About Jamestown


Jamestown was Virginia’s colonial capital for almost nine decades after its founding in 1607. It was where major threads of our heritage were spun and woven into our national fabric and the building of our nation began. What our ancestors accomplished there is more relevant and important than who they were and when they came. Their 17th-century achievements instigated our own nation-building and what we are today.

Most of our Society’s Qualifying Ancestors arrived while Jamestown was Virginia’s commercial and political center.  The settlement remained small during those years because the colony’s agrarian form of economy did not foster towns and cities, as in New England. Development continued only slowly and it would always stay much as a rural village, despite its important political stature.

Some prominent 19th and 20th century chroniclers of colonial American history labeled Jamestown a “fiasco” or “failure”; they ignored the fact that our earliest colonial ancestors tenaciously established the first extensions of English culture, customs, religion and governance to the New World. Those extensions included practical knowledge from the home country’s many centuries of instituting a functioning governing structure and what made it work effectively.

Accounts of Jamestown’s beginning often describe tenets that began taking form during its second decade, but fail to tell how they became established. Historians now tell us that what was learned there by experience enabled it to serve as the colonial model for Plymouth and then for the British Empire. Our ancestors also then began to nurture key fundamental rights and constitutional principles on which our country would be created fifteen decades later. Today on the banks of the James River, archaeologists are teaching us the true history of those intrepid Englishmen.

What We Are Learning…

Much of what we know about Jamestown comes from our ancestors’ and others’ contemporary accounts and chronicles. Because many of its official records were lost and destroyed by war, historians have had to piece together Jamestown’s history from fragments and documents that have been surfacing from time to time. Among major sources are local Virginia records and official and private family and other papers that have been found here and in England. Some, in Spanish governmental archives, remained unknown for almost three centuries until 1890.

Jamestown’s sole surviving 17th-century edifice is the brick remains of a church tower that recently has undergone repair and partial restoration and, now, exploratory examination. Archeological explorations began in the mid 19th century and continued into the early 20th. The 1950s brought more extensive work that studied the settlement’s expansion from its earliest years.

In 1994, archaeologist Bill Kelso and the Jamestown Rediscovery team began their dig that soon revealed its first two most important finds: evidence of the first James Fort and, in 2010, the first Protestant church in America; both helped to confirm the colony’s origins, which led to unearthing other principal buildings. In 2012, the archaeologists were also able to verify 17th-century accounts of Jamestown’s nadir and darkest days. In 2015, they announced the discovery of the graves of four of its founders, including a religious object that reflects issues of faith at that time. They are now examining the remnants of the 1617 church where the First Assembly –the first elected representative legislature in the New World – was convened in 1619. That body remains extant and still governs. They are also exploring other churches that were built later on or near the site.

Our early settler ancestors’ lives, customs, work, religious practices, relations with natives and travails are becoming better known and understood, and new stories are emerging from the millions of relics and artifacts being recovered from that archaeological dig, now into its third decade. It is from here that Jamestown’s full history and relevancy unfolds over its near-century of existence.

The Founding and Early Years

On May 14, 1607, after a five-month voyage from London, 104 men and boys landed on a marshy river peninsula in an alien New World wilderness to found Jamestown as America’s first permanent English settlement. Their trading and exploring expedition’s goals and objectives were set by private investors in the Virginia Company of London, chartered by King James I. For what followed, that landing has more profound and salient meaning than merely being one of our national origins.

Our first colonial ancestors faced mosquito-infested swamps as well as enigmatic Powhatan Indians and the fear of attack by the Spanish. Only one of three would survive the first year. The fledgling outpost was also challenged by the worst drought in 800 years, disease, the Little Ice Age, severe famine and internal strife.  It was very briefly abandoned in spring 1610 after just a fraction of its inhabitants survived that winter’s Starving Times, but was immediately rescued and reorganized to become enduring colony.

The settlers then struggled to establish a viable, then vibrant, community in those early years, despite devastating mortality rates. Thousands succumbed, even as Jamestown became America’s first boomtown in the 1620s, based on tobacco – our nation’s first major industry and the one that would economically help underpin its development and our country’s founding.

Our own nation building began with the creation of private property within ten years of the first settlers’ landing. In 1616, the Virginia Company of London made fifty-acre land grants to its investors in lieu of a dividend that it was unable to pay from profits. A year later, to spur immigration and agriculture, it began making similar grants, called “head rights,” to those of our ancestors determined to be “Ancient Planters,” who had arrived before 1616, paid their own passage and remained for three years.

