Today in History

Today in History: May 14

Jamestown

On May 14, 1607, English settlers arriving under the authority of the Virginia Company of London chartered by King James I established the first permanent British settlement in North America at a place they named Jamestown, Virginia."We landed all our men," George Percy wrote in his account of the event, "which were set to worke about [i.e., on] the fortification, and others some to watch and ward as it was convenient." 1

Jamestown, Virginia
Virginia Discovered and Discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606, (detail showing Jamestown),
William Hole, engraver, London, 1624.
Discovery and Exploration
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The Jamestown colonists struggled with leadership and survival from the beginning. Captain John Smith spent his first months in Virginia exploring in the Chesapeake region, undergoing capture by the regional Algonquian "great emperor," Powhatan, with whom he subsequently developed a mutually wary and respectful relationship. In 1608 Smith was chosen to be president of Jamestown’s governing council and proved to be an able leader. Yet Smith returned to England in 1609, and only 60 of the 214 colonists survived the "Starving Time" of the ensuing harsh winter. The arrival of fresh supplies from England in the spring fortified the colony and enabled it to endure.

Virginia, 1606
Virginia Discovered and Discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606, (detail showing Powhatan chief),
William Hole, engraver, London, 1624.
Discovery and Exploration
Map Collections

On July 30, 1619, under the provisions of the Virginia Company Charter, the House of Burgesses met in Jamestown "to establish …one uniform government over all Virginia," thereby becoming the first representative legislative assembly of European Americans in the Western Hemisphere. (Tradition dates the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy of five Indian tribes in upper New York state between 1570 and 1600.) Jamestown was also the site of the Americas' first Anglican church. 2

Another event of momentous consequence took place in August 1619 when a Dutch ship exchanged a cargo of some twenty captive Africans for food. Although the Africans' legal status in these early years was probably closer to indentured servitude than to the full-fledged slavery that hardened in Virginia by the end of the century, this event represented both the founding African presence and the foundation of slavery in British North America.

Despite the success represented by the colony's survival and political organization, relations with the Algonquians were unstable and at times violent. In March 1622, more than three hundred colonists were killed by the Algonquians just outside Jamestown and more than twice that number died in an epidemic the next December. Following these events, King James revoked the Virginia Company's charter in 1624, in 1625 his son King Charles I made Virginia a royal colony.

Learn more about Jamestown and related subjects in American Memory:

1. The words of George Percy are quoted in A Timeline of Events and References Leading up to and through the Founding of Jamestown (external link), compiled by Nick Luccketti for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (external link). It should be noted that because of the then-ten-day difference between the "Old Style" (Julian) calendar used by Englishmen until 1752, and the "New Style" (Gregorian) calendar in use since 1752, the date when settlement began was actually May 24 in modern terms. (Return to text)

2. A Brief History of Jamestown (external link), provided online by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (external link). (Return to text)