The Birth Of America

Virginia, Earth's only Paradise!" So declared Michael Drayton, poet laureate of England, in a merry ballad marking the departure of three ships crammed with men anticipating fast fortunes in the New World. The prospective colonists set sail from London just before Christmas of 1606, bound for the Chesapeake Bay. It was the last Christmas most of them would ever know.

By the following August, when their Jamestown settlement was barely three months old, almost every day brought a new death.

September found half of those 105 original settlers in their graves. "Our men were destroyed with cruell diseases such as Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers, and by warres," a survivor reported, "but for the most part they died of meere famine."

Thirteen years before the Mayflower brought Pilgrims to Massachusetts, the Virginia colony served as England's toehold on a continent eventually inhabited and governed mostly by English-speaking people. History books list Jamestown, founded in 1607, as America's first permanent English settlement, and its 400th anniversary will be celebrated this year with festivals, exhibits, and commemorative coins, plus a springtime visit by Queen Elizabeth II. But that success in Virginia was not the piece of cake it first was billed to be. For years, Jamestown was a deadly fiasco, periodically in peril and ultimately revived and enriched by cultivation of a habit-forming weed and the toil of indentured whites and enslaved blacks.

In Europe's race to colonize the New World, England started late. For nearly a century after 1492, the English watched with envy as Spain dominated much of the hemisphere that Columbus discovered. In 1587, two decades after the Spanish settled St. Augustine in Florida, the English abandoned their insular ways and planted 110 men, women, and children on Roanoke Island off present-day North Carolina. When a supply ship returned later, all were gone. Even now, no one knows what became of that "Lost Colony."

Sir Walter Raleigh, the favorite courtier of Elizabeth I, reportedly lost 40,000 pounds on the venture. His reward, granted in advance, was knighthood and the Virgin Queen's permission to name the new land Virginia, in her honor. They envisioned Virginia as every place north of Mexico that the English could take and occupy.

Despite the costs and setbacks, pressures mounted for another expedition. English traders imagined colonists producing wine and olive oil, harvesting timber, and uncovering gold. Others saw Virginia as an ideal home for the poor. England's population was rising rapidly, but jobs were stagnant. Ministers noted that God ordered man to multiply and fill the Earth. What better place to do so than the vast and-as they perceived it-empty continent across the sea?

Pacific path. In 1606, several well-to-do Englishmen laid plans for what would become the Jamestown colony. With the blessings of James I, Elizabeth's successor, they formed the Virginia Company, a joint stock company in which investors, known as "adventurers," bought stock worth $3,000 a share in today's currency.

Encouraging investors and settlers alike was the popular notion that there existed on America's Atlantic coast a river within reach of the Pacific-the fabled short cut to Asia sought by Columbus and countless other explorers. Other Englishmen who bet their money or their lives may have seen the London play Eastward Ho! describing customs across the sea. It reported native Virginians gathering diamonds by the seashore and using chamber pots of pure gold.

In December of 1606, colonists and crew members squeezed into their three tiny ships docked in London. Within days of departure, men were bickering and seasick from storms and winds that left the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery anchored a month in the English Channel.

Collegiality remained in short supply as the expedition entered the Atlanti. On the flagship Susan Constant, an outspoken commoner named John Smith annoyed a higher-up and was accused of plotting insurrection. He was confined below deck, sentenced to death at the age of 27 once on shore.

Secret seven. On a stop at Nevis in the West Indies, Smith's foes stood ready to hang him. But the skipper delayed the execution, wanting more evidence before giving his passenger the rope. The young captain's luck improved further when the expedition entered the Chesapeake. The four-month ocean crossing ended with the voyagers dropping anchor on April 26, 1607, near the windswept dunes of a Virginia site they called Cape Henry. There the ship commanders opened a sealed box and pulled out a secret document: the company's instructions for starting a colony.

Read aloud was a list identifying seven members of a ruling council, the settlers who would run the colony. The first six names belonged to men of social prominence. The seventh was the bumptious prisoner in the hold. Unknowingly, someone in London had saved the man who, as much as anyone, would save Jamestown.