Those who arrived later or underwrote passage of more immigrants also received head rights. Those grants became the New World’s first land patents owned by common citizens, instead of by the monarchy, aristocracy or Church, as had been the time immemorial practice in Europe and England. By 1623 – only sixteen years after our Jamestown ancestors first arrived – the Company had converted all landholdings to private ownership.

In 1618, the Company directed our ancestors to establish the New World’s first elected representative legislature as a part of a General Assembly to more effectively govern themselves and manage their affairs and finances. “… [The then] Governor Yeardley effectively enfranchised all adult male colonists when he required every free man and company tenant to vote in 1619. Yeardley’s standards remained in effect…[until] 1670.” The July 1619 Assembly was composed of “burgesses” elected by each of the colony’s settlements and the Company’s appointed governor and council of state (councilors, or advisors). This new venture into delegated governance would forever influence the political development of England’s colonies and our own form of government.

During six days, the First Assembly “inaugurated a new era in colonial government” with its approval of the “greate Charter” of 1618, the source of its creation. Its other actions, which included establishing the rule of law and articulation of a language of rights, would later lead to our own fully developed constitutional system “in which the preservation of peace and order would lay in the foundations of representative government.” Initially, the Assembly functioned with relative political and legislative naivety, but, as the century progressed, its members would master the mysteries of governance and their emergent society. According to Encyclopedia Virginia, “…in 1627, the assembly received de facto recognition when the king asked the General Assembly to take part in regulating the tobacco trade.”

In The Jamestown Project, historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman observed, “Through a decade’s trial and error, Jamestown’s ordinary settlers and their backers in England figured out what it would take to make an English colony work. This was an enormous accomplishment achieved in a very short period of time, a breakthrough that none of the other contemporaneous ventures was able to make.” She also pointed out that they created the colonial model for self-sufficiency and local governance that was then used at Plymouth and to create the British Empire.

In late August 1619, the first recorded group of “20.and Odd” Africans landed at Jamestown in an unknown state of bondage. They joined several who were already here; their number would gradually increase from between thirty and fifty in the 1620s to a few hundred during the colony’s first half century, while the influx of bound (indentured) English servants grew by tens of thousands in those decades. Most of those bound English were treated like virtual slaves and would not live out their contracts. Jamestown’s viability was built on their backs.

The African who arrived in 1619 are thought have been initially bound to agricultural labor and service under terms similar to English servants’ contracts or indentures for specified numbers of years, as “no such condition of lifetime servitude was recognized in English or Virginia law at that time.” As such, they were bound to serve prominent settlers. When they completed their terms of indenture as servants, several achieved their freedom and the capacity to acquire land and property of their own, but others found themselves bound by what proved to be indefinite terms. Involuntary African immigration and legalized slavery were introduced in the 1650s and ‘60s following the leads of the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies. During the mid-17th century, Professor Christopher Tomlins tells us, “…the Northern English colonies had more slaves than the Chesapeake.”

By 1623, the Company’s principal London backers were disputing among themselves while again redefining its objectives; they had also become dissatisfied with its policies and lack of business success and profits. The following two years brought matters to a head and set the stage for a major change in the colony’s status and structure. The Crown became involved and the English establishment had begun to realize Virginia’s economic potential was in tobacco, despite James I’s abhorrence of the weed.

The news of the Powhatans’ March 1621/22 attack on the colony and loss of over a quarter of the settlers was one of the final blows for the Company and its private backers. It was also realized that, while over 7,000 people had emigrated there since Jamestown’s founding, only one of six had survived. These were chief among the factors that triggered the commission of a royal inquiry, revocation of the Company’s charter and its dissolution in 1624. Over a thousand investors lost all; the equivalent of tens of millions in today’s money. When James I died in March 1625 without resolving the colony’s status, his son, Charles I, made Virginia a crown province.

Beyond Jamestown’s Beginning

Jamestown Rediscovery is primarily focused on the colony’s earliest years. Many popular histories cover only its first seventeen years. Professor Warren M. Billings tells us that the significance of Jamestown, however, lies beyond them: “[It] was in the decades after 1624 that the social, political, and economic implications of those [earlier] developments played out, and Virginia became a place quite unlike anything the [colony’s] backers envisioned, even in their wildest dreams.”

