Jamestown Settlement

In 1605, two groups of London merchants who had combined the investments of many smaller investors petitioned King James I for a charter to establish another colony in Virginia. These two groups — prototypes of modern-day corporations — became the Virginia Company of London and the Plymouth Company.

After receiving its charter, the Virginia Company organized its expedition, providing free passage to America in exchange for a contract under which the settlers agreed to seven years of indentured servitude. This became a popular arrangement. In December 1606, those who signed on (a total of 120) boarded three vessels — the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed.

Under Way

By May 1607, the 104 remaining settlers commanded by Captain Christopher Newport sailed their three rather frail vessels through the Chesapeake Bay and thirty miles up the James River to reach a parcel of densely wooded, swampy land. There, the settlers built Jamestown, England's first permanent colony, and like many other explorers before, they set out to find treasure.

They arrived too late in the season to plant crops, and the swamps didn't help their chances of survival. Many of these genteel souls were not accustomed to manual labor, and neither were the valets who sailed with them. Everyone had to carve out homes in the wilderness. There was no choice but to adapt. And many did not. Within a few months, some settlers died of famine and disease, while others went to live with Native American tribes. Only thirty-eight made it through their first year in the New World.

That these settlers survived at all is due in large measure to Captain John Smith, a former crusader and pirate turned gentleman. Smith was chosen to lead the Jamestown Colony in 1608, but became a bit of a dictator, ruling with harsh orders such as “no work, no food.” He turned the settlers into foragers and successful traders with the Native Americans, who taught the English how to plant corn and other crops.

John Smith and Pocahontas

Smith led expeditions to explore the regions surrounding Jamestown, and it was during one of these that the chief of the Powhatan Native Americans captured Smith. According to an account Smith published in 1624, he was going to be put to death until the chief's daughter, Pocahontas, saved him. (Pocahontas's real name was Matoaka. The Native American name “Pocahontas” means “playful one.”) From this the legend of Pocahontas sprang forth, becoming part of American folklore, children's books, and movies. But did it really happen?

In their very first years in Virginia, the British encouraged interracial marriage with the Native Americans in order to promote better relations. In Virginia, money was offered to white Virginians who would marry Native Americans. Few took advantage of the offer and later the English would forbid interracial marriage. Pocahontas would be one of the last Native Americans to be accepted into British-American society through marriage.

Some historians believe the event did not actually occur because they say Smith did not mention this Native American woman or his release in any of the documents he wrote about the colony's first year. Smith's account of the capture was published in 1624, long after the supposed event took place, which leads some historians to believe Smith was just trying to create a good story.

In 1614, John Smith returned to America, exploring and mapping the New England coast. He later sailed back to England with valuable furs and fish and became a prolific writer and supporter of American colonization. It's during this period that Smith penned The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles; and The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith. Smith died in 1631.

Evidence is scarce that Pocahontas actually helped John Smith, risking her life to save him. An account that is probably more accurate states that Smith participated in an initiation ceremony making him an honorary Powhatan tribesman. The Jamestown settlers did capture a young Pocahontas around 1612, returning her to their colony. In captivity, she caught the eye of John Rolfe, an Englishman, who later married her with the blessing of her father and the English governor. This established a peace with the Powhatans that lasted eight years. Pocahontas converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. In 1615, she gave birth to her first child, Thomas.

With his bride and new son, Rolfe returned to England. Soon, Pocahontas captured the people's hearts. Just as she was preparing to return to Virginia in 1617, Pocahontas died of smallpox and was buried in the chapel of the parish church in Gravesend, England.

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