The company's other instructions could have been penned by a modern PR executive. Among the do's and don'ts: "Have Great Care not to Offend the naturals [the American Indians]." Don't show fear, weakness, or sickness. And, to keep investors investing and settlers settling, never mention anything unpleasant in letters sent home.

For the moment, there was nothing unpleasant to report. One man who went ashore marveled at the "faire meddowes and goodly tall Trees." But for the next 15 years, the English blundered their way from one calamity to another, beginning with the choice of where to settle. Seeking a spot easy to defend, the colonists picked a marshy peninsula 2 miles long and a mile wide that jutted into the river they named the James, 50 miles southeast of present-day Richmond. They erected a trading post, a storehouse, and a church, sprinkled the grounds with tents made of tattered sailcloth, and named the creation James Town.

No one sensed the lethal implications of the low site with its brackish water and mosquito-thick swamps. Nor did the settlers realize how much food had spoiled in the overlong voyage from London. Had they known, they might have used those days in May to plant a garden instead of scratching for gold. Nor did anyone dig a well, even though every low tide was "full of slime and filth." That summer half the colony died. "God (being angrie with us) plagued us with such famin and sicknes that the living were scarce able to bury the dead," Smith later wrote.

In the captain's view, God was "angrie" because too few of the settlers were willing to work. A third of the colonists were "gentlemen" who, by definition, did no manual labor. Some of the Jamestown gents no doubt did grab a shovel or ax, but many, in Smith's words, did nothing but "complain, curse, and despaire."

Faulty notions. All along, the danger of Indian attack competed with disease and hunger as the No. 1 threat to the colony's survival. On their first night in Virginia, two colonists were wounded by arrows shot by painted warriors hiding behind the Cape Henry dunes. Days later, however, colonists and Indians were dining together on corn bread and water, seemingly confirming the English notion that the natives lacked only a civilizing influence. Thus the settlement that sprouted at Jamestown did so without a protective wall of logs around it. Yet, within a month, hundreds of Indians attacked the outpost, killing two settlers. A strong wall was built quickly, forming a triangular fort.

The American Indians, the English believed, would quit being
savages"-their usual word for Indians-once they learned English manners. But Smith was convinced that Englishmen, too, had a lot to learn: The natives, he wrote, were "our enemies, whom we neither knew nor understood." The English evethought Indians were born white, with skin darkened by paints and dyes.

The Indians likewise guessed wrong about the English. Initially, they did not deem the settlers a threat. Powhatan, the region's powerful chief, expected the intruders to either die off or leave. When their numbers were small, he seemed pleased to swap furs and food for pots and tools. But as ship after ship brought new settlers, including a few women, the chief sensed ominous change. "Your coming hither is not for trade," he suspected, "but to invade my people, and possess my country."

Neither side felt secure. Some mornings found the Indians bringing corn to the settlement. On other days, they peppered the fort with arrows and picked off settlers who ventured outside its walls. In one instance, seven settlers in a boat spotted several native women on a riverbank. When the squaws returned their smiles, the men scrambled onto land, only to be confronted by warriors who had been hiding. Six of the seven managed to rush back to the boat. The straggler was stripped naked and tied to a stake, around which a fire was set. His tormentors used mussel shells to saw off his fingers and toes and skin him. He died as they danced around the flames.

Another ambush landed Smith in the most famous predicament of his life. While ashore during a trip up the Chickahominy River, he was surrounded and captured by hundreds of warriors.

Christmas of 1607 found him being led from village to village as a showpiece. Finally he was brought to a large lodge where a man in a raccoon-skin robe with the tails still attached was sitting. The man was Powhatan, chief of a confederacy of two dozen tribes and 200 villages spread over much of what is now eastern Virginia.

Smith in time would give two very different accounts of what occurred next. The first version, written soon after the event, had the two men discussing their intentions. The chief invited the captain "to live with him upon his river" and engage in trade, Smith wrote, and "this request I promised to performe." Smith, according to this account, then was set free. No role was mentioned for Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas, then 10 or 11 years old.

In the more celebrated record, penned many years later, Smith's head was placed on a stone and men with clubs were told "to beate out his braines." But "Pocahontas the King's dearest daughter ... got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death: whereat the Emperour was contented he should live."