During those decades, our surviving ancestors were joined by almost a hundred thousand more who were lured or sent from an economically distressed and overpopulated England by demands for cheap labor and opportunity. As historian James Horn relates, “…about three-quarters of all English settlers arrived in Virginia as indentured servants…[who] (not enslaved Africans) would comprise the main source of labor in the tobacco fields during the entire century” and presaged those who subsequently were brought involuntarily. Their unpaid labor enabled Jamestown and Virginia’s early growth, but at the price of extremely high mortality. Some that survived and satisfied their contracts went on to play important roles in the colony and local economy.

Others came unbonded and ambitious, and they too would participate in establishing the foundations of our American economic system, form of government and diverse society. Our ancestors also fostered new freedoms from English and European strictures that had bound many generations to trades, classes, and economic status. In 1634, their property rights were made permanent with the Privy Council’s affirmation of land patents granted with head rights.

Their other most important achievement was their success in learning to self-govern and cultivating their own rule of law and civil society in the absence of direction and oversight from England from the mid-1620s to 1660s. They had to innovate – by necessity – then-novel concepts of self-governance, entrepreneurship, and empowerment during years of virtual neglect by England’s rulers, who were engulfed in their own domestic crises.

The Emergence of Self-Governance

Jamestown’s model of self-governance and sufficiency would be adopted by other colonies (for similar reasons of efficacy and economics) as precedent for their own lawmaking and fiscal capacities. These capacities would become the touchstone that prompted their attaining eventual mutual independence with Virginia.

The Assembly enhanced that model by creating local governing bodies, which became counties. In 1634, it adapted the English county court system to more capably and locally administer law, which evolved into a major feature of our American jurisprudence structure. These counties and courts were to be more responsive to the administrative needs generated by Virginia’s rapid population growth from less than 4,000 in 1630 to over 10,000 by 1640.

In addition, the then-unique concept of geographical legislative representation also appeared in Jamestown as the colonial government matured, for “Here was a custom created by local magistrates aiming to control local affairs that fostered a later American idea of the representative as a person whose personal obligation lay with the voters of the district. Such an accidental development diverged from the seventeenth century English understanding [where a Member of Parliament was not obligated to his constituents].”

The unique and extraordinary opportunity for land ownership by the private citizen had also materialized. This inducement drew opportunity seekers from throughout an economically distressed and overpopulated England. Most came as indentured servants, but other, unbonded mercantile types  brought new entrepreneurial skills and energy to the colony. Their ambitions and goals complemented those of the established settler families who by then comprised the planter elite of the colony and its political leadership for the important coming decades of the colony’s development as a polity.

Charles I reaffirmed the Assembly in 1639, which legitimated the 1619 elected representative legislative body that would breed basic major features of our own new constitutional government almost fifteen decades later. He also confirmed the colonists’ property rights to assure that they would have perpetual value, enabling their land transactions to propagate a nascent real estate industry. In addition, by 1639, Virginia-born councilors had also exerted their influence to oust an unpopular governor, which “opened the door to the rise of the colony’s ruling classes…Their achievements typified the emergence of a native ruling class that in some ways resembled England’s.”

The Virginia Company had been a managerial and financial failure. The Crown and Parliament were engaged in their desperate power struggles leading up to and during the English Civil Wars that culminated in the 1649 regicide of Charles I; few in leadership could pay much attention to the emerging American colonies, particularly Jamestown and Virginia. They had been further distracted by Europe’s consumption by the horrific Thirty Year War.

The Fulcrum of Our Nation Building

Most of Jamestown’s governmental records were destroyed in Richmond during our Civil War, yet there are enough left here and in England and Europe to know that the colony’s growth – and our nation building – took on new dimensions and energy with Charles I’s appointment of Sir William Berkeley as governor in 1641, one of Virginia’s most controversial figures. About the same time, the Assembly had adopted another in a series of progressive legislative reforms that helped it achieve more of the authority and powers of effective government.

Berkeley succeeded a series of royal surrogates of varied quality and distinction who for almost a decade and a half had kept the colony in a state of uncertainty ranging from turmoil and emergency to stabilization, conciliation, and reform. Professor Billings tells us, “Berkeley’s thirty-five-year tenure marks him as one of Virginia’s most significant chief executives…His arrival was also timely, for he governed Virginia during the crucial decades from the 1640s to the 1670s. These were the years when the General Assembly matured into a miniature parliament, and political power was divided between the provincial [i.e., colonial] and the county governments.”

From its initial existence, and at his arrival, the Assembly was unicameral, consisting of the governor, twelve to sixteen appointed councilors, and the burgesses that were elected by each county and Jamestown. Berkeley soon saw the need and benefits from governing the colony with a form of bicameral legislature that would become a template, little more than a century later, for our Congress and most of our state governing bodies.

