Jamestown — The First Permanent English Settlement in America

1607–1699

Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America. Established in 1607, the colonists survived famine, disease, weather, and several conflicts with Native American Indians. Jamestown grew, expanded, and served as the capital of the Virginia Colony from 1607 until 1698.

Captain John Smith,Illustration

Captain John Smith. Image Source: Captain John Smith by Tudor Jenks, 1904, Archive.org.

Jamestown Summary

Jamestown was the first permanent settlement established in North America by England. It was started in 1607 by the Virginia Company of London, during the reign of King James I. Jamestown was founded for the purpose of finding gold and silver and establishing a trade route to the Pacific Ocean. Many of the colonists were unprepared for the harsh reality of life in the New World. Their focus on finding gold, and the lack of farming skills contributed to starvation and disease that caused many of them to die during the early days of the settlement. 

Captain John Smith took control of Jamestown and enforced a rigorous work schedule, and established a tenuous trade relationship with the Powhatans, the local Native American Indians. However, Smith was forced to return to England. Without his leadership, Jamestown faltered and suffered through a devastating winter known as “The Starving Time.” 

In 1610, a new group of settlers and supplies arrived, which helped the settlement recover. Soon after, John Rolfe introduced a new strand of tobacco, which turned into a cash valuable crop. Two years later, Rolfe married Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, which helped establish peace between the settlement and the Indians. Jamestown continued to grow, which contributed to the settlement’s stability but also reignited tension with the Powhatan. 

In 1622, the Indians carried out an attack on the settlements that killed an estimated 25-33% of the population of Virginia. Soon after, Virginia became a Royal Colony. Jamestown was eventually surpassed by New Towne, and the original fort and settlement were burned to the ground during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Jamestown remained the capital of Virginia until 1699 when it was replaced by Williamsburg.

Landing at Jamestown, Illustration
This illustration depicts the colonists landing in Virginia in 1607. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Jamestown Facts

  1. Jamestown, established in 1607, was the first permanent English settlement in North America.
  2. The journey to Virginia began on December 6, 1606, with three ships: the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery
  3. A total of 104 English men and boys, plus 39 crewmen, arrived in North America to start the settlement, which was named after King James I.
  4. Jamestown served as the capital of the Virginia Colony for more than 80 years.
  5. Captain John Smith is often credited for implementing policies that saved the settlement in its early years.
  6. John Rolfe is credited for introducing a strain of tobacco that colonists were able to grow as a cash crop.
  7. Virginia became a Royal Colony in 1624 when King Charles I revoked the charter of the Virginia Company.
  8. Jamestown was plagued by fires due to its wooden buildings and was burned to the ground in 1676, during Bacon’s Rebellion.
  9. Another fire in 1698 led the colony to relocate the capital to present-day Williamsburg.
  10. Over time, Jamestown faded away and became farmland. Today, it is the Jamestown National Historic Site and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jamestown Overview

Jamestown — also known as “James City” — was established on May 14, 1607, by the Virginia Company on James Island, a strategic location along the James River. Jamestown was approximately 60 miles from the confluence of the James River and the Chesapeake Bay. The settlement was established by a group of about 104 colonists who were led by Governor Edward Maria Winfield and his Governor’s Council.

The initial expedition was funded by the Virginia Company of London, a joint-stock company, with support from King James I. England wanted to follow in the footsteps of Spain and establish colonies in the New World, which were essential to the nation’s Mercantile System.

King James I of England, Portrait, Critz
King James I. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The purpose of the expedition was to establish a colony and to find gold and silver deposits, as well as a river route to the Pacific Ocean. The English believed a route to the ocean would allow them to establish trade with the Far East. At that time, Europeans believed the Pacific Ocean was much closer to the east coast of America. They had no idea it was 3,000 miles to the west.

During the first two years, the colonists in Jamestown faced many challenges. They suffered from hunger and illnesses like typhoid and dysentery, caused by drinking contaminated water from the nearby swamp. The colonists also lived with the constant threat of attacks from the local Indian tribes, who were part of the Powhatan Confederacy. Disagreements between leaders of the settlement also caused problems.