Whatever Pocahontas's role, her father declared Smith his friend and set him free. That friendship, for a while, strengthened Smith's ability to barter for the food that time and again kept Jamestown from going under. With an eye on the benefits of trade, Powhatan seemed to crave peace. "Why should you take by force from us that which you can obtain by love?" the chief asked during one of the several visits Smith would make in the months ahead. "Why should you destroy us who have provided you with food?"

But the relationship between captain and chief was fickle. Whenever they met, Powhatan asked Smith to prove his friendship by leaving his pistol outside. Smith, wary of being overtaken, insisted it's OK for a friend to come armed. At one point, over the objections of Smith, the English gave Powhatan a copper crown. They were delighted when he allowed it to be placed on his head, because it meant he now was a subject of King James. Once the proud chief recognized the symbolism, he ordered another of his intermittent cutoffs in trade.

And kindness, Smith believed, was not to be wasted on savages. After his men beat back a waterborne ambush, he ordered the attackers' canoes destroyed. He relented when the Indians agreed to deliver 400 baskets of corn at harvest time. When they failed to keep their word, Smith started burning their houses. The natives quickly complied.

From his legendary closcall at Powhatan's place, Smith returned to Jamestown and instantly found his life again at risk. For letting settlers be ambushed and killed, council leaders had decided he too should die. Suddenly, a supply ship from London arrived. Its commander, Christopher Newport, the same skipper who had saved Smith's neck in the West Indies, took charge and set the captain free.

No free meals. Five days after Newport's relief ship brought 80 fresh settlers into the colony, one of the newcomers accidentally set a fire that raced from one thatched structure to another, destroying almost the entire village plus the new provisions. Again, food from the Indians helped the settlers hang on till the next supply vessel appeared in the spring.

Summer 1608 found the colonists sick, lame, and complaining about the "silly president," the vain John Ratcliffe, for whom a presidential palace was being built. When Ratcliffe's term expired in September, Smith took over. He promptly scrapped the palace and dispensed a dose of military discipline. "He that will not worke shall not eate," Smith declared as he set the indolent to cutting timber and sawing boards for shelters that would help the colony endure the hard winter. Any toiler who cursed risked the penalty of cold water poured down his sleeve.

Fears of another disaster erupted with the discovery that the entire corn supply had been ruined, either from rotting or by rats. Smith halted all work in Jamestown and divided the colonists into three groups. He sent one bunch upriver to hunt game until the next supply ship arrived. Another went downriver to live on fish. The largest group got by on oysters from the Chesapeake shore.

But nothing Smith could do would give the Virginia Company what it wanted most: gold and a route to the Orient. That summer, the company ordered a new charter with "one able and absolute governor"-not a turn-taking president-serving as Jamestown's boss. Smith was demoted to running a remote lookout garrison. But before that change took effect, an accidental gunpowder explosion burned him so badly that he took a boat to England in October 1609, never to return.

Along with the leadership shakeup came a nine-ship expedition to Virginia, the largest yet, with 500 settlers on board. Since the new governor, Lord De La Warr (for whom Delaware is named), was not ready to leave, a deputy took command. Off the West Indies, a hurricane struck, sinking one ship. Seven of the eight remaining vessels limped into Jamestown just before Smith left for London.

As for the eighth ship, Sea Venture, Shakespeare would write his Tempest from accounts of its bout with the hurricane. For months, the flagship lay wrecked on Bermuda. From its ruin, survivors jury-rigged a new vessel. The deputy governor, Thomas Gates, was on board in May 1610 as it sailed up the Chesapeake Bay. What he found was one of American history's most dreadful horrors.

Survivors called it "the Starving Time." Sensing weakness after Smith's departure, Powhatan had told his subjects to withhold corn. Food dwindled to nothing that winter, and diseases broke out. The famished ate horses and dogs, then cats and rats, and finally the leather of their boots. One man killed, salted, and ate his wife. Of the 500 colonists alive when Smith left in the fall, barely 60 lasted into spring.

