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Jamestown Colony
The History Cat Classroom
The History Cat Classroom
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The Story of Jamestown Colony

Such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of…

In 1607, England became an empire. The Virginia Company of London was granted a charter to much of what would eventually become the southeastern part of the United States. The purpose of this company was simple: make money. Spain had already demonstrated the impact that New World gold and silver could have. England wanted in on the action.

The first shipment of 105 colonists to what would become Jamestown landed in May of 1607. They had spent two weeks scouting for the perfect area to establish the colony. Their number one priority was a defensible position. The peninsula the Jamestown colonists chose was off the Chesapeake coast in Virginia, more than fifty miles up the James River. As a defensive position, they couldn’t have picked a better spot. Situated on high ground the English could train their cannons on enemy ships dumb enough to try and navigate the tricky channels of the James River. The site was also far enough inland to provide warning of the approach of a threatening fleet. But when it came to building a permanent settlement, Jamestown’s location was about as smart as electing Kayne West for president. Surrounded by swampland, the only thing the colonists were going to grow was mosquito bites. But England’s first permanent settlement in America wasn’t built as a place to raise a family. Just look at the passenger list: zero females. Nearly all of the colonists from the passenger list were gentlemen with a few carpenters, masons, and soldiers thrown into the mix. The idea was that Jamestown would yield up gold, silver, timber, furs, or just about anything else that could return home with gold in their pockets and a good story to tell their buddies.

But the Jamestown colonists had made a fatal mistake that would soon turn their little adventure into a cannibalistic nightmare. Little consideration was given to growing food. English gentlemen and soldiers were no boy scouts and had no expertise nor tools for farming. Instead, they thought that it would be easy to swap a handful of shiny buttons and kettles for a hot meal. But the English got off to a bad start, angering the Indians by setting up camp atop their hunting and fishing grounds.The Powhatan wanted the invaders gone more than they wanted the cheap trinkets that the English had to offer.


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Jamestown Pennisula

The Powhatan Wars

The Powhatan were hoping to use the English to their advantage. The powerful Indian nation was made up of 100 villages and they had plans to move the English into one of their satellite settlements and have the English make metal tools for them in exchange for full provisions. The English had a different idea. Jamestown was to be the beginning of a vast English empire that would be built on native land and hopefully in time with native slave labor. It was only a matter of time before the two sides clashed. The English not only refused to abandon Jamestown but instead made plans to build two additional forts. When the Powhatan refused their request the English responded by destroying a sacred burial ground. So far, not off to a good start.

Fed up with the English invaders, the native people began picking off lone colonists who strayed too far from the fort. One unlucky guy got sniped by an arrow when he snuck outside the fort to pee. After that, the rest of the group wisely chose to spend their entire time inside the palisades.  Surrounded by hostile Indians the colonists were trapped like a politician wired to a polygraph. But things kept getting worse....the water in the river had turned brackish and nearly undrinkable as summer arrived and the tides shifted.  The supplies dwindled. There was no gold.  And even if they had found gold it probably wouldn’t have done much for the whole starvation problem. They could only wait and hope for the early arrival of the promised supply ship. Then Malaria stopped by to kill off a few more colonists. 

Immediately, arguments broke out and the colony descended into chaos. Captain John Smith, a soldier with a colorful past, had been appointed by the Virginia Company take control of the situation. More importantly, he was one of the only white men who could peacefully negotiate with the Indians for food and supplies.



In January of 1608, the "First Supply" ship arrived. One hundred new settlers were greeted by thirty-eight men--the rest had died.  With the influx of food and manpower, they quickly added new fortifications and established armed guards who patrolled the area outside of the fort.  This allowed a new dictate to come from Captain John Smith.  "Work or starve."  The colonists were put to work establishing farms to stockpile food for the next winter.  


It was around this time that a gunpowder accident nearly killed John Smith. Some claim that someone had set fire to the gunpowder store intentionally to get rid of the demanding captain. The homes could be re-built but the broken body of the Captain would need more time. Smith was shipped back home to England.  Many were happy to see Smith go as the Captain’s dictates were difficult. After all who could find gold if they were forced to farm for four hours every day. Good riddance to the only tie to friendly native people they had.  Without John Smith, there was no trade.


John Radcliffe, one of the ships captains, took charge. Radcliffe’s philosophy towards the Indians was similar to a lunchroom bully: ‘your Twinkie is my Twinkie’. When he arrived in a native town to force a better trade agreement things went very badly. In a failed attempt to force the natives to trade, he was tied up as the women of the tribe cut out parts of his flesh with scallop shells... and the poor man was forced to watch as they threw bits of himself into the fire before he expired. Death by crustacean is certainly one of the more imaginative ways of torturing someone. Lord De la Warr was up next to take command. With an openly hostile attitude towards the people he called "savages," he decided that the best solution was to attack and burn native settlements. Hostages were taken including the village chief’s wife and children whom they threw into the river and “shot their braynes out”. The Powhatan were not intimidated.

