became an ambassador between the Indians and the English.
The early colonists’ limited agricultural efforts were never sufficient to provide the required sustenance. Trade with the Indians sufficed for awhile, supplemented by supply missions from England, but by 1609 drought and deteriorating relations resulted in the “Starving Time” of the winter of 1609-1610. 60 of 214 colonists survived. The third supply mission had been shipwrecked in Bermuda by a hurricane, losing much of their load of supplies and food. They arrived in Jamestown in May, 1610 to find just a few hungry surviving colonists.

Giving up, the Jamestown and Bermuda survivors embarked and set sail down the James to return to England only to meet a fleet of three ships commanded by the new governor, Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr. “Lord Delaware” turned the evacuation around to begin a new period in Jamestown, whose future would not lie in fool’s gold or the illusive Northwest Passage, but in business-minded farmers like John Rolfe.

See the interactive map
Here are some of the photos from my 2008 trip to Historic Jamestowne:

Archeological digs inside the fort:

Recreated palisades using hand-hewn wooden pegs:

North Bulwark
North Bulwark
East Bulwark
The colonists were instructed to hide their dead from the Indians, so the first graveyard was located within the walls of the fort. The graves are covered with shells.



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