Jamestown - Why There?

Pitch and Tar Swamp at Jamestown
Pitch and Tar Swamp
at Jamestown
reconstructed pallisade at James Fort
reconstructed palisade
at James Fort
modern seawall at Jamestown
modern seawall
at Jamestown
monument for 350th anniversary in 1957
monument for 350th
anniversary in 1957

(click on images for larger versions)

International rivalries with Spain and France shaped the location of Jamestown and the settlement of Virginia. The shape of the channel in the James River was also a factor.

The English were not the first people to arrive in Virginia, just as Columbus was not the first person to realize the earth was round. Asian hunter-gatherers got here first, about 15,000 years earlier. The Spanish explored the Chesapeake Bay before the English. In 1570, the Spanish even sent Catholic missionaries to convert the natives in Virginia and to expand the power of Spain north from Cuba.

In 1565 the Spanish established the first permanent European settlement in North America, St. Augustine in Florida. That settlement never developed beyond its role as a fort (presidio). Its primary role was to prevent pirates or other nations from establishing a base for capturing Spanish ships carrying gold and silver home from the New World. St. Augustine also protected Catholic missionaries - but the Spanish never tried to "plant" a large number of permanent settlers there.

Jamestown was intended to become the core of a long-term settlement effort, creating new wealth for the London investors and recreating English society in North America. The colonists arrived at Jamestown after a 4-month journey from London. One basic geography question to explore is "Why did the English settle Virginia - and why did they start at Jamestown?"

Jamestown on the Powhatan river, according to John Smith's map
Jamestown on the "Powhatan" river, according to John Smith's map
Source: Library of Congress

Factors to consider include:

The English settled at Jamestown, a place chosen in accord with the original instructions to the colony (and in reaction to the Spanish killing 350 Frenchmen in 1565, when they blocked the effort of the French to establish Fort Caroline on the coast of Florida):1

But if you choose your place so far up as a bark of fifty tuns will float, then you may lay all your provisions ashore with ease, and the better receive the trade of all the countries about you in the land; and such a place you may perchance find a hundred miles from the river's mouth, and the further up the better. For if you sit down near the entrance, except it be in some island that is strong by nature, an enemy that may approach you on even ground, may easily pull you out; and if he be driven to seek you a hundred miles [in] the land in boats, you shall from both sides of the river where it is narrowest, so beat them with your muskets as they shall never be able to prevail against you.

They picked that island far upstream to avoid the Spanish, the first Europeans to attempt to establish a settlement in Virginia. To a lesser extent, the English also feared the French and the Dutch. The constant international conflicts between European nations were a key factor in determining the location and the defenses of the new English colony halfway across the world.

location of Jamestown, in relation to mouth of the Chesapeake Bay
location of Jamestown, in relation to mouth of the Chesapeake Bay
Map Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service Wetlands Mapper

The Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery sailed past the later sites of Norfolk, Suffolk, Hampton, and Newport News. Those were clearly convenient places to settle and there was plenty of fresh water available from inland steams and wells, but Hampton Roads (and of course the Eastern Shore) were too exposed to attack by one or more enemy ships. The fears were realistic. At various times, pirates, Dutch, British, and Yankee attacks showed the Hampton Roads area to be vulnerable to enemy attack.

So the English sailed "so far up as a bark of fifty tuns will float," and chose to settle on Jamestown Island. There were no Native American villages there; the Pasapahegh's hunted and fished on the island, but lived upstream closer to the Chickahominy River.

In addition, the deep James River channel was adjacent to the north bank of the river at the island, allowing the ocean-going ships to dock at the bank and eliminating any need to ferry goods from ship to shore on smaller boats. The fort built in 1607 was not located at the deep-water site, however.

It was built about 100 yards downstream. The colonists may have grumbled about carrying everything that distance, but the military advantages of the fort's location were obvious to people of that time. The fort was built at a site where Spanish/French/Dutch warships would have to sail further away from the riverbank; enemies would not be able to sail close to shore and bombard the English at point-blank range.2 Besides, few ships arrived at Jamestown initially, so carrying supplies 100 extra yards from ship to fort was a rare event.

modern navigation chart showing river channel at Jamestown Island
modern navigation chart showing river channel at Jamestown Island
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Coast Survey, Chart 12248

Most importantly, however, the island was far enough inland that any Spanish/French/Dutch ships would be spotted before they could reach Jamestown. As arriving enemy ships tacked back and forth to sail up the narrow river, the English would have time to prepare for defense. The Elizabeth River offered an excellent harbor, currently home to the US Atlantic Fleet at Naval Station Norfolk, but that site was at risk of enemy attack with minimal warning.

The English colonists could have settled further upstream than Jamestown. Their ships in 1607 were shallow draft. They would float in just a few feet of water, and the James River was easily navigated upstream to the Fall Line. The ships used by the English to sail across the Atlantic Ocean appear ridiculously small to modern viewers. (Visit the Jamestown Settlement and compare the Discovery to the size of a school bus...)

On that first visit in 1607, Christopher Newport did sail all the way up the river until reaching the furthest point inland. He discovered the Fall Line blocked further sailing to the west. Why didn't the colonists establish Jamestown in 1607 at the falls on the James River, the current location of Richmond?

To answer the question, remember that transatlantic shipping was the lifeline for the colony. The colonists were far better prepared than Father Seguera and the Spanish missionaries when they landed nearby in 1570, but the Jamestown settlement was not able to survive the early years without resupply from England. Jamestown was located as close to the Atlantic Ocean as the initial colonial leaders thought was safe, rather than as far inland as ships could go, in order to balance military security with the logistics of getting back and forth to England.