Captain Smith led small groups of armed men out of the fort to try to trade with nearby natives.  He believed that establishing diplomatic ties with the native people was the only way his people would survive the coming winter. He did eventually meet with Powhatan the chief of the Confederacy. But it was not in the manner that he intended. Smith had gotten himself separated from his companions and was captured by a man named Opechancanough. (if you can say his name correctly three times fast, we’ll give you bragging rights). Like all captives, Smith had the glorious prospect of a very lengthy torture ordeal to look forward to. But according to legend the twenty-eight-year-old John Smith was saved by the daughter of Powhatan, Pocahontas, who threw herself on him and proclaimed “Father! I love him”. At which point they fell madly in love and lived happily ever after. But this bit of fiction was the creation of Disney who should never be trusted in telling a historically accurate story. But in reality, our brave heroine was most likely about eleven-years-old at the time. But on the bright side Captain John Smith was able to talk his way out of certain death and broker a peace treaty with the Powhatan Confederacy. Limited trade would begin.  Now the colony of Jamestown only had to deal with Malaria, polluted water, the Spanish, and a miserable profit margin.

Powhatan War

The Starving Time

In a state of war and with dwindling food supplies the colony began to suffer again. By a stroke bad luck, poor preparation, and more bad luck, Jamestown was about to face a time of horror that would nearly destroy the colony. Apparently, waging war on the only people who could provide you with food was not such a smart idea after all. By late autumn food supplies were nearly exhausted because black rats had gotten into their warehouses. Some English resorted to stealing from the Indians which as you can imagine went over as well as a death metal band in a Baptist church. With Smith gone, the Powhatan decided to get rid of the English trespassers once and for all. The Powhatan refused to trade with the English and put the colony under siege to prevent anyone else from supplying them with food.


The winter of 1609-10 was known as the Starving Time.  There would be no supplies and no one to force them to farm. When the food finally ran out the people were forced to eat cats, dogs, horses, and rats.  The colonists were forced to stay within the fort.  "...the natives killed as fast without if our men stirred but beyond the bounds of the blockhouse."  They could only sit and hope.  Two men were caught raiding the storehouses and were tied to posts and allowed to starve.  Archaeologists have disinterred remains of the early colonists and found suspect chopping marks on the bones of one girl who had died at the age of fourteen.  The chop marks were similar to those found on butchered animals. One man was found to have killed his own wife in a fit of hunger and then had, "...cut her in pieces, powdered her, and fed upon her."  This led John Smith to quip, "Such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of."  Smith was back in England by this time and writing down his story for future publication. In a particularly gruesome instance, a few of the colonists decided that Native Americans might have another use and one  that had been killed in a skirmish was"...digged by some out of his grave after he had laid buried three days, and [they] wholly devoured him."   It seems that the people of Jamestown had resorted to cannibalism. Seriously, not even Wes Craven could not have written a better B grade horror film. Jamestown was not going to recover easily. On June 7, 1610, the surviving colonists were done. They had enough and boarded a ship. Where were they going? Presumably, England, but before they even reached the Ocean, a supply ship intercepted them and turned them back towards Jamestown. By the time the fourth relief ship arrived, only 60 settlers were still alive out of the original 500.

Jameston Archeaology

Skeleton of a male, 14 to 15 years old, with a small stone arrow point

The Tobacco Boom

The investors had lost all of their money and the colony was officially bankrupt. By 1624 it was declared a Royal Colony under the direct control of the crown. So what finally saved Jamestown?  It became profitable thanks to lung cancer. John Rolfe, a London Businessman, crossbred tobacco seeds that he had illegally obtained from Spanish Trinidad and found a strain that would grow well and turn a handsome profit.  Finally, Jamestown was worth saving. Peace with the Powhatan finally came when John Rolfe married Pocahontas cementing an alliance between the two groups. But this peace wouldn’t last. Soldiers were sent to guard new colonists.  With the tobacco, boom settlers began pouring into Virginia. The colony went from a few hundred settlers to 1400 by 1622. To encourage further settlement King James offered 50 acres to anyone who would emigrate and additional 50 for each person they brought with them. This incentive was too good to pass up and indentured servants were recruited with promises of free land if they signed a seven-year labor contract. And if you couldn’t find anyone willing to take the offer, unscrupulous colonists resorted to kidnapping orphans or getting people drunk in order to sign indenture contracts.    

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Indentured were little more than slaves with a seven year shelf life.  

Slaves in Virginia
Virginia tobacco plantation

Why Jamestown Matters

The tobacco boom transformed Jamestown and the Virginia colony created England’s first foothold in North America that would spread in all directions. The colonies of Maryland and North Carolina followed.  By 1675, the total tobacco exports to England exceeded 10 million pounds. The taxes collected by this trade brought in 100,000 pounds per year, more than even the sugar colonies in the Caribbean. Virginia tobacco planted the seeds of the southern plantation culture. And with it, African slaves were soon after being imported to work the fields leading to one of the darkest chapters in American history. But the survival of Jamestown set the English on a path to colonization of the entire eastern seaboard. As the population expanded America began to transform into a mini England. From this struggling colony, the seeds of the United States were planted and history changed forever.


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