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Jamestown-the dawning of America

  • 20091030-215211-pic-513871853.jpg
    Soldiers and traders left England in December 1606 on a voyage to set up a trading post along the east coast of North America. The voyage took four and a half months along a southern crossing.
Published October 31. 2009 09:00AM

The dawning of what would become the United States began 400 years ago at Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in America. Although Spanish, the Native Americans, and even English settlers had lived on these lands, it was the settlers at Jamestown who would survive, create a fledgling democracy, and lead colonial America.

Today, Jamestown is one of three areas of historic America that form the Williamsburg Triangle. These areas are: Jamestown - the first step leading to the American Revolution, Williamsburg - the first American capital, and Yorktown - where the deciding battle of the American Revolution took place.

At Jamestown, there are two historic areas-both are worth visiting. Historic Jamestown, operated by the National Park Service and Preservation Virginia, is where the Jamestown settlers landed, built their fort and settled their colony. Once it was believed that the original Fort James was underwater, but recent archeology at the site has uncovered the location of the posts for the fencing along with over one million artifacts. The story of Jamestown is being rewritten with discoveries being made everyday.

The second Jamestown venue is Jamestown Settlement. Here, re-enactors demonstrate how the early Jamestown settlers lived. Vast areas include full scale sailing reproductions of the ships that brought the settlers to Jamestown, a Virginia Native American village, a re-creation of Fort James, and demonstrations of blacksmithing, muzzle loading muskets, and tobacco farming.

On May 13. 1607, three ships, the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, after four and a half months at sea, set up a colony along a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. The named the waterway, the James River and the settlement Jamestown, both after English King James I.

Embarking from the ship were the first settlers-104 men and boys. The ships left England in December 1606 with 105 passengers. One had died during the voyage.

The expedition was financed by the Virginia Company of London with the goal of trading with the natives to obtain gold and slver. Captain Christopher Newport led the expedition of traders and soldiers. There were no famers nor women. The colony was not intended to be self-sufficient. Supplies were to be received by ship from England or by trade with the natives.

During the voyage, soldier of fortune John Smith had defied Captain Newport and was scheduled for execution upon arrival in Virginia. However, upon first landing, sealed orders from the Virginia Company were opened. They designated Smith as one of the leaders of the new colony, forcing Newport to spare him.

Newport's orders were to sail inland, far beyond where the ships would be notice by the Spanish fleet, and to anchor at a deepwater defensible port. Jamestown was a perfect location-militarily. It was nearly an island, excepting for a defensible isthmus connecting to land.

Too late, they discovered that the site had no source of fresh water and the James River had turned brackish from several years of drought. This was worsened by the surrounding swamp that hosted disease-carrying mosquitoes.

While exploring the coast, Smith was captured by the Powhatan Confederacy and taken to its chief. Legend had it that his life was saved by the chief's daughter, Pocahontas. A story that was reborn during the late 1800s by a railroad publicist to entice visitors to Glen Onoko-where fictional princess Onoko saved the life of a trader.

Unlike the legend of Pocahontas, depicted in the Disney film, Smith and the chief's daughter never had a romantic relationship. Smith became the leader of the Jamestown settlement and maintained good relations with the Powhatans. He returned to England after being injured when his powder keg exploded.

Son after Smith left, the Powhatan chief that had made peace with Smith, died. The colony suffered from starvation and Indian attacks. The colony could find no gold or silver and it was not able to raise food. The only plant that grew well in the soil and climate was tobacco, but the Virginia tobacco was too bitter to compete with the West Indies tobacco.

In 1613, during a provisioning trip to the colony, John Rolfe brought seeds that he smuggled out of the Spanish held West Indies. This started tobacco farming in Jamestown and became the first export from the colony.

Tobacco quickly used up the nutrients in the soil. To meet the demand for this cash crop, the settlers expanded into the Indian territory. This was the beginning of battles between the settlers and the Native Americans.

In 1619, when a Dutch slave ship stopped at Jamestown, the Africans were taken as indentured servants to tend the tobacco. Soon a slave system developed.

Also in 1619, the Virginia House of Burgesses first representative government in British America began at Jamestown. The Jamestown settlement was never profitable for the Virginia Company. In 1624, they were dissolved and the settlement became a royal colony.

Jamestown continued as the center of Virginia's political and social life until 1699 when the seat of government moved to Williamsburg. The land that was once the first permanent English settlement in the U.S. became farmland and was generally forgotten until the US Congress purchased the site: the fort area in 1907, and the remainder of the island in 1934.

In 1994, Dr. Bill Kelso of the University of Virginia began excavating the site and uncovered evidence of the early palisade fencing and building foundations.

For information about the Jamestown site, see For information about the Jamestown recreation, see:

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