At the turn of the 17th century, Spain dominated European conquest of the Americas. To establish a permanent British hold on the North American continent, King James I granted a charter to the Virginia Company to establish a colony in the New World. The colonists arrived on the east coast of America on May 14, 1607. The settlement they built on a narrow peninsula became Jamestown, named in honor of the English king.
Approximately 100 colonists came on the first three ships from England -- the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery -- to establish what would become the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown. Company leaders included John Smith, a former mercenary, and voyage commander Christopher Newport. At the time, the colony of Virginia, named for the "virgin queen" Elizabeth I, encompassed all American territory on the Atlantic coast north of Florida. The colonists selected the site for Jamestown because its location further inland protected the settlers from potential Spanish attack, and the deep water surrounding three sides of the land enabled them to moor their ships close to shore.
Surviving the Starving Time
Algonquian tribes led by Chief Powhatan regularly attacked the colonists, angry that they had built a fort and residences on tribal hunting grounds. Although John Smith reached an understanding with the chief, he returned to England in late 1609. The settlers' provisions dwindled as a result of drought, and relations with the Algonquians soured when the tribe grew weary of the colonists' repeated requests for food and help. The settlers retreated behind the walls of their fort, certain if they crossed paths with an Algonquian they'd be killed. More than 100 settlers died that winter. Survivors subsisted on dogs, horses, shoe leather -- even each other. In 2013, Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley announced the first direct evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown -- the butchered remains of a 14-year-old girl found among the bones of horses and dogs.
Pocahontas and an Uneasy Peace
By the spring of 1610, the few remaining settlers had resolved to abandon the colony when two ships bearing fresh supplies and 150 new colonists arrived. Among them was tobacco planter John Rolfe. Using seeds he'd brought with him from the West Indies, he began growing a new type of tobacco in America that soon became the colony's major cash crop. Rolfe planted the seeds of peace with the Algonquians as well when he married Pocahontas, Chief Powhatan's daughter. In the years to follow the colony thrived, and in 1619 the Virginia Company recruited approximately 90 English women to move to Jamestown to start families with the male colonists and help ensure the continued survival of the British settlement.
The colony expanded in the 1620s, but in 1622 peace with the Algonquians evaporated. Pocahontas had died in 1617 during a trip to England, and her father died a year later. The chief's successor fueled the flames of resentment in the tribe over the colony's ever-expanding boundaries, culminating in a major assault on one of the satellite settlements that claimed the lives of nearly a quarter of its English population. With political and financial problems mounting, King James I revoked the company's charter and proclaimed Virginia a royal colony in 1624. Jamestown became the capital of the colony. However, in 1698 a fire destroyed much of Jamestown's central buildings, including its statehouse. The following year, the crown moved the colonial capital to Williamsburg.
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