Jamestown Settlement – A Flawless Weaving of American History

Christy Coleman, Executive Director, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

by James C. Sherlock

Sunday, on a brilliant fall day in Hampton Roads, my wife and I went on an outing.

Despite having lived in Virginia for many decades, neither of us had ever been to Jamestown.

We all know the outlines of the story. Jamestown was founded in 1607 as a commercial venture by British investors, the Virginia Company. It was ill-conceived and badly executed, but survived, if barely.

We know, or think we do, about John Smith and Pocahontas. The arrival of African slaves. The beginnings of the General Assembly. Bacon’s Rebellion. The abandonment of the settlement in 1699 when the capitol was moved to Williamsburg.

It turned out that neither of us knew enough about Jamestown to avoid being constantly surprised and educated during a visit to Jamestown Settlement, a living history museum presented by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation (JYF).

What makes that museum very special is the way the JYF has woven together the stories of early Jamestown:

  • the 1607 voyage of three ships and 104 colonists under the command of Captain Christopher Newport;
  • the managers hired by the Virginia Company, then royal appointees from 1624 when the settlement became a colony, and wayward sons of the well-to-do like Nathanial Bacon;
  • the other European immigrants, mostly indentured servants;
  • the indigenous peoples; and
  • Africans, both slave (starting in 1619) and free.

The museum presents not only their history, but their humanity.

The colonists. In Great Britain, 1603 began the 111-year reign of the House of Stuart. James I of England (James IV of Scotland) in 1606 chartered the Virginia Company of London, a venture of wealthy Englishmen hoping to profit from Virginia the way the Portuguese and Spanish had profited from their colonies in the Americas.

In 1607 Captain Newport sailed up the James River and deposited the settlers on Jamestown Island. It had a deep water anchorage, good natural defenses, and little else.

Brackish water and a lack of food almost wiped the settlers out.

They had decided to abandon Jamestown when ships arrived from England with more settlers and supplies in the Spring of 1610. Under a new royal charter and a governor, strict martial law was established.

Among the arrivals were indentured servants, who worked side-by-side with, and were treated like, slaves. When freed of their contracts, many moved to the frontiers and refused to obey colonial laws.

Tobacco was the crop that made the settlement profitable after 1613, resulting in the plantations that line the James River south of Richmond. The first successful planter, John Rolfe, married Pocahontas and took her to England, where she died.

Bacons Rebellion. Cambridge-educated Nathanial Bacon, he of the 1676-77 rebellion, had been exiled to Virginia by his very wealthy father for allegedly cheating a friend. He was charismatic, made wealthy by a parting gift from his father, and was well connected in Jamestown. Ravaged by head lice, he may also have been mad.

His rebellion was more self-serving than civic.

A planter, he emerged as a leader of a group of White and Black frontiersmen who wanted the Indians killed for both revenge and greed. They conducted raids against Pamunkeys further up the James River and in the Middle Peninsula counties of King and Queen, Essex, Middlesex, and Gloucester.

The outlaw Bacon was nonetheless elected to the House of Burgesses by the voters of Henrico.

The Burgesses enacted reforms, including suffrage to non-landholding White freemen. That splitting of the suffrage, and interests, of poor White men from free Blacks presaged the original Constitution a century later and, when slavery was ended, Jim Crow laws 200 years after those original ones.

Unappeased, Bacon and his men burned Jamestown to the ground in September of 1676. Bacon died of dysentery in October of the same year. Governor Berkeley hanged every man he could find among the remaining leadership.

The Indians. Captain Newport had deposited the settlers in the midst of  14,000 Algonquian Indians in a confederacy of about 30 tribes ruled by Chief Powhatan. After initial peace and some trading, the relationships between the colonists and the Indians fluctuated between wariness and war.

Powhatan was the father of Pocahontas and the older brother of Opechancanough, who captured John Smith in 1607 and led attacks against the settlers in 1622 and 1644.

Powhatan’s people were hunters, fishermen and corn farmers.