Just as Goldilocks in "The Story of the Three Bears" preferred porridge that was not too hot and not too cold, Jamestown Island was not too close to the ocean and not too far from the ocean. It was a "just right" compromise location.

Jamestown was an international shipping point from the beginning in 1607, but the delivery of supplies from England was not always synchronized with the needs. The Virginia Company thought the colonists could trade with the Native Americans to meet basic needs, and the company lacked the capital to send multiple expeditions each year across the ocean just to ensure the colonists had enough food.

The initial years at Jamestown were rough. With 20-20 hindsight, we know that the English needed more farmers willing to labor in growing food, and fewer gentlemen interested in adventure and treasure hunting without having to get their hands dirty in Virginia soil. Also, the island lacked fresh water springs, one reason the Pasapahegh chose to live elsewhere.

In April, the runoff from upstream is powerful enough to push fresh water on the surface of the James River from the Fall Line all the way downstream to Jamestown Island. In the summer, and especially during the severe drought that affected the area during the early 1600's, the flow of fresh water slacks off and the line in the James River between fresh and brackish water moves upstream. The first colonists may have been sickened by drinking water with too much salt, until John Smith ordered a well to be dug in 1608.3

Trade with the Algonquian tribes provided an intermittent but unreliable source of corn and deer meat. Colonists started to die from disease during the first summer. Right after the First Supply ships arrived in January 1608 Jamestown was destroyed by fire. In 1609, two ships with the new governor (Sir Thomas Gates) in the Third Supply expedition were wrecked at Bermuda. Other ships in that expedition brought 300 new settlers - but they arrived in August, 1609 without adequate supplies. The missing food may have been more significant than the absence of Sir Thomas Gates.

gravesites of settlers who died in first years at Jamestown, buried inside the walls of the fort to disguise the deaths from local Algonquians
gravesites of settlers who died in first years at Jamestown, buried inside the walls of the fort to disguise the deaths from local Algonquians

The colonists had not planted enough crops that summer to provide for the expanded population, and the surviving ships did not bring enough resources to feed all the settlers through the winter of 1609-10. In the horror of the "Starving Time," the majority of the colonists died. Contemporary records report that one person even killed and ate his wife, after "powdering" the meat with salty-tasting gunpowder. Cannibalism is also documented by the bones of a 14-year old girl, excavated in 2012. Analysis at the Smithsonian Institution showed that her body was carved up by someone wielding a knife with their right hand.4

Clearly, despite locating the first town where ships could arrive easily, Jamestown was not a self-sufficient community. It was an isolated seaport at the end of the line for international trade, an outpost that required constant replenishment from Europe in its early years.

The trip from Europe required 12-18 weeks via the Caribbean, until the Virginia Company hired Samuel Argall. In 1609 he identified a route along the 30th parallel that required only nine weeks at sea.

The shorter route turned out to be key to the survival of Jamestown. Lord De La Warr used it when traveling to the colony in 1610, and arrived just in time to intercept the ships that were abandoning Jamestown completely after the "starving time" winter of 1609-1610. Had Lord De La Warr followed the traditional route used since Columbus in 1492, he would have found just an empty fort.5

Today, the closest equivalent to Jamestown is Antarctica. Scientific facilities there are cut off from the rest of the world for several months a year. When humans colonize the moon and planets, or the seafloor, those new colonists will face a resupply a challenge not unlike what the English faced with Jamestown.

Samuel Argall determined that turning west at the 30th parallel, rather than sailing south to catch the westerly winds at the latitude of the Caribbean, would reduce the London-Jamestown travel time by up to 50%
Samuel Argall determined that turning west at the 30th parallel, rather than sailing south to catch the westerly winds at the latitude of the Caribbean, would reduce the London-Jamestown travel time by up to 50%
Map Source: ESRI, GIS Online

Roanoke Colony: Prelude to Jamestown?

Jamestown - The First English Capital

The Spanish at Ajacan

Was Virginia Destined To Be English?

The First English to Reach Virginia

John Smith and Virginia

model of 1607 James Fort, a triangular wooden structure with half-moon bastions at each corner where cannon were placed on raised platforms
model of 1607 James Fort, a triangular wooden structure with half-moon bastions at each corner where cannon were placed on raised platforms



1. Instructions for the Virginia Colony (1606), from A Hypertext on American History, http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/D/1601-1650/virginia/instru.htm (last checked October 1, 2011)
2. "History of Jamestown," Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project, http://apva.org/rediscovery/page.php?page_id=6 (last checked October 1, 2012)
3. "Did Jamestown’s Settlers Drink Themselves to Death?" History.com, October 17, 2011, http://www.history.com/news/did-jamestowns-settlers-drink-themselves-to-death (last checked October 1, 2012)
4. Dennis Montgomery, "Such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of" in Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Winter 2007, http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/winter07/jamestownside.cfm; "Skeleton of teenage girl confirms cannibalism at Jamestown colony," Washington Post, May 1, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/skeleton-of-teenage-girl-confirms-cannibalism-at-jamestown-colony/2013/05/01/5af5b474-b1dc-11e2-9a98-4be1688d7d84_story.html (last checked July 2, 2014)
5. "Samuel Argall," Encyclopedia Virginia, http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Argall_Samuel_bap_1580-1626 (last checked July 2, 2014)

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