After Captain John Smith took on the leadership of the colony, a successful, but tenuous, trade relationship was created with the Powhatans. The Indians traded corn for beads, metal tools, and other objects — including some weapons — from the colonists, who depended on the trade relationship for food. Despite the relationship, skirmishes still broke out between the two groups and deteriorated further after Smith was forced to return to England. Due to famine, and new leadership at Jamestown, the Powhatans stopped trading food, which led to the “Starving Time” in Jamestown.

However, in 1610, a new group of settlers and supplies arrived and helped to turn the settlement’s fortunes around. The introduction of tobacco as a cash crop proved to be a profitable export for Jamestown and a period of peace followed the marriage of colonist John Rolfe to Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan.

In 1619, the Virginia Company, under the leadership of Sir Edwin Sandys, made changes to the operation of the colony that established the Headright System and the House of Burgesses. That same year, Dutch traders also arrived in Jamestown, carrying Africans with them. 

During the 1620s, Jamestown expanded from the area around the original James Fort into a “New Town” built to the east. Relations with the Powhatans deteriorated after the death of Chief Powhatan, and the Indians attacked Jamestown in 1622, killing 347 colonists. The incident led King James I to revoke the colonial charters and Virginia became a Royal Colony.

In 1676, the fort and settlement were burned to the ground by Nathanial Bacon and his army during Bacon’s Rebellion. Jamestown was rebuilt on a smaller scale and was replaced as the capital of Virginia in 1699 by Williamsburg.

Jamestown History

First Virginia Charter — April 10, 1606

On April 10, 1606, King James I granted a charter that created two companies — the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth — for the purpose of establishing English colonies along the east coast of North America. 

The Virginia Company of London was given rights to the territory in the Mid-Atlantic region. Meanwhile, the Plymouth Company was given rights to present-day New England and established Popham Colony.

Jamestown and Popham were successors to the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island which was established in 1587 but disappeared by 1590.

Jamestown Expedition of 1606

The Virginia Company sent an expedition, consisting of three ships, to the Chesapeake Bay, under the command of Captain Christopher Newport. The ships were the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. Together, they carried 104 men and boys. The group included 40 soldiers, 35 “gentlemen,” artisans, and laborers. The ships set sail from England on December 20, 1606, and arrived in the Mid-Atlantic Region in April 1607.

Jamestown Established — May 14, 1607

Newport had instructions from the Virginia Company to find a suitable place to establish a settlement that was uninhabited by Indians, provided protection from Spanish attacks, and had water deep enough for English ships to anchor. 

The ships sailed 50-60 miles north on a river they called the James River. On May 13, they chose the site — a low, marshy peninsula — and they went ashore on May 14. They named it “James Towne.” Both the river and the settlement were named after King James I.

The spot the colonists chose to settle appeared to be uninhabited but was within the hunting and fishing grounds of some tribes in the Powhatan Confederacy. However, the Indians did not build homes or mark the territory, which was an unfamiliar practice to the English colonists. As a result, the colonists believed the area was uninhabited.

Jamestown’s President and Council Revealed

All three ships in the fleet carried a sealed box, containing documents from the Virginia Company that identified which settlers were to serve as the President and President’s Council. Once the site for Jamestown was chosen, the boxes were opened, and the documents were read. 

The first President of the new Virginia colony was identified as Edward Maria Winfield, and the six members of the President’s Council were: 

  1. Bartholomew Gosnold
  2. Christopher Newport
  3. John Martin
  4. John Ratcliffe
  5. George Kendall
  6. John Smith

Captain John Smith was a surprise to the other colonists. He was a former mercenary who had been accused of insubordination aboard the ship by several other company members and imprisoned for part of the journey to Virginia.

Newport Reaches the Fall Line

Soon after the colonists were settled in, Captain Newport took some of his men and explored the rivers in the area. He traveled as far as the Fall Line, near present-day Richmond, Virginia. The Fall Line is a natural boundary that marks the transition from the Tidewater Region to the Piedmont Region.

Construction of Fort James

The presence of the colonists created conflict with the Powhatan Tribes, and they attacked the crude houses at Jamestown. After the settlement was attacked in May, the colonists were convinced they needed to build a fort for protection, which became the focal point of Jamestown.

On June 15, they completed the construction of a 3-sided fort with towers on each point. The towers were built to be large enough that they could hold several cannons. Inside the fort, the settlers built some new houses live in. Outside the fort, they started to clear land and plant crops. Unfortunately, the area was plagued by drought at the time, and the colonists had a difficult time growing crops.