His capitol, Werowocomoco, was at Purtan Bay in present day Gloucester County across the York River from Camp Peary.

Archeologists have found evidence there of a large residential settlement dating to at least 1200. English artifacts of the trading relationship were unearthed at that site.

The Africans. The first Africans arrived in 1619 on a ship flying a Dutch flag. They had been captured as slaves during the Portuguese wars in Angola.

They left behind a highly developed society, with both urban and rural regions. Among them were skilled women farmers. Women did the farming in Angolan society. They proved far better farmers than the White indentured servants, and made possible the labor-intensive tobacco economy of early Virginia.

Some of the Angolan men had been herders, others were artisans including blacksmiths.

Some of them were probably familiar with European languages and customs because of trade relationships. By Portuguese law, all slaves were baptized.

There were eventually Black freemen among them, but not many, as tobacco made slaves more and more valuable.

The museum. First recommendation is go there. It is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and located along the Colonial Parkway.

The films, each with its own theater, and the galleries, arranged chronologically, are the must see, and can be experienced even on a rainy day. The outdoor displays are terrific.

The museum takes the stories of three peoples from the broad outlines I have sketched above through the end of the 17th century.

There are not separate rooms for each of the peoples and their experiences in Jamestown and environs, but rather storytelling displays as interwoven as were the lives of these people.

It is an extraordinary accomplishment.

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39 responses to “Jamestown Settlement – A Flawless Weaving of American History”

  1. Very cool. I didn’t know that Nathaniel Bacon was educated in Cambridge, that he’d been exiled, or that he had head lice!

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      His father’s parting gift when he exiled him was 1800 pounds, worth between 6 and 10 million pounds today depending upon the index used. He was, on arrival, among the richest men in the colony.

    2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      His father’s parting gift when he exiled him was 1,800 pounds, worth between 6 and 10 million pounds today depending upon the index used. He was, on arrival, among the richest men in the colony.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Way better off than the average man of that time.

  2. Growing up in Richmond, we youngsters were taken many times to see Jamestown. I remember the parklike setting, essentially an open field along the waterfront with the outlines of brick foundations scattered about at ground level, and the looming presence of the Jacquelin-Ambler house ruins at one end and the old Church tower at the other. Yes there was a museum of sorts, amplified with reproductions of the three old ships and re-enactment exhibits on another part of the Island during the 1957 Festival year — unfortunately, a sign informed us, the original Jamestown fort site was lost to erosion of the River bank years ago; only the later village site survived.

    My wife and I took friends back to see it all recently and, what a change! New studies have identified the error of earlier research; the old fort site did not wash away but has been rediscovered and researched and much of it restored aboveground. Indeed the old Church tower turns out to have been a significant component of the fort’s defenses. The exhibits in the new museum nearby are well done — like you, Captain, we were impressed with how well they weave the story about the humanity of the long-gone ordinary folk who called that little patch of land their home. Go see one of the finest parks in Virginia, in a lovely, uncrowded setting, and enjoy!

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Haven’t been to the park yet. Next time.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Growing up in Norfolk and especially doing 7-12 of K-12 meant living at Jamestown, Williamsburg (“Master Fry, Master Fry, I found a duck with a broken wing..”), with an occasional tromp through the battlefields.

    3. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Growing up in Norfolk and especially doing 7-12 of K-12 meant living at Jamestown, Williamsburg (“Master Fry, Master Fry, I found a duck with a broken wing..”), with an occasional tromp through the battlefields.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    The part of the history of Jamestown that would be useful in understanding how Virginia was settled and who were the winners and losers is how did people come to own land? Who were able to own land and some, lots of it and who were not?

    Ownership of land was the essential aspect of family wealth going forward. Some people came to own thousands of acres. How did they come to own that much land?

    Who kept track of land records? Could indentured servants and “free” blacks own land?

