Early Jamestown Colony

England’s King James I granted a charter to the Virginia Company of London to form a settlement in North America in 1606. At the time, Virginia was the English name for the entire eastern coast of North America from Florida north to Canada. It was named for Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen.” The Virginia Company planned to search for gold and a sea route to the Pacific Ocean that would allow them to establish trade with Asia. 

In December 1606, about 100 colonists (nicknamed Cavaliers) left England on three ships and in May the following spring, landed on a narrow peninsula in the James River, where they would begin their lives in the New World.

The location was chosen because it was far enough inland to hide them from Spanish ships that went up and down the coast. It also provided a deep water anchor for their ships and the island-like peninsula provided protection from any Native American groups in the area.  

The new settlement consisted of a triangular wooden fort built around a storehouse for weapons and supplies, as well as a church and a number of houses. They called it Jamestown after King James. Almost immediately, the settlers suffered greatly from hunger and illness, as well as the constant threat of attack by members of local Algonquian tribes, most of which were organized into a Confederacy led by Chief Powhatan. This period became known as the "Starving Time".

Chief Powhatan and John Smith – one of the leaders of the colony – would reach an understanding and create a much-needed trading partnership by early 1608. Though skirmishes still broke out between the two groups, the Native Americans traded corn for beads, tools and other objects from the English, who depended on this trade for their survival. When Smith returned to England in late 1609, the colonists suffered through a long, harsh winter, during which more than 100 of them died. Many were forced to eat rats, leather, or any food they could find. The remaining colonists were set to abandon Jamestown the following spring, however two ships arrived with 150 new settlers as well as food and other supplies.  

These new colonists built forts and settlements up and down the James River, and by the fall of 1611 managed to harvest a good crop of corn themselves. They also learned valuable lessons from the Powhatan Indians about how to survive in the winter. 

After the colonist and tobacco planter John Rolfe married Pocahontas, a daughter of Chief Powhatan, in 1614, a period of relative peace began. Rolfe also began to grow a new, smoother type of tobacco that caught on in England and brought some prosperity to the colony. In 1619, the colony established an elected assembly known as the House of Burgesses that would become a model for representative governments in later colonies. 

As the colony grew, Africans arrived as indentured servants to work the expanding tobacco and cotton plantations. This growth led to further conflicts with the Powhatan and Algonquians. However, disease struck the Native Americans hard and that combined with the constant arrival of new colonists from England forced the Powhatan to sign a treaty ceding most of their land to Jamestown in 1646.