Jamestown, Fort James, Illustration
This illustration depicts Fort James. Image Source: Richard of Jamestown. A Story of the Virginia Colony by James O. Kaler, 1910, Archive.org.

Newport Returns to England

On June 22, after he believed the colonists were safe, Captain Newport left for England to get more supplies for the new settlement. 

Relationship with the Powhatans

The Powhatan Confederacy was large and powerful and consisted of many tribes, who spoke an Algonquian dialect.

  • The Confederacy was led by a single chief, Wahunsonacock, who was also referred to as The Powhatan or Chief Powhatan. 
  • The Powhatan territory covered most of the present-day area of Tidewater Virginia.
  • It went from the Potomac in the north to the Carolinas in the south, from the Chesapeake Bay inland to the west of what is now Richmond. 
  • It is estimated the Powhatan Confederacy was the largest Indian Confederation in the history of North America.

Chief Powhatan tried to establish friendly relations with the colonists by sending food, which they accepted — and then expected. Since the Powhatans were providing food, there was little incentive for the colonists to worry about their own crops. Instead, they focused on their search for precious metals and exploration of the area.

Disease Ravages Jamestown

Not long after Newport left for England, the colonists were plagued by:

  1. Contaminated Drinking Water — Unfortunately, the location they chose for Jamestown was too close to the ocean, so the salt water mixed with the fresh water in the James River, making it unhealthy to drink.
  2. Mosquitoes — The stagnant water was a perfect place for mosquitoes to thrive.
  3. Extreme Heat — The hot summer caused a significant amount of their food to spoil. 

During the fall and winter, many of the colonists came down with “the bloody flux” — dysentery — which spread because of the lack of clean water and unsanitary conditions. By the following spring, only 35-40 of the colonists were still alive.

John Smith’s Expedition

Many of the colonists, especially the well-to-do gentlemen, did not care for Smith, and he was sent out to look for food and explore the area. Smith worked carefully to improve the relationship with the Powhatans, and to present Jamestown as a strong, fortified settlement that could defend itself.

  • Smith and his men traded with the Indians for provisions.
  • He learned about the area and made an effort to learn the ways of the Powhatans, including their language. 
  • The Indians told Smith stories of a western sea and of mountains and gold. 

Early on, Smith visited Indian villages, only to find they had been instructed by Chief Powhatan not to trade with the English. Desperate for food, Smith resorted to intimidation. If the villagers refused to trade, he would burn one of their buildings and threaten to burn the rest. Although it led to the Indians giving him some food, it also led Chief Powhatan to pursue him and try to kill him.

John Smith Captured and the Legend of Pocahontas

In December 1607, Smith was captured by the Powhatans and held captive. According to Smith, they intended to kill him, but Chief Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, threw her arms around Smith and begged her father to spare him — which he did. Smith was released and returned to Jamestown. Whether or not this actually took place is the subject of debate, and is likely a story concocted by Smith.

Jamestown, Pocahontas Saves John Smith, Illustration
This illustration depicts Pocahontas saving John Smith. Image Source: Richard of Jamestown. A Story of the Virginia Colony by James O. Kaler, 1910, Archive.org.

Crisis in Jamestown

When Smith returned to Jamestown, he found the settlement on the verge of collapse. Newport had not returned with supplies, and some of the colonists wanted to sail back to England on the ship Discovery. Smith threatened to shoot anyone that tried to leave and the colonists responded by arresting him. 

Newport Returns — The First Supply

Newport returned to Jamestown on January 1, 1608, with supplies — and more colonists. Although one of the ships in the expedition was lost in a storm, Newport’s return to Jamestown calmed the situation with Smith, who was set free.

Newport also delivered a message from the Virginia Company, informing the colonists the company was not pleased they had not found gold, silver — or anything the company could make a profit from. The colonists were instructed to renew their focus on finding a way to make the settlement profitable.

Fort James Burns

Unfortunately, soon after Newport returned, a fire broke out in the fort, causing it to burn down, destroying all the food and supplies. By then Chief Powhatan was on good terms with Smith and he sent food and re-opened trade with Jamestown. Around that time, Smith realized the Indians were being generous, but were also expecting the colonists to pay more for the food they needed.