    1. Read the first page of this for the answer to your land questions: https://lva-virginia.libguides.com/land-grants

      Yes, there were free blacks many of whom owned land. As for “apprentices” and other contractually-indentured servants, originally they and slaves were legally the same — except, of course, for the term of servitude and the determination, early on, that the child of a slave was born a slave (unlike the child of an indentured servant). Later Virginia laws, generally after the 1820s, enacted restrictions on slave education and made life increasingly harsher for slaves than for others under indenture.

    2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      The losers were just about all of the original colonists. Average age for checkout was 40. Infant mortality rates over 80%.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        true for the landed gentry? What age did the landed gentry die? Like Jefferson?

        and when they did , how did their heirs fare? My understanding is that Jefferson still had land that was passed on to his heirs.

        There is no question that Jefferson lived a better life than those who did not inherit wealth.

        1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
          James Wyatt Whitehead

          Difficult to compare 1743 (TJs birth) to 1607. Two very different Virginia’s.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            More than 100 years, yes.

            but not that hard to recognize those who had wealth and those who did not and how it affected their access to opportunities.

            Does it all go back to who were granted land and who were not?

        2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          His heirs got nothing. Debt holders got it.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            Many of those who had wealth given to them DID pass it on.

            And did land that Jefferson had like Popular Forest get sold or passed on?

      2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        You want to talk losers? Virtually no women in the Virginia Company expedition for the first few years.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Women, indentured servants, slaves, …. most everyone that did not have a land grant.

        2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
          James Wyatt Whitehead

          You are forgetting Virginia’s Widowcracy. In the first 50 years, it was not uncommon to find Virginia’s women marrying a number of times as their husbands died off from disease. The colony permitted widows to inherit land, cash, and have standing in court. Perhaps the most powerful women of the New World.

    3. King James granted land-holding rights to supplicants and favorites (regardless of whether Indians might be living there). The grantees of these concessions then surveyed it and sold off chunks to others. The legal framework for land tenure was imported from England with many feudal attributes like primogeniture that later colonists, most prominently Thomas Jefferson, abolished.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        So Jefferson inherited over 4000 acres. How did that land come to be owned by his family?

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          Due to his debts, not a single acre was passed to his family upon his death. The cost of a life in public service.

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Or a wastrel.

            Dick Cheney, son of a GS, and who spent 22 years in government service himself was able to amass $22M by 2001.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            But point is that his wealth even if he squandered it was inherited and those he inherited from likely got it given to them – as opposed to so many others who did not get such wealth given to them.

            The irony is that the founding fathers who rebelled against England – were made rich by England with large plots of land than, in many cases, got handed down.

          3. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            The March of the Mercantile.

          4. LarrytheG Avatar

            great gobs of huge land grants created landed gentry made even more lucrative by slavery to grow tobacco and cotton and many of them Founding Fathers.

          5. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            They founded the greatest democracy in the history of the planet.

          6. LarrytheG Avatar

            They did. That does not change facts, nor the fact that is was not the greatest democracy in the history of the planet for some who were not so fortunate as them.

          7. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            Pick your favorite.

          8. LarrytheG Avatar

            Not the greatest Democracy for everyone.

          9. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            A rounding error on Harry Reid’s holdings.

          10. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Behind every vast fortune is a great crime.

          11. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            Bill Gates?

          12. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Hey, he didn’t have lawyers for nothing.

          13. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            Certainly didn’t. Can you imagine how much money Microsoft’s attorneys fees took from that company?

          14. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Well, lawyers can bill, but as Trump has often proved (in the past) collecting is a different matter.

            You can bet Mr. Softee’s were the best trust, tax, and contracts facebiters money could buy.

          15. LarrytheG Avatar

            Can you imagine how much money they’ve taken from Trump? 😉

  4. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “Tobacco was the crop that made the settlement profitable after 1613…”

    …and ultimately caused the deaths of untold millions…

  5. energyNOW_Fan Avatar

    We visited a few years ago. The story that caught my attention was the terrible drought they had for quite some years, and of course fresh water was in short supply. Were the same drought to happen today it would be considered final proof that fossil fuels must be banned.

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