In 1643, he encouraged the burgesses to meet as a body separately from the Assembly, establishing the bicameral legislative structure. He also appointed successful Virginians to key offices in the colony and continued the tradition of maintaining civilian control of the militias or military, as had been the policy since Company days. The burgesses had also initiated what would develop into our unique congressional institution of an elected Speaker of the House (which differed from England’s crown-appointed version.) The Interregnum had commenced by 1650. England became a Commonwealth and then a Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell fashioned a new imperial policy that required colonial compliance. In 1652, Parliament sent an enforcement fleet to Jamestown and, for the first time, our ancestors experienced an English military force, which obliged the governor to surrender a royalist-leaning Virginia to its new rulers.

The absence of both attention from the new English government and a royal governor’s rule left only vestiges of colonial oversight during the Interregnum; our ancestors were faced with the prospect of ad hoc local self-government. Many were discomfited at this brief taste of de facto independence as it lacked the previous social order and any guidance or direction from the center of government in London. The Assembly, though, continued to innovate its practice of self-governance as the House of Burgesses dominated the colonial government by electing both councilors and governors.

In doing so, it also inadvertently functioned for the entire Interregnum with more of the prerogatives of an almost sovereign-like legislature. While it remained principally in concert with Parliament’s new regime in London, its several royalist members were tolerated and kept a low profile while retaining their seats and positions in the more robust local colonial administration.

The 1660 Restoration brought new monarchal focus and attention to the colony. The resumption of relative domestic tranquility in England allowed the Crown to reconsider what it had and what to do with Virginia and its other American colonies.

Imperial Constraints

Professor Billings also tells us, “For ordinary Virginians, hard times started with the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. The king, his brother, James, Duke of York [later, King James II], and their underlings came back to England determined to mold Virginia to their conceptions of empire. They presupposed an imperial system grounded in social order, political obedience, military security and the exclusion of the Dutch from the Virginia trade. [The Dutch, one of the colony’s major trading partners, were soon relieved of New York, née New Amsterdam and New Netherland.] Achieving the vision meant limiting [Virginia’s new] independence.” After four decades’ virtually autonomous self-determination, our ancestors were faced with prospects of increasing imposition of limits and checks on their self-governance.

Virginia’s economic opportunities and flight from regime change had already stimulated emigration by English gentry during the Interregnum, and now the Crown started awarding major land grants to its friends. Property ownership became a voting qualification. The colony’s social structure had meanwhile been changing into a more stratified and hierarchical system. The first legal steps towards the institution of chattel enslavement of Africans were also taken in the 1650s, following precedent in New England, and enacted in 1662.

Some ancestors found that these changes offered opportunities for their economic and class betterment and furthered the new social arrangement. Others, however, found them too similar to those strictures from which they had escaped. They began what became our American westward movement by pushing on and into frontier Virginia and what would become the Carolinas. People would become Virginia’s most important export.

Jamestown’s self-governance would decreasingly continue, with mounting social and economic disparity among the colony’s planters. The wealthier among them had become more powerful and were supplemented by English gentry that the governor and Crown had encouraged to emigrate. The less powerful felt both economically discriminated against and insufficiently protected from new Indian raids. Some were angered by the preemptive royal land grants of large, unclaimed tracts of the colony to the aristocracy.

Friction between the two factions exploded into violent confrontations and rebellion in 1676 that resulted in the burning of Jamestown. Because the Crown then feared that colonial recalcitrance was taking hold, the governor was removed and our ancestors were again burdened with hosting a royal military presence.

The Crown had also become concerned that its largest American colony’s Assembly was challenging its autocratic prerogatives. Its vice-regents imposed new and progressively constraining policies that manifested imperial disdain and intolerance of those that had been assumed by the Assembly. The new series of royal surrogates began unraveling the functional and cooperative governing structure that had been patiently woven among the governor, councilors, and burgesses over decades.

An imperial initiative fostering the slave trade would also result in more bonded Africans being deployed by plantations that had been depending on indentured English for labor. An estimated 2,600 Africans were living among Virginia’s total population of 40,700 in 1685; the great increase in the slave population would take place after the turn of the 18th century.

The tightening rate of imperial constraints would unexpectedly slow, however, with another regime change in England: The Glorious Revolution in 1688. The new monarchs, William and Mary, had priorities other than Virginia; the enduring elements of self-governance would not be fully extinguished and several of its innovative principles could again be applied almost a century later to the founding of our country.

