Jamestown, Virginia

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Jamestown, Virginia was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. The first persons landed on May 14, 1607, one year before the establishment of the City of Quebec in Canada. About 104 persons were sent by the London Company to leave in three ships, the Sarah Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. They came to Virginia to establish a trading post and to search for gold and silver. After five months at sea, the pioneers sighted land at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay on April 26, 1607. They sailed about 32 miles up the James River,and then chose a little peninsula as the site for their settlement. They named both the river and the settlement after King James the First of England.

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Economics of Jamestown

The initial settlers were ill chosen for the task of establishing a colony. Many of the first settlers practiced trades such as weaving and assaying (determining the value of minerals), and some were "gentlemen" who were not expected to work. The English thought that the Native Americans would feed them. However, the Chesapeake was in the midst of a twenty year drought, and the natives had little incentive (or desire) to feed the colonists. Out of the original 104 male colonists, only 38 were alive in January of 1608, when a "resupply" from England landed 70 more settlers, two of them women. In August of 1609, an estimated 200-300 settlers arrived in Jamestown.

John Smith, the leader of the colony, was a former soldier and strict disciplinarian who decreed that “he that doth not work, shall not eat.” (paraphrasing 2Thessalonians 3:10 ) However, food shortages continued. Smith and his successors augmented existing food supplies by sometimes trading for, and other times exthoring food from the local Powhatan peoples. The colony suffered a severe blow in September of 1609 when Smith was badly injured in a gunpowder accident and returned to England.

The leaderless colony suffered through the starving time from the fall of 1609 to June 1610. When Lord De la Warr arrived with resupply ships and 250 more settlers, he found only 60 survivors.

But most of Jamestown’s first settlers sought fortunes, but there was no gold or silver in Virginia. Native Americans had planted and developed tobacco for thousands of years. Smoking was starting to become popular in Europe, even though some people recognized that tobacco was harmful, and wanted to ban it, including the King of England, James I. James went so far as to write a pamphlet called “A Counterblaste to Tobacco” in which he argued that tobacco was offensive to the nose and eye and harmful to the lungs. Some physicians however, actually claimed that tobacco had healthful benefits. In 1613, Englishman John Rolfe, who married Powhatan’s favorite daughter, Pocahontas, began growing tobacco for export to Europe. Cash began pouring in for the tobacco, and this so-called “cash crop” became highly profitable for the Jamestown settlers. As for James I, he enjoyed the revenues that his government collected on the import taxes for tobacco.

Despite profiting from the sale of tobacco, the Jamestown settlement had other difficulties. It had made peace with Indian Chief Powhatan, whose daughter Pocahontas married settler John Rolfe. But after Powhatan died, his brother, Opechancanough, led a sudden attack on the settlers in 1622, massacring 347 out of a total of only 1200.

But Indian strife was only one of many problems. While Virginia was land rich, it was labor poor. Planters began importing indentured servants, who received free travel to the colonies in exchange for a promise to work for seven years. They would then also be given land, seed, some tools, clothing, and later a firearm. As economic conditions in England improved during the seventeenth century, Virginia also turned to a cheaper approach to labor: importing slaves from Africa. The first slaves were imported by Dutch traders in 1619. The English, lacking a tradition of slavery, treated most of the first Africans in the colony as indentured servants. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, Virginia began passing laws that that defined slavery as a permanent and inherited status, making racial slavery a uniquely American invention.

Poles in Jamestown

According to Narod Polski, the publication of PRCUA (Polish Roman Catholic Union of America), a year after the settlement of Jamestown, six Polish setters arrived. They were Zbigniew Stefanski, a glass expert, Jan Bogdan, a tar and ship building expert, Jan Mata, a soapmaker, Michael Lowicki, a nobleman and workers Stanislaus Sadowski and Karol Zrenica.

The colony was intended to be guided by the Church of England but the Poles were Roman Catholic. Each settler was required to attend Anglican services or be punished. However, because of the skills and work ethic of the Poles, they were exempt.

Sources

Primary

Susan M. Kingsbury, The Records of the Virginia Company of London. (Washington, D.C., 1906-1935).

John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. (London, 1624).

Secondary

Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. (New York: Norton, 1975).

T. H. Breen & Stephen Innes,"Myne Owne Ground" Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640-1676 (Oxford University Press, 1980).

T.H. Breen, Tobacco Culture (Princeton University Press, 1985).

Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black (New York: Norton, 1968).

Karen Kupperman, Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (Cornell University Press, 2000).

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