In spring 1607, a group of 104 English men and boys landed on the banks of a large river in present-day Virginia and built a fort on hunting land that belonged to the Powhatan Chiefdom. They formed a small settlement—the first permanent English colony in North America—and named it Jamestown after King James I of England. Over the next several decades, Jamestown nearly collapsed multiple times as the colonists succumbed to disease and famine.
The settlement’s history is pocked with dramatic events and historical figures. Here are 11 eye-opening facts about Jamestown.
1. The Virginia Company funded the colonizing expedition.
In April 1606, King James I chartered the Virginia Company, a joint stock venture in London, to colonize the eastern coast of North America between latitudes 34° and 41° North (roughly between Wilmington, North Carolina, and Long Island, New York). The company was made up of merchants and entrepreneurs and was named for James’s predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I, the “virgin queen.”
In December 1606, the Virginia Company sent about 100 of its members on three ships—the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery—to establish the new colony of Virginia, with Jamestown as its capital. The company’s investors expected to recoup their funds from the discovery of gold and silver and/or a river route to the Pacific Ocean, which they could use to establish trade with Asia. (Neither was discovered.)
2. Captain John Smith arrived in Virginia as a prisoner.
John Smith, a prominent English soldier and adventurer, arrived in Virginia aboard the Susan Constant in shackles. Expedition leader Christopher Newport had accused Smith of mutiny on the four-month journey across the Atlantic and held him below deck for the remainder of the trip.
When they reached shore, the group’s leaders opened a box containing their orders from the Virginia Company’s leaders and learned that Smith was among those named to the governing council. At least one report says that Smith was saved from being hanged only through the efforts of the colony’s minister, Reverend Robert Hunt. Smith eventually assumed his council position.
3. Life in Jamestown was precarious.
At first, colonists were awed by the apparent abundance of food and beauty of the Virginia landscape. The river teemed with mussels and oysters and the forests were full of game. But they were less than adept at hunting and soon ran low on food. They drank contaminated water, contracted diseases like the “bloody flux” (dysentery) and possibly plague; their fort burned down, and they suffered through an unusually cold winter with little shelter. By January 1608, just 38 of the original 104 colonists were still alive.
4. The legend of Pocahontas saving John Smith’s life is probably not quite true.
In September 1608, Smith was elected president of the colony and is credited with a dramatic drop in the death toll. Smith led efforts to rebuild the fort, plant crops, and dig a well—but he also annoyed the Powhatan leaders.
While on a trading mission to obtain food for the colonists, he met 11-year-old Pocahontas, a member of the Pamunkey tribe and the daughter of Powhatan, chief of more than 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Powhatan Chiefdom in territory called Tsenacomoco. Pocahontas was her nickname (translating to “playful one” or even “naughty child”); her given name was Amonute and she was called Matoaka by her family.
According to legend arising from one of Smith’s accounts (there are several), Smith had been kidnapped by Pocahontas's brother on his way to ask the chiefdom's leaders for food. He was taken before Powhatan, who decided to execute him. Pocahontas supposedly saved Smith just before the ax fell.
Historians debate the circumstances of the story. One theory suggests that Smith was instead part of a ritual inducting him into the Powhatan tribe, but he didn’t understand what was happening and assumed they wanted to kill him. Either way, Smith returned to Jamestown several months later and Pocahontas became a sort of diplomat between the colonists and the chiefdom, though relations remained strained.
5. Jamestown’s first colonists resorted to cannibalism to survive.
A new group of colonists arrived in August 1609 without the expected provisions needed to survive the winter; their ships carrying supplies for the whole colony had run aground in Bermuda. Now, Jamestown had more mouths to feed and even less to eat.
Hostilities over food and other issues with the Powhatan Chiefdom escalated that fall and erupted into what the English viewed as the First Anglo-Powhatan War. Powhatan ordered a siege of Fort James, preventing the colonists from venturing out to hunt, fish, or steal the tribes’s food. The English ran out of provisions and fresh water. They resorted to slaughtering their horses for meat, then ate dogs, cats, rats, and snakes; archaeological and written evidence from the time also indicates cannibalism. Colonist George Percy wrote that some ate their comrades and others “Licked upp the Bloode wch hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.”
