Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
The first permanent English settlement in the New World was Jamestown, Virginia. It was the early 1600’s, 1607 to be precise, when the three ships sailed up the coast of the wilderness. The English had tried to establish a colony a few years earlier now known as the mysterious Roanoke.
The settlement at Roanoke had all the signs of being successful; but when Sir Walter Raleigh returned from England, the settlement was mysteriously abandoned. To this day no one knows what happened. After that, tension between England and Spain increased which did not lead to focus on the new lands. Once a treaty was signed between the new great nations, colonization and exploration took the forefront again.
The Virginia Company decided that gold and other precious resources had to be in the New World. With the treaty with Spain, expansion was more realistic. If the Spanish could bring home reported shiploads of gold, the English could find their own sources. But permanent settlements had to be established to get the gold and the land claims accomplished. The Virginia Company recruited over a hundred men and young boys to go to the New World and begin chiseling out civilization. This group was mainly gentry that saw promise in the new world and a chance to make their mark.
It was not until the ship was pulling into a natural harbor, that anyone one board knew what was next. The Virginia Company had decided before the ship left England who would be the leaders of the new colony. There would be no need for bickering or anarchy. This was to be organized. England was determined to be successful this time. Among the leaders was the famous John Smith that history has so much to say about.
Upon landing and setting up camp, the sailors and colonists received a mixed reception from the native tribes. The Powhatan Indians were watching these newcomers to understand what they were up to. A few welcomed them while a few others shot arrows at them. Neither side was sure of what to do next and how best to approach things.
The first order of business was to build a fort to protect the settlers from the “savages” and the wild animals. They had no idea what the lands would hold for them. Therefore a fort was needed. The first fort proved to be less than adequate which they found out after an attack from the Powhatan’s. The leaders realized that a larger and stronger fort was required. A lesson in not underestimating one’s opponent was harshly learned. About a week after the second fort was erected, the ship set sail for England to bring back more supplies including women to help settle the colony.
It did not take long for hunger and disease to set in. The river water was not as clean as they had anticipated which led to various physical ailments. The gentry were not familiar with the new land and therefore did not know how to go about gathering food from it. The ship first arrived in May of 1607. By September of that same year only half of the settlers were still alive. The winter had not even set in yet, and starvation had appeared in the colony. Anarchy began to set in and the leadership of the colony collapsed. What was to be done to survive? This was not England. They were not the least bit prepared to live in the New World.
One thing that really hurt the settlers was the poor relations with the natives. The Powhatan’s had lived in that area for thousands of years. Obviously, they knew how to survive in the land. With good diplomacy, the natives could have been friends and mentors instead of enemies. But even animosity does not always survive when faced with a feeling of compassion. As the colonists began to starve, the natives began to bring them food. It was only because of the generosity of the tribe that any settlers survived to welcome the ship’s return.
In January of 1608, the ship returned to find only 38 survivors. Those that greeted the ship were in poor health and could barely stand up. What a site for those women and children who were landing on the promising shores! What had they gotten themselves into?
A fire almost destroyed the entire colony and many began to lose hope. John Smith saw the chaos and despair and took command. He began to organize the colony, and the work was completed. He declared that if you did not work, you did not eat. Teamwork was the only thing that was going to get this colony to be around for the next year. Diplomacy with the natives was another focus of Smith’s. He knew that if you want to be successful, you need to listen to those who have gone before. You will learn what works and what does not. It was through Smith that relationships between the Powhatan’s improved and the two cultures were able to work together.
Life in the new colony was hard. The homes had to be built from scratch. There were no realtors to find new homes. There were no markets or stores to get your goods. Everything was to be from scratch. If you did not bring it on the boat, then you needed to find a source from the land. It was a harsh learning experience for the newcomers. They began to realize that offering a peaceful hand can be very important. They began to respect the natives only after nearly starving to death.
Food was limited compared to what they had back in England. Not because of quantity, but because there were no butchers to take care of it all for the consumer. The food had to be grown, harvested, and hunted with their own hands if they were to eat. The settlers learned to eat the local fish including mainly sturgeon which could be had in abundance as well as turtles. They learned to harvest oysters and catch land animals like raccoons. Eventually they learned to grow corn which sustained them through the winters. Though agricultural swiftly turned its focus on tobacco to meet the growing need in England, corn remained strong. How else would they survive?
The settlement did not turn into a big metropolis of today. In fact it was abandoned years later. But it was a success in the end. The settlers learned how to survive and kept their hold on the new lands they claimed. The lessons were harsh and the lifestyles were rough, but the determination and gumption of these settlers helped carry them through.