The First English Settlement of the New World: Jamestown, VA

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Almost 412 years ago, three ships carrying 104 passengers left England for the New World. Their arrival set the course of American history as we know it.

The Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, were merchant ships carrying British cargo, men and boys, which landed in Virginia in the spring of 1607. The selected destination was the banks of the James River, for what would become America’s first permanent English settlement, predating Plymouth by 13 years.

Upon arrival, colonists had to cope with an altogether unfamiliar environment, faring weather, bugs, and shortage of supplies. By the time the first winter was over, almost 70% of the original arrivals had perished. However, the remaining settlers persevered, bringing their customs, religion, dress and building styles to their new home.

Europe’s overseas trade and advances in ship building, coupled with the race between Western European empires to colonize, helped keep the spirits up of the remaining colonists. Others were eager to set sail as well, and the new arrivals in the spring included women and indentured servants. The hope to gain wealth and prestige led to the formation of the Virginia Company, the English investment group that sponsored the Jamestown settlement, in 1606.

Native Americans of the New World

The colonists didn’t expect to be the only humans when they set foot on the banks of the James River. The Powhatan community, a confederation of Algonquian tribes led by Wahunsonacock, forged a delicate relationship with the new arrivals for the first several years. The native people engaged in trade as well as conflict with the English, and often took on the role as cultural intermediaries. Unfortunately the relations between the English and Powhatans deteriorated over the decade.

What helped the colonists survive was a mix of their drive as well as the superior weaponry which included gun powder. Unfortunately, entire native villages were also wiped out by smallpox, a silent but deadly disease to the Powhatan tribe. With the odds in the colonists favor, along with the introducing tobacco as their cash crop, the seeds were planted for the British to dominate the colonies for the next 170 years, until the American Revolution.

Historic Jamestowne

A visit to the Colonial Williamsburg, VA will take tourists to a living history village much like the one that Captain John Smith governed during the early 17th century. One can walk in the footsteps of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. Visitors can see what daily life was like for both natives and settlers in the years from 1610-1614. While much is a recreation of what once was, visitors can still see the only surviving above-ground structure that remains, a 17th century brick church tower.

While the United States has progressed, for better or worse over the last 406 years, one can’t forget the origins and struggles of the first settlers. The Jamestown settlers had to harness their environment and every available resource to help them survive, and ultimately create what we now know as the USA.