How did the Jamestown colony survive?

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series American Migration

How did the Jamestown Colony Survive?

James I chartered the ‘Virginia Company’ for the purpose of establishing settlements on the Eastern coast of North America. Here is the introduction to the James I Charter that set them on their way to Virginia. They went in search of good fortunes, they found a much more challenging environment than they had expected. How would they survive?

“We would vouchsafe unto them our Licence, to make Habitation, Plantation, and to deduce a colony of sundry of our People into that part of America commonly called VIRGINIA, and other parts and Territories in America, either appertaining unto us, or which are not now actually possessed by any Christian Prince or People, situate, lying, and being all along the Sea Coasts, between four and thirty Degrees of Northerly Latitude from the Equinoctial Line, and five and forty Degrees of the same Latitude, and in the main Land between the same four and thirty and five and forty Degrees, and the Islands “hereunto adjacent, or within one hundred Miles of the Coast thereof…”

James I The First Charter of Virginia; April 10, 1606

New Britain 1609

1609 Promoting New Britain

    • The truth was though that the eastern coastline was going to terribly difficult to settle.
    • Those who arrived to settle Jamestown on 14th May 1607 were going to face the most enormous challenges. The winter was cold and cruel, the land difficult to work and the native Indians wary.
    • The settlers soon succumbed to illness, fevers and pneumonia. They were anxious to find gold and mined the land rather than farmed it, hence they could not feed themselves.
    • They faced troubles with the people who could have helped them, the native Americans and they lacked the discipline necessary to work their way out of difficulties.
    • With no riches to trade, they struggled to survive.

Between 1607 and 1618,  1800 colonists had arrived. By 1618 only 600 were alive, two thirds had died. Between 1618 and 1620, 1200 newly arrived. By 1621 only 200 remained.

The degree of their suffering can only be imagined but much of their suffering could have been avoided. The English settlers did not expect to have to dig in and work, they expected to make their fortune here by finding gold.


The Fort at Jamestown

It took the strength of character of John Smith to change the tide

Captain John Smith however had a vision and a determination to make the settlement work. He and other soldier governors, quite literally ran the settlement with military discipline and ensured its survival against the odds.

He wrote;

“he who shall not work, shall not eat”.

.John Rolfe continued driving the colonists to succeed but they needed to expand outside of their fort, to plant more crops and keep animals and they could only do this if the conflicts with the native tribes abated.

    • The colony slowly grew as people were enticed to join the ‘New England’.
    • Neither gold nor silver saved the Jamestown settlers  but tobacco. Plantations of tobacco sprang up along the banks of the James River and  the settlement of Jamestown was assured.

There is a macabre footnote to this story though

A few years ago a skeleton of one of the colonists was unearthed and showed signs of cannibalism. The winter of 1609 to 1610 was a terrible Winter for early American settlers. Some 240 of the 300 colonists at Jamestown, in Virginia, died during this period which was called the “Starving Time.” Could they really have been driven to eating their fellow colonists? It would appear so, the bones show knife marks comparable to those seen on animal bones.

It is without doubt an astonishing feat of survival.

Click here to visit an interactive map of Jamestown 1607



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