In the early 1600s, an English preacher named Alexander Whitaker described a land where winters were dry and fair, forests were filled with “rare and delectable birds”, and rivers abounded with fish great and small. His essay was entitled “Good News from Virginia”. Through this writing, the preacher helped recruit Englishmen to live in what was called the New World.
However, many who followed Whitaker’s advice became sorely disappointed. Ten years later, a man named Richard Frethorne would write from Virginia, “I have nothing to comfort me, nor is there nothing to be gotten here but sickness and death.” Whitaker’s description of the territory had been accurate, but settlers soon realized that it was no place for unprepared Englishmen.
In 1607, about 100 male settlers sailed from England to the Virginia territory, which was owned by the for-profit Virginia Company of London. Unlike later colonists, these men were “gentlemen adventurers” primarily interested in finding gold; farming and the creation of community were neither their skills nor their priorities. Many were accustomed to having servants back in England, and they were not equipped in ability or spirit to forge a new life in the wilderness.
When the men arrived on behalf of the Virginia Company, they decided to settle land alongside a river in the Chesapeake Bay. They dubbed this the James River, and they named their colony Jamestown in honor of King James I.
In several ways, the men selected their land well. First, they were nestled far enough upstream to avoid an ocean attack from the Spanish, who were competing for resources. Second, the James River provided a quick escape route in case native people attacked. Third, the river was a useful transportation route for supplies.
What went wrong in such a location, where “delectable birds” and fish were abundant? One problem occurred during high tide. Salt water poured from the Atlantic into the James River, and men who drank this became ill. The swampy area was also a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which spread fatal diseases including malaria, typhoid fever, and dysentery. Furthermore, the men did not know how to farm this sort of land. Their food supplies quickly ran out, forcing them to roast rodents and dogs and turn to cannibalism. By 1609, only about 60 of 300 eventual colonists had evaded starvation, deadly disease, and attacks by natives. Thereafter, the winter of 1609-1610 was referred to as “the starving time”.
The Virginia Company soon regarded Jamestown as a near failure. They decided that a new sort of man must be sent overseas – not the gentlemen adventurer in search of easy gold, but the hardworking man who could actively contribute to a new society. Thus in 1609, the company began sending indentured servants to Virginia. The terms of servitude included five to seven years of unpaid labor, but in return, servants would receive supplies for a new life of freedom: 100 acres of land, clothes, tools, and weapons.
This strategy was initially promising as wealthy men convinced their servants to move overseas. These wealthy settlers received fifty acres per servant brought, so they quickly amassed large plantations. They learned to grow tobacco, which they promptly shipped to London. Within ten years, the settlers had developed a strong European tobacco market, and the crop became Virginia’s main source of income. Women, both free and enslaved, joined the men. Jamestown started to reflect English society a bit more, but in many ways it remained a chaotic campsite.
Ultimately, about 14,000 people participated in the Jamestown experiment. However, the death rate from Indian confrontations and disease remained extremely high. In 1624, King James dissolved the Virginia Company and converted the territory to a royal colony.
Jamestown served as the capital of Virginia throughout the 17th century. In the 21st century, tourists can visit the site of the settlers’ fort, tour a museum, and ride the Jamestown Ferry for a view similar to that seen 400 years ago by the ill-prepared gentlemen adventurers.