Gold Found Near Jamestown

Under Newport’s direction — and the renewed motivation to make a profit — the colonists spent a significant amount of time searching for gold. However, the focus on finding gold created friction between Smith and Newport for various reasons:

  • Defenses at the fort were neglected.
  • Exploration of the region stopped.
  • Crops were neglected.
  • Newport’s sailors were using up food, water, and supplies.

While Newport searched for gold, he started trading generously with the Indians. He even traded swords to them, which Smith was opposed to. 

Although Newport’s intentions were good, it created a situation that was unsustainable. Smith knew that once Newport returned to England, the Indians would still expect Jamestown to trade weapons and metal tools to them — and the settlement would have none to trade, which would cause issues with the Indians.

Eventually, some of the colonists found what looked to them like flakes of gold running through some streams. They also dug up dirt that was filled with the same flakes. It was all packed up and loaded onto Newport’s ships and taken back to England — where Newport found out it was nothing more than pyrite — “Fool’s Gold.”

Nelson’s Lost Ship Arrives

The ship that was lost during the First Supply sailed up the James River in April, under the command of Captain Thomas Nelson. When Nelson’s ship was separated from Newport’s, he sailed south, delaying his arrival in Jamestown. Nelson delivered supplies and more colonists before loading a supply of cedar and returning to England.

John Ratcliffe’s House

During the summer of 1608, Smith was away from Jamestown, searching for food. President John Ratcliffe put the colonists to work building a home for him outside of the fort. This kept the colonists from working on vital tasks, such as growing crops.

John Smith Takes Control of Jamestown

By September 1608, the colonists were desperate. The lack of food, illness, and trouble with the Indians was intensified by leadership issues and internal conflicts. Smith returned from his expedition, and although he was suffering from a stingray attack, the colonists voted to remove Ratcliff and put Smith in charge.

Smith took firm control, implemented strict discipline, and organized efforts to plant crops and construct proper houses and buildings. Smith’s motto, “Work or starve”, required each colonist to spend at least four hours each day farming in order to ensure the survival of the colony. 

Jamestown prospered, self-sufficiency increased, and the death rate fell. Smith’s success convinced the Virginia Company to eventually give more authority to the Governor.

However, Smith also had to deal with the high expectations Newport had created with the Indians. He was forced to adjust terms so it was more favorable for Jamestown. This led to the Indians stealing things like weapons and metal tools from Jamestown. Instead of retaliating with violence, as Governor Ralph Lane did at the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island, Smith simply strengthened the defenses of Jamestown and had men keep a lookout for potential thieves.

Jamestown, Trading with Indians, Painting, King
This illustration depicts the Jamestown colonists trading with Native American Indians. Image Source: National Park Service.

Newport Returns — The Second Supply

Newport returned in October 1608 to find Smith in charge and everything in Jamestown in order. Newport’s expedition was large and included four ships and more than 100 new colonists — including women and children. Among the group were:

  • Thomas Forrest and Margaret Foxe, the first married English couple in North America.
  • Anne Burras, who was a maid to Mistress Forest. Anne became the first Englishwoman to marry in North America when she married colonist John Layton.

Second Virginia Charter — May 23, 1609

Upset over the progress — and lack of profit — the investors in the Virginia Company asked for a new charter to allow them to sell additional shares in the company. The charter was granted by King James I and expanded the borders of the Virginia Colony. It is often referred to as a “sea to sea” charter because it extended the western border to the Pacific Ocean. The Second Charter also gave the Virginia Company the authority to make its own laws, as long as they did not violate existing English laws.

The Third Supply — The Sea Venture is Delayed

A supply ship called the Sea Venture, under the command of Sir George Somers, sailed to Jamestown as part of a flee that carried the “Third Supply.” The ship carried the new charter, along with Sir Thomas Gates — the new Governor of the colony — William Strachey, and John Rolfe. During the journey, the ship ran into a storm and was blown off course. It was severely damaged and ended up on the island of Bermuda — which Gates and Somers claimed for England.

