It is December 1606, and at the Blackwater docks in London, England 144 men and boys prepare to set sail for a historic voyage across the Atlantic. They board three ships; the Mary Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. These men and boys are laborers, stockholders, and volunteers (i.e. indentured men) under the employ of the Virginia Company of London. It is the Virginia Company's directive to establish English settlements in North America. This will be the company's first expedition. The voyage was a long one, even by the standards of the time. After 144 days at sea, with a brief stop in Puerto Rico, the three ships arrived at a point at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Wading ashore on April 26th, 1607 the men erected a cross and named the point Cape Henry in honor of their monarch's eldest son. Staying for a mere three days, the colonists quickly determined that Cape Henry wasn't an acceptable site for a settlement. They re-boarded their ships and set sail farther up the Chesapeake, looking for a more hospitable place to call home. For the next two weeks they sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and James River looking for a place which would sustain them as well as offer protection from local tribes. On May 14, 1607 the men splashed ashore onto Jamestown Island. Here, they would make their bid to colonize America.
The first order of business was to build some type of protection against the natives. This they did in the form of what they called James Fort. The fort was surrounded by a wooden palisade and had a simple triangular shape with three circular bulwarks at each corner. Once the walls were completed other buildings (storehouses, rowhouses, barracks, a church) were constructed and then the men set about working to make the colony viable. The first few years at Jamestown were deadly for the initial settlers of the colony. In the first three months alone all but 38 men had died. By 1610, after a particularly brutal winter known ever since as 'the Starving Time', only 60 of 500 colonists remained alive. Despite these hardships the colony pressed on. Under the leadership of determined men such as John Smith who had declared, "he who does not work, does not eat" the colonists were given the direction needed to succeed in their venture. Even so it was touch-and-go, until 1610, when the arrival of one John Rolfe and his supply of strange seeds changed everything.
The seeds Rolfe was carrying were from Bermuda, and they were tobacco seeds. Initially there was little interest when Rolfe started growing the plant in 1612. That attitude changed quickly, however, and in the intervening years tobacco exports helped transform Jamestown from a colony on the edge of extinction to the center of English commerce in the New World. Jamestown started to thrive. Between 1618 and 1622 Jamestown was the site of many milestones in early American history. In 1619 the first democratic assembly in America was formed, called the House of Burgesses. Also in 1619 came the arrival of the first Africans (all of whom were freedmen, not slaves) to the new colony, the first recorded in the New World. By 1622 the colony had a population of around 1,400 people and had long since outgrew the confines of the 1607 fort. A townsite was plotted out along the banks of the James. It would be called 'New Towne' or, more officially, James City. Warehouses sprung up all along the riverfront and new, more stately homes started to line the streets as the colony became ever more wealthy. As the 1600's wore on James City continued to be the political and economic center of the Virginia Colony. Though there were numerous small 'wars' with local tribes, particularly through the 1630's and 1640's, the colony continued to expand with some 5,000 colonists inhabiting the Chesapeake Bay area by 1634. Disaster once again visited Jamestown in 1676. This disaster came in the form of an uprising against the colonial government led by Nathaniel Bacon and, subsequently, called 'Bacon's Rebellion'. On September 19, 1676 Bacon and his band of men burned the colonial capitol to the ground. The rebellion was short-lived, however, and by 1677 residents of the burned-out capitol began to return and rebuild. For another two decades Jamestown continued to thrive until a single structure fire would change it forever.
On October 20, 1698 the colonial statehouse burned to the ground...for the fourth time. It had for many years been known that the government facilities at Jamestown were inadequate to the needs of the growing colony and its governing body. After the fire the assembly moved (for at least the fourth time) to temporary chambers at the College of William and Mary at a place called Middle Plantation. Not long after arriving students of the college and other prominent men began advocating that the colonial capitol be permanently moved to Middle Plantation. They sited as benefits the access to two rivers that the location at the center of the narrow peninsula provided, as well as health benefits since the area was well removed from the lowland swamps. The House of Burgesses agreed and, in 1699, the capitol of the Virginia Colony was officially moved to Middle Plantation which was, in turn, soon given its modern name; Williamsburg. The removal of the capitol from Jamestown changed it forever. Industry reverted to agriculture. By the mid-1700's much of the land on which the town sat was in private hands and cultivated. Though it was the site of minor military outposts during the American Revolution and the Civil War, nature reclaimed James Island and little evidence of America's first settlement remained by the turn of the 20th Century.
This isn't to say that Jamestown was forgotten. Starting in 1807, visitors came to the island to remember and pay respects to the the brave men and women who first settled this place. Anniversary celebrations followed in 1857 and 1907. In particular, the 300th Anniversary 1907 celebration saw the Tercentennial Monument erected as well as the Memorial Church alongside the still-standing 1690 church tower. Today the site is co-managed by the National Park Service and Preservation Virginia. Through extensive archaeological studies, which are ongoing today, we continue to learn more and more about the Jamestown site and the people who lived and worked there. If you would then, come along with me as I visit the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America...Historic Jamestowne...