Jamestown, Virginia: America’s First Permanent English Colony

This blog provides educational material from session two of FreedomCivics® – Foundations of American Government.

Earliest Attempts at Settlement

In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh sponsored an unsuccessful attempt to colonize Roanoke Island offshore from present-day North Carolina. He planned to establish an English stronghold in North America to prevent Spain from claiming land north of Florida, but sadly – and mysteriously – this settlement, known as the “Lost Colony,” vanished.

The plan to settle North America resumed in 1666 when English King James I granted the Virginia Company of London a charter to found a colony and spread Christianity. The objective was also to discover gold, a water route to the Pacific Ocean, and the Lost Colony of Roanoke. This joint stock company financed the expedition and the colony by selling shares of stock to investors to raise capital. They believed that the colony would produce wealth and trade their products in England. The company, its investors, and the settlers all hoped to make a profit.

The settlers promised to work for the company in return for housing, food, supplies, and a share of stock in the company. The shareholders in England would be paid. After seven years, the company would grant the colonists 100 acres of land. At that time in England, the plan sounded beneficial to everyone. But was it successful?

The 40 sailors and 104 Englishmen and boys who survived the voyage sailed up the James River in May 1607. On a marshy peninsula, the settlers built a fort and established Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in North America.

Most of the colonists were of the gentry class (gentlemen who lived off rental payments and did no manual labor) and adventurers. Some craftsmen and laborers also came. But the colony had no women or families. The gentlemen and explorers expected to find gold and silver, as the Spanish had in Mexico and South America. The Jamestown men were disappointed that gold didn’t wash up on the shores. The gentlemen didn’t know how to farm. They thought that physical labor was beneath their status.

Initial Hardships & Limitations

The settlers were unprepared for the harsh conditions in Virginia. They arrived during the area’s most extreme drought in the past 770 years, according to recent scientific studies.

The drought led to contaminated drinking water, lack of food, and worsened relations with the native Powhatans. Neither the Powhatans nor the settlers could grow enough food. The corn crops on which they depended failed. The settlers couldn’t leave the fort to hunt or fish for fear of being killed by the Powhatans. These conditions caused malnourishment and disease, including malaria. More than half of the colonists died in that disastrous first year.

The Virginia Company’s actions made matters worse. King James appointed a president and council that ruled from London. Initially, the company owned all the land, buildings, and tools. Each person worked as he was able (or willing) for the company storehouse and the common good. Each person received food and other items he needed from this common store. The workers owned nothing other than personal items. As a result, no one had any incentive to work beyond the minimum necessary to receive his share from the common food supply. Creativity and risk-taking diminished because each colonist received an equal share of goods. Some of the men refused to work. And why should they?

Change & Growth

When Captain John Smith became the Virginia Company’s third president in September 1608, he refused to continue this practice. He knew that no society could flourish if it ignored a fundamental principle found in the Bible and familiar to settlers: if you don’t work, you don’t get to eat (except if sick or disabled). Under Smith’s leadership, the colony flourished – more crops, new industries, and improved relations with the Native Americans. But this progress ended when Smith was injured and had to return to England in September 1609.

Then came the “Starving Time” of 1609-1610 at the height of the drought. The ship carrying more settlers and necessary supplies was stranded in Bermuda. The Powhatans, who also were starving, refused to provide food to the settlers. The shareholders demanded to be paid, but the company and colony were in financial ruin, and the settlers were just trying to survive. No one was profiting.

Sir Thomas Dale, the new acting governor, found the colony in disarray in 1611, so he took immediate and drastic action. To restore order and fix the failing colony, he imposed harsher discipline and martial law. In 1613, as governor, he also carried out company reforms. The most important reform was abandoning communal agriculture. He increased incentives by granting three acres of land to the early settlers and smaller plots to more recent arrivals. Crop planting and productivity increased because of private land ownership.

During this time, the extreme drought ended, and more settlers, including women, and supplies arrived. One of the newcomers, John Rolfe, married Chief Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas. Their marriage ushered in a period of improved relations between the tribe and the colonists. In 1614, Rolfe experimented with planting tobacco seeds from the Caribbean. His crop was so well received in England that it became Jamestown's first profitable export.

Setting the Stage for a New Nation

In 1618, Sir George Yeardley was appointed governor of the colony. The Virginia Company instructed him to carry out comprehensive reforms detailed in the new “Great Charter.” Right away, Yeardley restored financial and political order and increased each settler’s allotment of land to fifty acres. He also began transferring land from the Virginia Company to the settlers as promised after seven years of work for the company. Land and home ownership created a strong incentive to be productive because they benefited personally from their own work. Conditions in the colony promptly improved.

Conditions further improved in 1619 when Sir Edwin Sandys, one of the Virginia Company's founders, was elected as the company’s treasurer (a position similar to chairman). Although he never went to Virginia, he advocated free trade and increased immigration, including more women. He knew that families were essential for a stable society. He also encouraged more industries and exports. But tobacco still proved to be the most profitable crop, and it raised colonists’ standard of living.

Under Yeardley and Sandys, the General Assembly was formed and first met in 1619. It was the forerunner of two-house state legislatures and U.S. Congress. The Virginia Company was represented in the General Assembly by the governor and an appointed council. Men who owned property elected 22 burgesses to the House of Burgesses.

Through the representation in the House of Burgesses, in 1619, the first shipload of African slaves arrived in Virginia. The African slave trade had existed centuries prior to the establishment of the British colonies in North America and had been a profitable business for Portuguese, Spanish, and Muslim traders operating throughout Africa.

Europeans and Muslims exploited native African tribal societies, trading goods for prisoners taken in inter-tribal conflict. The slave ship’s original destination was Mexico, but after the fifty African slaves arrived in Jamestown, chattel slavery became one of several methods of meeting the labor demands of the new colony. But another generation passed before slavery took hold as crucial to Virginia’s economy.

Few historical records exist regarding these African men, women, and children. They were likely put to work on the tobacco plantations surrounding Jamestown. Under English law, there was no hereditary slavery then. Some of the Africans became indentured servants rather than slaves. Indentured servanthood was common means for English and other European settlers to pay for their travel to the colonies, where they sought better opportunities than were available to them in Europe.

Failure, or Success?

While the Virginia Company never became profitable and was often mismanaged, the Jamestown Colony was certainly a success by other measures. It established Great Britain’s control of the territory and the spread of the English language, laws, religion, and culture to the New World. It showed that private property ownership gives people incentives, whereas communalism incentivizes laziness. And it laid the foundation for representative government in the future United States.

To learn more on this topic, a full text with more information about the first colonies is provided in Session 2 of FreedomCivics® – Foundations of American Government.

FreedomCivics® is a 20-session curriculum that includes discussion questions, activities, resources, quizzes, and a final exam. For more information about the course, please visit or contact us with the information below.

© 2022 Freedom Education Foundation, Inc.

Contact Derek Hanusch at crhyne@freedomeducation.org


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