When the ship arrived, Somers safely ran it aground, allowing the passengers to be safely transported to shore, where they remained for 10 months. Many believe the account Gates wrote about the voyage of the Sea Venture and his time on the island served as the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

The First Anglo-Powhatan War Begins

The area was still suffering from drought, which led Chief Powhatan to withhold food from Jamestown again, contributing to the First Anglo-Powhatan War. The colonists responded by taking food at gunpoint and the Indians retaliated by killing livestock and burning crops, making the food situation even worse in Jamestown.

Jamestown, Chief Powhatan, Illustration
This illustration depicts Chief Powhatan. Image Source: Captain John Smith by Tudor Jenks, 1904, Archive.org.

John Smith is Injured and Returns to England

Smith was injured in a gunpowder explosion and returned to England in October 1609. Without his leadership, the colony fell back into the habit of depending too much on the Powhatans for food.

The Starving Time

Without Smith’s leadership, the colonists living in Jamestown suffered through a long, harsh winter that has become known as “The Starving Time.” Due to threats of Indian attacks, the colonists rarely left the fort and many who did were attacked and killed. By early 1610, most of the settlers died — only 60 survived the winter — out of approximately 500. Some survived by leaving Jamestown and moving to Point Comfort, near present-day Hampton, Virginia.

Over the course of the winter, many died from starvation and disease. Some were desperate and hungry enough to eat animals, including pets, and shoe leather. George Percy, the President in John Smith’s absence, wrote “And now famine beginning to look ghastly and pale in every face that nothing was spared to maintain life and to do those things which seem incredible, as to dig up dead corpses out of graves and to eat them.”

Thomas Gates Arrives in Jamestown

After the Sea Venture landed on Bermuda, Somers and his men built two smaller boats — Deliverance and Patience. On May 10, 1610, the two ships left Bermuda and started the journey to Jamestown. Two men were left on the island to maintain England’s claim on Bermuda.

Within two weeks, the ships reached Point Comfort, where they found George Percy, who informed Gates the situation in Jamestown was perilous. The ships continued on to Jamestown and arrived there on May 24.

The settlement and fort appeared to be abandoned and were in disrepair. Someone rang a bell to see if anyone would respond. To the shock of Gates and Somers, starving, malnourished survivors emerged from the dilapidated buildings. Eventually, Gates decided the only thing he could do was abandon Jamestown, put everyone on ships, and return to England.

Lawes Divine, Morall, and Martiall

The same day Gates arrived in Jamestown — May 24, 1610 — he issued orders known as the “Lawes Divine, Morall, and Martiall.” The orders were the first set of English laws in the New World and defined how members, employees, and servants associated with the Virginia Company were required to conduct themselves.

Lord De La Warr Arrives in Jamestown

While the ships of the Third Supply were marooned on Bermuda, the Virginia Company appointed Thomas West, Lord De La Warr, as Governor. The company outfitted him with a small fleet, supplies, and colonists, and sent him to Jamestown.

As West and his fleet sailed past Point Comfort, Gates and his ships were sailing toward them. West stopped Gates and ordered him to return to Jamestown.

When West settled in at Jamestown, he was intent on ensuring the survival of Jamestown. He put the colonists to work, much like Smith had done before.

Jamestown Attacks Paspahegh

Unfortunately, Governor West was unable to successfully deal with the Indians. He sent a message to Powhatan, asking him to return prisoners and stolen goods. Powhatan refused and Delaware organized an attack on the village known as Paspahegh. George Percy led the nighttime raid. The Englishmen burned the village to the ground and brutally murdered some of the inhabitants, including women and children.

West and Somers Leave Jamestown

West and Somers were not in Jamestown for long. Somers sailed to Bermuda to capture wild pigs and for the settlement to use for food. Unfortunately, while he was there, he died. Meanwhile, West became ill and was forced to return to England. 

Although West remained Governor of Jamestown until 1619, several men served in his place as Acting Governor or Lieutenant Governor, including Sir Thomas Gates, George Percy, Sir Thomas Dale, Sir George Yeardley, and Sir Samuel Argall.

Dale was responsible for expanding the Laws Divine, as they applied to soldiers, which is often seen as imposing martial law throughout Virginia.

Third Charter of Virginia — March 12, 1612

On March 12, 1612, King James granted the Virginia Company of London a third charter, which extended the boundaries of the colony to include Bermuda. A new joint stock company was created to fund the colonization of Bermuda, which was known as the Somers Isles at the time. The company was called the Somers Isles Company and was led by Sir Thomas Smythe.