However, Jamestown’s self-governing capacity had been diminished and replaced with imperial and aristocratic domination of the colony that had outgrown being administered from the small river peninsula where it was founded. In 1699, the colonial capital was relocated just nine miles to what would become Williamsburg, but the political distance was immeasurable.

Jamestown no longer was a colonial capital and, over the following decades, evidence of the settlement disappeared and it again became a marshy river peninsula and rural farm until the 20th century.

Into the Shadows of Our History

Little of the lasting effect of Jamestown’s contributions to our nation building appears in our history curricula or books. Jamestown disappeared from our national consciousness and into the shadows of our history after the Civil War, because many 19th and early 20th century luminaries of colonial American history were in New England and treated it as almost a side issue. They attached no long-term importance to it, but saw it only as a trivial “first” and not essential to the “creation of the American nation” and its culture: our own nation building.  To this must be added, more significantly, they failed to look at what it has really meant for subsequent generations of Americans, including our own. To paraphrase Dr. Kelso, “People fail to realize that if Jamestown didn’t survive, there would have been no Plymouth.”

According to Professor Kupperman, “The Pilgrim story took over as our founding fiction after the Revolutionary War, when New England and the South began to pull in different directions.… The Massachusetts colonists were labeled the Pilgrim Fathers in the 1790s, and the agreement they signed on arrival became known as the Mayflower Compact about the same time. Because Puritanism had come to be seen as repressive (think of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Scarlet Letter’), early American leaders such as Daniel Webster brought the Plymouth colonists forward as the kinder, gentler Puritans.

“This is the origins story we prefer and the one we promote. We prefer it because we like to think that we are descended from a humble and saintly band, religiously motivated and communal in organization, who wanted nothing more than the freedom to worship God. The individualistic, grasping capitalists of Virginia offer much less appealing antecedents.” However, our ancestors’ antecedents have propelled us to what our nation has really become. They are what makes Jamestown relevant today.

Our Ancestors’ Contributions to Our Nation Building

Here is a summary of what our ancestors contributed and how they began innovating the building of our nation during Jamestown’s tenure as Virginia’s colonial capital:

  • Private land ownership by the common person (1616)
  • The practice of land grants (1616), which continued through the 17thcentury, extended then to Revolutionary War veterans, and on through the 19th century, the last as homestead grants
  • Establishment of the tobacco industry, creating capital that helped enable our nation’s economic development and country’s founding (from 1616)
  • Adoption of a legal code based on English common law (1618)
  • America’s first elected, representative legislature (created 1619, affirmed in 1639, still extant)
  • All free men enfranchised (from 1619 until 1670)
  • First recorded landing of Africans of undetermined bondage (1619); slavery was introduced in the 1650s following the leads of the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies and took hold in Virginia at the turn of the 18th century
  • Ownership of private property by wives (1620)
  • Establishment of free enterprise as our economic system (1620)
  • Innovation and experimentation in institutionalized self-governance (1620s-1670s)
  • Adaptation of the English county court system to become a major feature of our American jurisprudence structure (1634)
  • Creation of the then-unique concept of geographical legislative representation (as compared with the English Member of Parliament being unobligated to his constituents).
  • Creation of our real estate industry (in 1634, the Privy Council confirmed the colonists’ private property rights and in 1639 the Crown assured that they would have perpetual value, thus enabling their land transactions to form into a functional market)
  • Entrepreneurship: Land ownership by the private citizen drew entrepreneurial opportunity seekers from England who demonstrated success in America for immigrants who followed (1630s-60s)
  • Adoption of a bicameral legislature; it became the template for our Congress and most of our state governing bodies (1643)
  • Creation of what became our unique Congressional institution of an elected Speaker of the House (1642/43)
  • Establishment of the first reservations for American Indians (1646)
  • Start of our American westward movement in the 1670s
  • Introduction of chattel plantation slavery in the 1680s

These contributions and innovations demonstrate why Jamestown has a deeper, salient and more profound meaning than being just one among our national origins. Its existence was the seminal incident that introduced then-unknown opportunities to initiate social, entrepreneurial, political, and economic tenets that have come down to us through our history. Their pervasive and lasting effect is what has differentiated Jamestown from all other English and European colonial settlements. That lasting effect is the best evidence of our ancestors’ contributions towards our own nation building.

More Information… 

For more details about current research focused on early Jamestown, please go to the Society’s Reading Resources. Historic Jamestown offers a brief history, as does Encyclopedia Virginia. The Society also offers a chronology of the Jamestown period.

