Why Jamestown Matters

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If Jamestown, England’s first permanent colony in the New World, had failed 400 years ago—and it came within a whisker of being abandoned on any number of occasions—then North America as we know it today would probably not exist. Instead of English, we might be speaking French, Spanish, or even Dutch. If Jamestown collapsed, the emergence of British America and eventually the creation of the United States may never have happened.

By the time John Smith and his fellow colonists landed in Virginia in 1607, many European colonies had failed already, owing to harsh winters, rampant disease, hostile Indians (or other Europeans), and difficulties with provisioning. The Spanish lost colonies in Florida, the French at Fort Caroline (Florida) and Port Royal (Nova Scotia) and the English at Baffin Island, Roanoke (North Carolina), and Sagadahoc in Maine. Few colonies lasted more than a year and many hundreds of colonists died, often in terrible conditions. The spread of English settlements along the North Atlantic seaboard in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was far from inevitable.

So, too, the early colonists of Jamestown encountered daunting challenges. Unable to survive solely on their own, they counted on periodic reprovisioning and new infusions of settlers from their sponsors in England, the Virginia Company of London.

In November 1609, two and a half years after Jamestown was first settled (during which the colony had been a total loss to its investors), members of the Company learned that a hurricane had scattered a fleet of eight ships sent out earlier in the year to bring 500 settlers, food, arms, ammunition, and equipment to the beleaguered colony. The principle vessel, the 250-ton Sea Venture, was feared lost. As the Company members filed into their London office, their faces reflected their deep concerns. Should they continue to finance their risky and costly gamble in the New World or just pull the plug and let the colony collapse?

Their decision would change history. Instead of giving up, the members sprang into action to save their investment and calm investors and others who would soon learn the news of the disaster themselves. In December, the Company published A True and Sincere Declaration, a bold defense of the colonization effort that asked why this “great action” of the English should be “shaken and dissolved by one storm?” The carefully reasoned argument restated the colony’s purpose—to take possession of North America, bring Christianity to the Indians, and produce valuable commodities—and outlined why Jamestown would eventually become profitable. If these were the right and proper goals for the colony when the expedition had set out, the Company asserted, why should they be abandoned now?

The treatise worked, enabling the Company to raise money for another fleet, under the command of Lord De La Warr, which set out in April 1610 and arrived just in time. The winter and spring of 1609-1610 had proved particularly deadly to colonists. A combination of Indian attacks, disease, and starvation killed three-quarters of the 400 settlers in six months. When De La Warr’s ships anchored off Jamestown Island in June, the new governor turned around surviving colonists who had just abandoned the site and put the colony on a more secure footing.

Had the Virginia Company pulled out of Jamestown, the English might never have established themselves as the major colonial power on the mainland, leaving the Spanish or Dutch to colonize the mid-Atlantic region, which may well have discouraged the establishment of English settlements in New England. Instead of settling at Plymouth, the Pilgrims might have ended up in Guiana, on the northern coast of South America, an alternative suggested at the time; Massachusetts settlers might have joined other Puritan groups moving to Providence Island, off the coast of Central America, and to sugar-rich islands of the West Indies. The English may well have decided to confine their activities to the Caribbean or abandoned colonizing projects in America altogether, turning their attention to dominating the business of transporting goods, much as the Dutch would do after losing New Netherland (New York) to the English in 1664.

But against the odds Jamestown survived, becoming the first successful English colony in North America, from which the English language, laws, and secular and religious institutions in time spread across North America and the globe. At Jamestown the English learned the hard lessons of how to keep a colony going. By trial and error, they discovered that only with the introduction of stable political and social institutions—representative government, the church, private property, and family and community life, as well as the discovery of profitable commodities—would settlements prosper and grow. All successful English colonies followed in the wake of Jamestown.

English colonization, however, unleashed powerful destructive forces and brought unimaginable misery for Indians and enslaved Africans alike. Hostilities between the English and Powhatan Indians kick-started a destructive cycle of violence, plunder, and exploitation that would spread across the continent over the next three centuries, depriving native peoples of their lives, culture, and lands. The arrival of some two-dozen Angolan slaves at Jamestown in August 1619 presaged a system of exploitation and oppression that would destroy and blight the lives of countless Africans over many generations. At its creation, the new American nation would confront its greatest paradox: how could slavery persist in the midst of freedom?

Few other places in America so richly symbolize both the good and bad of our shared past. Jamestown matters because it is about coming to terms with that past; a past at times painful and conflicted but which eventually laid the foundations of modern America. At Jamestown, Indians, the English, and Africans first encountered one another, lived and worked alongside one another, survived and persisted, and in so doing began the long drawn out process—often contentious, sometimes tragic, but ultimately successful—by which together they shaped a new world and forged a new people.