John Rolfe Plants Tobacco in Jamestown

In 1612, John Rolfe, one of many shipwrecked on Bermuda, acquired some tobacco seeds while he was on a trip to the Caribbean. He took them back to Jamestown, planted them, and they produced a sweet version of tobacco that became popular in England. From then on, tobacco was a vital cash crop that allowed Jamestown to find the stability it needed.

The Peace of Pocahontas

In 1613, Sir Samuel Argall kidnapped Pocahontas and took her to Jamestown. Governor Dale tried to trade her back to her father, Chief Powhatan, for prisoners and items the Indians had stolen prior to the Starving Time. 

However, when Dale went to meet with Chief Powhatan, he was not in his village. Further, Pocahontas announced she wanted to stay with the English in Jamestown. Pocahontas was kept in the settlement at Henricus. While she was there, she was instructed in Christianity and met John Rolfe. She was also baptized as a Christian and took the name, Rebecca.

In 1614, Rolfe married Pocahontas, and it helped establish a period of peace between Jamestown and the Indians, ending the time of the First Anglo-Powhatan War.

Jamestown, Wedding of Rolfe and Pocahontas, Illustration
The wedding of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

New Towne and New Settlements

As the colony grew, so did the need for a larger and more secure settlement. In 1619, a new settlement was built east of the original James Fort, called New Towne. Along with New Towne, settlements were established along the banks of the James River, including Bermuda Hundred.

Pocahontas Visits England

In the summer of 1616, John Rolfe, Pocahontas, their son, and a group of Powhatan warriors visited England They stayed until 1617 and John Smith visited her. Unfortunately, as the group prepared to return to England, Pocahontas became ill and died. She was buried in England and their son, Thomas, remained there. Rolfe returned to Virginia and his tobacco crops. The following year, Powhatan died and was succeeded by his brother, Opechancanough, who did not care for the English. The Peace of Pocahontas was coming to an end.

Great Charter of Virginia — November 18, 1618

Despite the popularity of tobacco, the Virginia Company was still in debt, so it decided to create a way to encourage people to pay to emigrate from England to Virginia. Two officers of the company, Sir Thomas Smythe and Sir Edwin Sandys, drafted a set of instructions for the new Governor, Sir George Yeardley, who replaced Thomas West. The instructions, which are known as the “Great Charter of Virginia,” established the Headright System and authorized the election of a General Assembly — the House of Burgesses.

Headright System

The Headright System provided incentives for landowners to pay for people to emigrate to Virginia. Basically, a landowner was given land for each immigrant they paid for. As more people moved to Jamestown, the landowners increased the amount of land they owned, and the lower class expanded. Initially, the immigrants were indentured servants. Once they completed their contracts, they were free to remain in Jamestown and were given a small amount of property, although it was usually poor, undeveloped land west of Jamestown. 

House of Burgesses

The Great Charter instructed Yeardley “to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia” and provide “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.” The new General Assembly was the first representative assembly in English North America and held its first meeting — with the Governor and his Council — in the Jamestown church on July 30, 1619. The men elected by each district were called “Burgesses,” hence the name “House of Burgesses.”

Captured Africans Arrive in Jamestown

Not long after the first meeting of the House of Burgesses, John Rolfe recorded the arrival of a Dutch ship. The incident is significant because the ship carried approximately 20 Africans who were purchased by Jamestown landowners from the Dutch, to work on their plantations.

According to some accounts, there were already 30 Africans working in Jamestown as indentured servants. However, the Africans that were purchased from the Dutch are often considered to be the first slaves in the Province of Virginia. 

Because the landowners were paying to bring people into the colony, they were compensated with land. However, unlike indentured servants, slaves were not freed and were unable to acquire land. While the population increased, so did slavery, and so did the plantations of the wealthy landowners — or the “Wealthy Planters” as they are typically referred to.

English Women Arrive in Jamestown

Another major event in the growth and development of Jamestown took place in 1619. That year, the Virginia Company recruited approximately 90 women and sent them to Virginia. For the most part, their purpose was to find husbands and start families, which is widely believed to have contributed to the growth and stability of the colony.