Gates decided to shut the settlement and ship everyone to England. They were 15 miles down the James when up the river came a rowboat with wondrous news: The governor, Lord De La Warr, en route from England with 150 men and ample supplies, was in the bay. Three days after it perished, the Jamestown colony was alive again.

His lordship took a whiff of the town he revived, declared it "unwholesome," and ordered a cleanup. Yet troubles persisted. Like many, De La Warr took sick almost as soon as he arrived. Ten months later, he fled to England in search of a cure

When his successor, Sir Thomas Dale, reached Jamestown in May 1611, the colonists were at "their daily and usuall workes, bowling in the streetes." To eradicate such idleness, the company imposed a severe set of rules solemnly entitled Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall. The draconian regulations had drumbeats starting and ending each workday, with whippings for latecomers and early quitters. A single incident of blasphemy merited the lash. A second meant a needle through the tongue, and a third meant death. Execution was prescribed for thieves, runaways, and adulterers. Dale enforced the rules mercilessly, even having a pregnant seamstress lashed for making shirts too short.

Far more useful was Dale's decision to junk what amounted to communism. Since Jamestown's start, all land was held and worked in common, with rations distributed evenly from a central storehouse. There was no incentive for an individual to work harder. Dale assigned colonists plots and let them grow for their own benefit.

It was on one of those 3-acre plots that John Rolfe tinkered with tobacco and transformed Jamestown. The English regarded the tobacco grown in Virginia as much too coarse to compete in the growing world market with the sweet-tasting leaf the Spanish raised in the West Indies. Rolfe took Indies seed, combined it in 1612 with the local variety, and produced a leaf that was smooth to smoke and easy to raise.

In 1614, he sent his first shipment to England. Soon, London was importing tens of thousands of pounds of Virginia leaf a year. Virtually every clearing in the colony was planted with tobacco.

Rolfe also made a decision in his personal life that helped ease Jamestown's relationship with the Indians, which had deteriorated since Smith's exit. In dealing with natives, Smith relied on threats and an occasional hut-burning to show toughness. His successors favored massacres. In one nighttime attack, the English killed 15 men, burned their village, and captured and murdered their queen and her children. Indians responded with attacks of their own. Amid the strife, the English took a hostage-not an ordinary hostage, but Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas. The Indian attacks subsided. While the princess remained in custody, Rolfe got Dale's permission to marry her. In April 1614-the year he first sent tobacco to London-Rolfe and Pocahontas wed in the Jamestown church. In deference to his daughter, the chief would fight no more.

Thanks to Rolfe's tobacco and Powhatan's peace, Jamestown began to thrive, as did England's newer settlements along the James. The colony's population doubled in 1619 when more than 1,200 settlers came ashore. Many paid their way and got 50 acres in return. But most were indentured servants who worked payless for years in exchange for eventual freedom and a share of profits or a piece of land. Ninety were "young and uncorrupt maids," sent as wives for settlers.

That year, amid the sudden prosperity, popular government made its start. The company told its governor to abolish arbitrary rule, usher in English common law and due process, and form a representative assembly. Paradoxically, that also was the year a ship docked at Jamestown with 20 men and women from Africa-the beginning of the slave trade.

When Powhatan died in 1618, the "married peace" died as well. His subjects were retreating to the west, yielding their cornfields to the tobacco-driven colonists. The new chief, Opechancanough, decided the English had encroached enough. On Good Friday of March 1622, his warriors surprised and massacred 347 settlers. The survivors swore to "destroy them who sought to destroy us." Armies of Englishmen torched Indian villages and cornfields and killed hundreds of men, women, and children. The eradication campaign would continue off and on for decades. By century's end, only a few hundred Indians remained in a region once inhabited by tens of thousands.

The GooFriday massacre also spelled the end of the Virginia Company. In 1624, James I dissolved the company and turned Virginia into a crown colony.

No longer were the settlers mere laborers toiling for a stock company. They became free citizens with power to seek landed estates for themselves and their heirs. From calamities and despair emerged a permanent colony, sustaining the aspirations of an early Jamestown ballad: "Wee hope to plant a nation / Where none before hath stood."

More information about Jamestown, its history, and the upcoming 400th anniversary events is available at jamestown

By Lewis Lord