The brutal winter of 1609-1610 became known as “the starving time.” More than half of the colony died by the spring, at which time Powhatan’s forces lifted the siege so they could begin planting crops. In May 1610, the crew of the Sea Venture—a supply ship that had been wrecked in Bermuda the previous year—arrived with a group of carpenters, shipwrights, farmers, and other skilled laborers. Then another ship arrived with a years’ worth of provisions, saving the foundering colony.
6. John Rolfe smuggled in seeds for Virginia’s first cash crop—tobacco.
Colonist John Rolfe—who later married Pocahontas—brought South American tobacco seeds to Jamestown, though it’s unknown where he got them. King James hated tobacco; Spain, which controlled Central and South America, threatened to punish anyone who sold their tobacco seeds to non-Spaniards with death. South American tobacco was considered sweeter and more desirable than the bitter tobacco typically smoked in North America.
Historians guess that Rolfe, a passenger on the Sea Venture, could have acquired the seeds while he was shipwrecked in Bermuda. Others speculate that Rolfe may have picked them up in Trinidad or another Caribbean location.
Rolfe’s successful cultivation of tobacco led to a commercial venture that saved Virginia financially. In 1617, tobacco exports to England totaled 20,000 pounds, then more than doubled the following year. Exports exceeded 1.5 million pounds by 1630.
7. Virginia’s House of Burgesses was the American colonies’ first democratically elected legislative body.
The House of Burgesses was the first English representative government in North America. It grew out of the General Assembly, established in 1619, which included a governor, council of legislators appointed by the Virginia Company, and two representatives (burgesses) from each of Virginia’s 11 communities. Only the burgesses were elected.
In 1643, the governor created a bicameral legislature by making the House of Burgesses its own law-making body. In the 18th century, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry all served as elected burgesses.
8. The first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown in 1619.
On August 20, 1619, an English privateer named the White Lion landed at Point Comfort, Virginia, with about 20 enslaved Africans. The ship had attacked the San Juan Bautista, a Portuguese vessel transporting the enslaved people to Mexico, and had taken its captives to Jamestown. The White Lion’s captain traded them “for victualls,” according to John Rolfe.
The Africans had lived in the Ndongo Kingdom in Angola, where the Portuguese mercenaries and their allies had kidnapped them. Their arrival in Virginia is viewed as the beginning of slavery in English North America (slavery existed in Spanish-controlled Florida already). The site where they landed is now Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, Virginia.
9. Women went to Jamestown as “tobacco brides.”
By 1621, Jamestown’s population was faltering, and women of child-bearing age weren’t eager to travel to a rough-and-tumble settlement where disease and famine had taken their toll. To boost their numbers, the Virginia Company placed an ad in London seeking “young and uncorrupt” women to marry Jamestown’s well-off colonists. The women were promised their choice of husbands and free passage to the colony; the husbands agreed to reimburse the company’s expenses with up to 150 pounds of tobacco. The arrangement drew 90 “tobacco brides” in 1620 and another 56 in 1621 and 1622.
10. Jamestown served as Virginia’s capital until 1699.
Jamestown’s buildings, including the fort, state house, and church, burned down several times and were rebuilt. In 1676, a century before the American Revolution, a planter named Nathaniel Bacon led an armed uprising against England’s colonial government in Virginia. His beef with the governor arose when he was denied military help to violently expel Native Americans from their lands bordering the colony. Poor farmers who opposed the governor’s high taxes fell in with Bacon’s revolt. After Bacon battled the Native people on his own, his forces drove out the governor and set Jamestown on fire.
The rebellion was short-lived, but the damage had been done. The seat of the colonial government moved to Williamsburg in 1699. (The capital moved to its present site in Richmond in 1780.)
11. Jamestown is under threat from climate change.
Remnants of Jamestown’s original structures and more than 3 million artifacts have been unearthed by archaeologists, and the site is still an active dig. But rising sea levels, intense storms, and frequent flooding threaten the site, which sits on a low-lying tidewater island between a swamp and the James River. Engineers are holding the damage at bay with sandbags, sump pumps, and tarps, and an effort is underway to shore up an existing sea wall. In 2022, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Jamestown on its list of the country’s most endangered historic places.