Powhatan Attack of 1622

After Chief Powhatan died, he was succeeded by his brother, Opechancanough. As the Virginians expanded their plantations, they used up more land, angering Opechancanough, who decided to coordinate an attack on Virginia settlements on March 22, 1622.

On that day, warriors from the Powhatan Confederacy attacked plantations and settlements, killing nearly 350 of the 1,200 colonists. The attack marked the beginning of the Second Anglo-Powhatan War.

People living in and around Jamestown were warned about the impending attack by an Indian boy who was living with the family of Richard Pace. The boy warned the Pace family, who took refuge, and then Pace warned Jamestown. The town prepared its defenses and was able to prevent the planned attack.

King James I Revokes the Virginia Company Charter

In 1623, the Privy Council opened an investigation into the affairs of Sandys and the Virginia Company. The next year, Nathaniel Butler, who had been the Governor of Bermuda, published a pamphlet that was critical of how the government of Virginia operated. A commission was sent to Virginia to assess the situation. 

On May 24, 1624, King James I revoked the Virginia Company’s charter and Virginia became a Royal Colony, under the direct control of the monarch. Sir Francis Wyatt was appointed as the first Royal Governor of Virginia and served until 1626. Wyatt was followed by Sir George Yeardley (1626–1627) and Francis West (1627–1629). West was the brother of Thomas West, Lord De La Warr.

The Second Anglo-Powhatan War Ends

The shift in colonial rule did not alter relations with the Indians, and the Second Anglo-Powhatan War continued until 1632 when the Powhatans were forced to concede. Afterward, the colonists expanded their settlements along the James River and throughout the region. Within two years, the colonists completed a palisade — a fence made from wooden stakes — that stretched for six miles across the Virginia Peninsula. The palisade was intended to act as a barrier to keep Indians from moving down the Peninsula to attack the settlements, including Jamestown.

Following the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, Virginia was governed by a series of men who were often in trouble with the law or caught up in political intrigue.

  • Sir John Harvey was impeached by the Council of Virginia — his own Governor’s Council — and removed from office. Harvey went to England and plead his case to King Charles I, arguing there was a conspiracy to change the colony’s charter. Harvey was restored to office and served as Governor from 1637 to 1639.
  • Sir John West served as Acting Governor after Harvey was ousted. When Harvey returned, West was recalled to England where he was questioned for his role in the supposed conspiracy to change the colonial charter. West was the third West brother, following Thomas and Francis, to spend time serving as Governor.
  • Sir George Reade served as Acting Governor when Harvey was in England. Reade appears to have been able to avoid controversy and is most well-known as being the great-great-grandfather of George Washington.

Sir William Berkely Arrives in Jamestown

Sir Francis Wyatt was appointed as Governor for a second time in 1639. He served until 1632 when he was replaced by Sir William Berkeley. Berkeley served as Governor from 1642 to 1652 and then again from 1660 until 1677. He was also one of the Lords Proprietors of the Province of Carolina.

According to most accounts, Berkeley was talented, with an interest in science. He believed trade with the Indians was important to Virginia’s success and he also believed the colony needed to diversify its economic system so it did not depend entirely on tobacco. However, Berkeley manipulated the political system so it favored the wealthy upper class, and he insisted on enforcing the Navigation Acts, which ultimately led to his downfall. 

Governor William Berkeley, Virginia
Sir William Berkeley. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Third Anglo-Powhatan War and Treaty of 1646

Once again, Opechancanough planned another coordinated attack against the English settlements, due to encroachment on Powhatan lands. The surprise attacks were carried out on April 18, 1644, ending in the deaths of roughly 350-400 of the 8,000 colonists living in Virginia, and starting the Third Anglo-Powhatan War.

In 1646, Opechancanough, who was likely over 90 years old at the time, was captured and held prisoner in Jamestown. While he was there, a guard shot him from behind, killing him. His death led to the end of the war — and the Powhatan Confederacy. 

His successor, Necotowance, signed the Treaty of 1646, which made all tribes in the Powhatan Confederacy tributaries to the King of England. Per the treaty, each tribe was given land, essentially a reservation, and was required to pay tribute — an annual fee — to the Governor.

Further, Indians and Virginians were prohibited from crossing into each other’s territory unless they had a pass issued from the forts on the border.

