In December of 1606, three ships left England, headed for the New World. They were funded by a company called the Virginia Company. At that time, British companies were given a charter by the king of England that gave them a huge tract of land in the New World, in exchange for bringing goods back to England to make money for the crown and for themselves. The Virginia Company named their huge tract of land Virginia. Now they had land; they had a name; what they needed were colonists to do the labor in the New World and generate goods. The company offered any man who signed up 50 acres of land in Virginia to be awarded once the colony was established. 50 acres! That was a huge amount of land. The Virginia Company found many men eager to sign up.
By spring, the three ships had arrived in the New World, in the tract of land called Virginia. They found a river. The colonists named it the James River after their king, James I of England. They traveled upriver for about 30 miles or so until they spotted what they thought would be the perfect place to start a colony. They had found nearly an island, surrounded on three sides by water, that was connected to the mainland by a sand bar. The water was deep enough to anchor a ship, but far enough inland that it was relatively safe from attack by the Spanish. It was not inhibited by the Native population, but the natives they did see on the mainland appeared friendly. The colonists called their new home Jamestown, again after their king, James I of England.
First thing they did was build a fort with defensive walls. They were not worried about the natives. They were worried about the Spanish. Their fort was triangle shaped, with an open space inside. Artillery was set up on the three corners to defend the English people. The colonists put up some tents. A couple cabins were started. They made a church by stretching canvas between two trees. Things were moving forward.
Unfortunately, the colonists were badly equipped to start a colony. About half of the colonists had been "gentlemen" back in England. They had little or no work experience. They knew nothing about farming or building. They had no intention of doing any of the work. They expected the others to feed and care for them. As you can imagine, this did not go over well with the other colonists.
Things got worse. Fresh water was in short supply. Many colonists died from drinking water from the slimy, salty river. The colonists soon ran out of game on the "island" and had to search for game on the mainland, which was the hunting ground of the local Indian tribe. This did not make the Indians happy. They had grown tired of giving the colonists food and now the intruders were hunting food on their land. They decided not to give or sell the colonists any more corn. With only two doctors, low supplies of food and fresh water, and almost no medicine to combat disease, by the end of the summer half the colonists had died.
- More colonists might have survived if the colonists had planted more crops before winter set in. They did harvest, but it was not enough. They were not worried about food, not at first. They expected ships to arrive from England with fresh supplies. But only a few ships arrived. The ships brought some supplies, but the ships had been sent to take goods back to England, goods that had not yet been created by the colonists.
- More colonists might have survived if the colonists had abandoned their original settlement and moved inland where food, fresh water, and firewood were in ample supply. They did not know if the natives would remain friendly if they moved inland. The fort they built on the "island" did offer some protection. So they stayed put.
Something had to be done, or everyone would soon be dead. Captain John Smith, one of the colonists, took charge of the colony. He was an unlikely leader. He was an adventurer. Earlier in his life, he had been thrown overboard from ship in the Mediterranean Sea. He managed to swim and reach a deserted island safely. He was picked up by an Egyptian ship. He was captured by the Turks and sold into slavery. He escaped and fled into Europe. He wandered until he reached England. There he joined the colonists on their way to the New World. All this had happened in his life, and he was still a young man. In spite of, or perhaps because of his adventures, or simply because it was in his character, he turned out to be a wonderful leader.
Captain John Smith made everybody work. If you didn't work, you did not get food. He had some of the colonists dig wells to find more fresh water, and they found some! He took a group of military men and visited the Indians. He demanded they sell him corn or he would take it by force. The Indians found that very funny. The Captain attacked, chased them out of their village, and stole their religious icon. The Indians wanted their icon back. They offered a boatload of corn as ransom to obtain it. After that, the Captain traded with the Indians honestly when he could, fought them when he had no choice, and forced all colonists to pitch in and help. Captain John Smith saved the colony of Jamestown.
The sad times were not yet over. Captain John Smith had traveled to England. While he was gone, there was a drought. The friendship between the Powhatan Indians and the English colonists deteriorated. The colonists demanded to buy too much food. The Indians refused to provide it. That winter was known as the "Starving Time." The colonists were afraid to leave the fort due to a very real fear that the local Indian tribe would kill them. To avoid starving they ate rats, lizards, land the eather from their shoes. By early 1610, four years after they had arrived, most of the settlers had died from starvation and disease.
Once again, the colony was saved, this time by a group of shipwrecked settlers who finally arrived at Jamestown, and a ship that arrived in the nick of time with supplies from England. They had seeds with them to plant tobacco. There was a huge demand for tobacco in England. With fresh supplies and more men to help, the colonists began planting as much tobacco as they could. Ships started to arrive from England loaded with supplies that they traded for shiploads of tobacco. With tobacco as a cash crop, the Virginia Company finally realized the profits they had hoped to make, as did the crown, and the settlers were well stocked with food and other supplies.
What was missing were families. A few colonists had brought their wives, but the colonists were almost all men. One day, the Virginia Company sent a ship from England with ninety young women of good character who were willing to come to the colony of Jamestown and marry a colonist. Talk about excitement! The men dressed in their best and welcomed the maidens. No woman was forced to marry anyone against her consent. Each could choose a husband. More ships arrived with more women. Soon, the settlers had homes and families and were content to remain permanently in the New World.