Selected Sources

Billings, Warren M.: A Little Parliament; The Virginia General Assembly in the Seventeenth Century (Richmond, The Library of Virginia, in partnership with Jamestown 2007/Jamestown Yorktown Foundation. 2004); Sir William Berkeley and the Forging of Colonial Virginia (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press 2004); Jamestown and the Founding of the Nation (Gettysburg, Thomas Publications, for the Colonial National Historical Park and Eastern National Park & Monument Association 1991); Jamestown, in Jamestown, Quebec, Santa Fe: Three North American Beginnings; with an introduction by James C. Kelly and Barbara C. Smith, and other sections by David Weber and Gilles Proulx (Washington, Smithsonian Books, 2007).

Encyclopedia Virginia; https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/

Fischer, David Hackett: Albion’s Seed; Four British Folkways in America; (Oxford and New York, The Oxford University Press; 1989); Fischer, and Kelly, James C.: Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement (Charlottesville, The University Press of Virginia; 2001).

Greene, Jack P.: Peripheries and Center: Constitutional Development in the Extended Polities of the British Empire and the United States, 1607-1788; the Richard B. Russell Lectures, Number Two (Athens, Georgia, The University of Georgia Press, 1986). Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture (Chapel Hill & London, University of North Carolina Press; 1988)

Horn, James P. P: Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake (Chapel Hill and London, published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 1994). Leaving England: The Social Background of Indentured Servants in the Seventeenth Century (Jamestown Interpretive Essays, Virtual Jamestown, 2000. http://www.virtualjamestown.org/essays/horn_essay.html)

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl: The Jamestown Project (Cambridge MA, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.); America’s Founding Fictions (Washington Post, Sunday, May 13, 2007).

Morgan, Edmund S.: American Slavery – American Freedom; The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia; (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1975). The First American Boom: Virginia 1618 to 1630 (The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Apr., 1971), pp. 170-198; Published by: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/191730)

Swingen, Abigail L.; Competing Visions of Empire; Labor, Slavery and the Origins of the British Empire (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2015).

Tomlins, Christopher; Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580-1865; (New York; Cambridge University Press; 2010)

Zug, Marcia, Lonely Colonist Seeks Wife: The Forgotten History of America’s First Mail Order Brides, 20 Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy 85-125 (Fall 2012) Available at: http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/djglp/vol20/iss1/3


Thanks to Drs. James Horn and Warren Billings for their comments and assistance and Martha Pace Gresham for her review and suggestions.

This essay is by James H. McCall © 2017, all rights reserved, and used by permission. It was adapted from his lectures at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of California, San Diego.


John Smith

Captain John Smith

Captain John Smith

The individual who is most popularly associated with Jamestown’s earliest years is Captain John Smith. He was among the 104 who first landed at Jamestown and brought with him an accomplished military career.

The combination of his assertive nature and lesser-class status created conflicts with hereditary aristocrats who composed the rest of the colony’s leadership; they almost hung him on at least two occasions. Nevertheless, the combination of his leadership skills and their deaths and departures cast him into the colony’s presidency about a year after the landing. His attributes generated respect that enabled him to deal more or less successfully with the indigenous Powhatan tribes and their chiefs. This gave rise to very unlikely but popular legends about the young (10 or 12 year-old) Pocahontas.

He also brought discipline to the settlement at one of its most precarious times, successfully explored the entire Tidewater region and produced a map of it that was still being used well into the nineteenth century. After a devastating injury, he returned to England in October 1609. Without his leadership, Jamestown suffered the calamitous “starving times” in the winter of 1609-10 and was almost abandoned.

He voyaged again to explore and map the coasts of Massachusetts and Maine in 1616, and coined the regional name of New England. He wrote accounts of Jamestown that have been important sources of what we know and understand today. He died a childless bachelor in 1631 after a successful writing career. (Note: Three biographies on our Reading List offer more details and insights into his life.)

Ask About Our Speakers and Educational Programs

First California Company offers experienced speakers who can lecture and organize educational programs about Jamestown and its history, profiles of members’ ancestors, the life and customs of the period, summaries of current research at the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological site at Historic Jamestown and the development at Jamestown of tenets that became some of America’s most precious personal, economic and legal rights.

These lectures and programs are designed to foster understanding of Jamestown’s place in early American history, and as help and aid to instruction for organizations, schools and groups learning about its founding and history and its settlers: the stories of our ancestors. First California Company speakers are available to present these programs to any school, organization and group. For more information, please contact our Governor.