Jamestown and the English Civil War

During the English Civil War, Governor Berkeley remained loyal to the Stuarts, as did most Virginians, who were members of the Church of England. Virginia’s loyalty to the Stuarts and the “Cavaliers” is what earned it the nicknames “Cavalier State” and “Old Dominion.”

When King Charles I was dethroned and executed, Oliver Cromwell and Puritans took control of England and replaced Berkeley with Richard Bennett (1652–1655), who was followed by Edward Digges (1655–1656), and then Samuel Mathews (1656–1660).

King Charles II ascended the throne in 1660 in an event known as the “Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy.” The new King restored Berekeley as Governor of Virginia, in part as a way to thank him for his loyalty to the monarchy.

Bacon’s Rebellion

Bacon’s Rebellion was a violent uprising led by Nathaniel Bacon that took place in colonial Virginia in 1676 and 1677. The rebellion was the result of a political dispute between Governor Berkeley and Virginia colonists, led by landowner Bacon, over how to deal with attacks from remnants of the Powhatan Tribes on the frontier.

Many of the colonists that banded together under Bacon were former indentured servants — black and white — who lived on small farms that were unable to compete with the larger plantations. Naturally, they resented the political system that benefitted the upper class. When the Indian attacks started, Berkeley refused to attack the Indians, fearing it would disrupt the lucrative trade that he and his political allies benefitted from.

It was the first rebellion in the colonies where colonists took up arms against English government officials. On September 14, 1676, Bacon and his army burned Jamestown to the ground and Berkeley was forced to flee.

Near the end of the conflict, Bacon died and English troops were sent to restore peace. As a result of the rebellion, the Virginia House of Burgesses outlawed indentured servitude, which contributed to an increase in the use of enslaved Africans in Virginia.

After Bacon died, Berkeley and the Indians signed the Treaty of 1677, which restored peace. However, Berkeley was recalled to England, where he died on July 9, 1677.

The Jamestown Fire of 1698

When the city was rebuilt, it was on a smaller scale. In the following years, it was less of a hub of business and more of an administrative center for the colony’s politicians.

Jamestown remained the capital of Virginia until the statehouse and prison, located on the western end of the island, burned to the ground in 1698, in a fire started by a prisoner. Although the buildings were lost, a significant number of the public records were saved.

Influential men like James Page of Middle Plantation — present-day Williamsburg — successfully lobbied to have the capital moved there. In 1699, Middle Plantation succeeded Jamestown as the capital of Virginia.

People continued to live on the island and in the area, but it transformed from a town to farmland. By the mid-1700s, the land became part of two plantations, owned by the Travis and Ambler families.

Afterward, Jamestown faded away, and the land was eventually purchased by the owners of surrounding plantations. 

Jamestown, Church Ruins, Illustration
The ruins of the church at Jamestown, circa 1902. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Jamestown Today

Today, Jamestown National Historic Site is located on the James River. Nearby is Historic Jamestowne, a living-history museum that includes a reconstructed Fort James and a small representation of a Powhatan village.

Jamestown Significance

Jamestown Settlement was important to the history of the United States because it was the first successful English settlement in the New World.

Jamestown AP US History (APUSH) Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study Jamestown, the 13 Original Colonies, and the Southern Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Jamestown APUSH Definition

Jamestown refers to the first successful permanent English settlement in North America. It was established on May 14, 1607, in present-day Virginia. The settlement was sponsored by the Virginia Company, a joint-stock company that sought to profit from the colonization of the New World. Although Jamestown struggled at first, the introduction of tobacco as a cash crop helped stabilize the colony. Jamestown is often seen as the beginning of the English presence in North America and the beginning of the 13 Original Colonies.

Jamestown APUSH Video — The English Colonies in America

This video from The Daily Bellringer provides an overview of the early days of the English Colonies in America, including the Jamestown Settlement, and is an excellent resource for students studying for the AP US History Exam.

Jamestown Pictures

These paintings from the National Park Service depict life in Jamestown through the years.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Jamestown — The First Permanent English Settlement in America
  • Date 1607–1699
  • Author
  • Keywords Jamestown, Virginia Colony, John Smith, Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas, Virginia Company, Great Charter of 1618, Headright System, House of Burgesses, Bacon's Rebellion, William Berkely, Nathaniel Bacon
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 26, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 11, 2024

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