What comes to mind when you think of Jamestown? A lot of us tend to romanticize this pioneer settlement as being the backdrop for a popular love story between an Englishman and a Native American woman. However, there is more than meets the eye.
On May 14th, 1607, Jamestown became the first English settlement in North America, located near present-day Williamsburg, Virginia. Although Jamestown would suffer many hardships and later be dissolved, it’s celebrated for playing a pivotal role in establishing the fundamentals that make America what it is today.
Let’s briefly explore the history of Jamestown, how it came to be established, as well as its many accomplishments and failures. For a more in-depth study of when Jamestown was settled, check out our American Revolution Time Traveler!
Jamestown is Established
Many European leaders during the 15th and 16th centuries sponsored expeditions with the hopes of finding new land and valuable resources such as gold.
In 1607, a private group of roughly 100 members was organized and financed by the Virginia Company of London to find land in the New World and permanently establish a colony.
The group, mainly consisting of English men and boys, set sail to North America on December 6th, 1606. After searching for the perfect settlement, they arrived at a peninsula near today’s James River in a region that would eventually be named Virginia, after their virgin queen.
On May 14th, they began to build their settlement, which they would name Jamestown after their King, James I. Other names for the settlement would include James Forte, James Towne, and James Cittie.
In their first week of settlement, they experienced a surprise attack but managed to scare the attackers away with a blow from one of their ship’s cannons. By June, their captain headed back to England to bring positive reports to the council.
Trouble in Jamestown Settlement
While their captain was away, the colony suffered greatly from their failure to store up enough food and build a shelter that would last through the winter. They also contracted a number of severe illnesses.
The winter of 1609-10 was known as the “Starving Time,” where the local Powhatan tribe began a campaign to starve the English out of the land. During this time, the colonists stayed confined to their forts for fear of being killed by the Native Americans. Colonists ate anything they could find, including dogs, cats, rats, and shoe leather.
By the time the ship returned in January with new colonists and supplies, 80-90% of the colony had died. When newly named Governor Thomas Gates saw Jamestown, he concluded their best option was to abandon the settlement and return home to England with the remaining survivors.
Upon leaving the bay, they ran into incoming fleets from the Virginia Company, who ordered them to turn around. Onboard would be 150 new settlers and important influencers, such as John Rolfe, who would introduce Jamestown to tobacco cropping.
Other colonists onboard were gold-refining experts, as well as Jamestown’s first women. From there on, the colony would focus on building families, finding gold, and agriculture.
To get a better idea of what Jamestown’s settlement would have looked like, check out our Jamestown Replica 3D Project, which allows kids to make a unique 3-D fort reflecting the way Jamestown looked over 400 years ago!
A Period of Peace
Jamestown made a comeback and was reconstructed with new shelters and crops, including tobacco, which would become Jamestown’s first profitable resource.
The colony would also set in place its first legislative assembly, which the United States would later adopt and improve. By now, the colony was thriving with families and had built up an ample supply of food.
A period of peace with the Powhatan tribe began when colonist John Rolfe married the chief’s daughter, Pocahontas, in 1614. However, after the death of Pocahontas in 1617 during a trip to England, and the passing of her father in 1618, turmoil would strike yet again.
Several attacks were made by the Powhatan tribe, resulting in hundreds of English deaths. Constant fighting between the two communities would continue until 1632 when they finally settled on a peace agreement.
This would only last until 1644 when Chief Opechancanough would plan another attack, which would kill 350-400 more settlers. The attacks were finally put to an end when Opechancanough was captured and killed. His successor then signed a peace treaty with the English, which would make their tribe subject to the English.
Bacon’s Rebellion and the End of Jamestown
The downfall of Jamestown would begin in 1676 when colonist Nathaniel Bacon became unhappy about political issues which some colonists believed to be the Powhatan tribe’s fault. Bacon rounded up 1,000 settlers to attack the tribe, which Jamestown’s governor at that time strongly disapproved of.
Bloodshed between the tribe, as well as Jamestown’s own people, tore the town apart. Fires destroyed nearly all of the homes that were built, along with the church and statehouse.
It ended when Bacon was captured and sentenced to death. However, the damage was too significant to repair. In 1699, Jamestown was abandoned, and the government and capital were moved to Middle Plantation, which they would later rename Williamsburg.
The Lasting Impact of Jamestown Settlement
Today, Jamestown is preserved by the National Park Service and is open to the public as a historical site. Many tourists continue to visit the park each year to learn about the importance of Jamestown and the lasting impact it had on American history.
Jamestown, along with all its many successes and failures, laid the foundations for the America we know today. If not for the people who invested in the Jamestown Colony – its agriculture, government, and religion – the land we live on today most likely wouldn’t be occupied and functioning the way it is.
The good and the bad of Jamestown symbolizes a country which, despite its many mistakes, was willing to keep striving for the success of a new world and people.
More Resources on Jamestown and U.S. History
By now, it is plain to see that Jamestown is full of rich history. One of the many ways you can help your kids experience Jamestown and colonial history in a more personal way is by including hands-on projects, recipes, and dress-up. Our Time Traveler projects can easily help you include these things!
We have a variety of Time Travelers, including Colonial Life, New World Explorers, The American Revolution, and more! To find out why you should implement the teaching of Time Travelers, check out our blog posts, What is a Time Traveler? and Using Time Travelers to Teach American History.