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Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement established in the New World. It was forged through early struggle, diplomacy with Indigenous Peoples (also known as Native Americans), and the introduction of tobacco cultivation. Its eventual success led to the foundation of the Maryland colony and renewed interest of the English monarchy in colonising the New World. What were the struggles that the English encountered in Jamestown, how were they overcome, and how exactly did tobacco play a role?

Was Jamestown the first colony?

Jamestown was the first successful English settlement in North America, but it was not the first attempt.

  • In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert attempted to found a settlement in present-day Newfoundland, but it failed due to political and logistical issues.

  • Between 1585 and 1590, Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to found a settlement on Roanoke Island, that ended mysteriously in 1590 when it was discovered that all the settlers had vanished. It is known as the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

    • The failure at Roanoke ended English attempts to settle in North America until after Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603.

In 1606, King James I granted the Virginia Company, a joint-stock company, a charter to establish a settlement in North America to mine and search for gold, silver, and copper. It also required the company to pay one-fifth of its profits to the King. The company initially attempted to settle a colony in Maine, but when that failed the company focused on more southern locations for a settlement.

Joint-stock company: forerunner to modern 'corporations', a company created during the sixteenth century for pooling resources of a large number of small investors through the sale of stock in the company.

In May 1607, 104 men and boys established the Jamestown settlement on a peninsula on the banks of the James River, named after King James I. However, the settlers were very ill-equipped for survival. Few had the farming experience to feed 104 people. Conflict soon arose between the colonists over food rations and labour. Diseases such as influenza also posed a threat. By January 1608, only 38 of the original colonists were still alive.

Many of the first settlers were gentlemen unaccustomed to working with their hands and artisans with skills such as glassmaking, which had no value in establishing a mining colony. Having come to Virginia expecting to make easy fortunes, most could not adjust to the conditions they encountered.

They resisted adopting the techniques of the Indigenous Peoples, with many retaining proper English dress and sedentary work habits. Combined with chronic malnutrition and disease, these attitudes took a terrible toll. During the 'starving time' in the winter of 1609 to 1610, some colonists even resorted to cannibalism. Only around 60 of around 500 colonists survived this period.

From the beginning of the settlement until Virginia’s conversion to a royal colony in 1624, close to 8000 immigrants arrived but fewer than 1300 survived.

Our men were destroyed with cruell diseases, as Swellings, Fluxes, Burning Fevers, and by warres, but for the most part they died of meere famine.

(George Percy, Jamestown Leader, 1608)1

Jamestown colony map

The colony of Jamestown was founded in what is now the state of Virginia on a swampy island in the James River, approximately 150 miles north of the failed Roanoke settlement.

JamesTown, Map of the Jamestown colony, StudySmarterThe map above shows the location of the Jamestown settlement along the James River in the Colony of Virginia. Source: Aude, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

John Smith

A depiction of Capt. John Smith. Source: Frederic, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Captain John Smith was the one Englishman who fully understood the necessity of adapting to the realities affecting the settlement. A career soldier, he travelled extensively:

  • -He joined the Dutch as a volunteer soldier in the late 1590s as they fought for independence.
  • -He joined Austrian forces in 1600 to fight the Turks.
  • -He travelled throughout Northern Africa as many Indigenous populations were colonized by European powers.

These experiences led him to be a member of the first group of settlers to Jamestown and he took charge of the colony in September of 1608 after its original leaders had died. The year in which he governed, by nearly all accounts, was the most successful in the Jamestown colony’s early years. Smith imposed military discipline on the settlers, requiring everyone to work.

Recognizing the issue of diseases in the summer, Smith adopted a practice of the local Powhatan tribe, making the settlement disperse around the area during that season so they would not all be near one another.

The Indigenous People of the area had reservations about dealing directly with the settlers. Smith’s previous experience with Indigenous Peoples, however, gave him an understanding of this and he tried to encourage trade and keep the relationship peaceful. John Smith permanently left the colony in 1609.

The Powhatan Confederacy

The Virginia Company settled in a region dominated by the Powhatan Confederacy –a group of Algonquian-speaking Indigenous tribes. Wahunsenacawh, known by the English as Powhatan, had inherited the chiefdom of six allied tribes on the coast of what is now Virginia. By the time the English arrived in 1607, he was consolidating his control over around 25 other tribes in the area.

Initially, Wahucsenacawh did not view the English as a threat, even considering them potential allies against enemy tribes. John Smith usually represented the English in meetings with Wahucsenacawh and although the pair’s relationship was never friendly, both the English and the Indigenous inhabitants of the area gained something from each other.

The people of the Powhatan Confederacy found the settlers as a source of desirable goods such as metal tools and weapons. In exchange, they traded their excess corn to the starving colonists, without which the colonists would not have survived, even with John Smith’s efforts. Englishmen often wandered into Indigenous villages and vice versa; there were some initial clashes, but the two groups were focused more on trade and maintaining peaceful relations.

One of the most frequent visitors to Jamestown was one of the daughters of Powhatan, Pocahontas. Though she never saved John Smith from execution at her father’s hands -as Smith had sometimes claimed- she did on occasion warn the colonists of plots that may affect them. Pocahontas continued to visit the colony after John Smith’s departure and built other relationships. However, the early, relatively peaceful interactions between the Powhatans and the Jamestown settlement would not last.

The First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–14)

After John Smith left the colony in 1609, the settlement continued to struggle to maintain its population and make a profit. More settlers arrived, but many still would not survive due to disease and malnutrition. In the fall of 1609, conflicts broke out along the James River between the settlers and the Powhatan tribes as the settlers pressured the tribes for assistance.

Powhatan retaliated by forcing the settlers back into the Fort of Jamestown during the winter of 1609. When reinforcements arrived from England in the spring, the settlers responded with a violent attack, burning down villages and attacking civilians. Skirmishes continued between the English and the tribes for nearly two years.

In 1613, the Englishmen seized Pocahontas as a hostage to use as leverage to negotiate a truce with Powhatan. She arranged to marry John Rolfe, a widowed planter, by the following year. Powhatan approved of the match, agreeing to a formal treaty with the colonists. Pocahontas’s marriage linked Powhatan to the English, with the treaty cementing their alliance, strengthening his position with the thirty tribes he had under his rule.

The peace established in 1614 lasted eight years, persisting beyond Powhatan’s and Pocahontas’s deaths. But even before 1614, the force that would end the peace had already taken root. That force was the spread of tobacco cultivation.

Jamestown: the introduction of tobacco

The settlers and the Virginia Company found in tobacco a product they could sell back in Europe. The tobacco native to North America was harsh and unpleasant to the English palette, but the climate was well suited for its cultivation. Because of this, John Rolfe imported seeds of preferable tobacco varieties from South America and began producing tobacco in 1612.

The following year, he shipped samples home to England. This venture soon became successful as 20,000 pounds of tobacco were sent to England in 1617 and 40,000 pounds in 1618. This number continued to increase throughout the 1620s, and tobacco became the foundation of the settlement’s success.

Successful tobacco cultivation required an enormous amount of land since the crop quickly depleted the soil of nutrients. Planters soon learned that a field could produce only about three good crops before it had to rest for several years to regain the appropriate amount of nutrients. What did this mean for Jamestown?

Well, it began to expand rapidly. Eager planters started to apply for large land grants on both sides of the James River. Due to the sense of security from the years of peace, farmers established farms at some distance from one another along the river banks, a settlement pattern that worked well for tobacco cultivation but not for defence against attacks.

The introduction of unfree coerced labour to Jamestown

Abundant land alone could not produce tobacco. The planting, cultivating, and harvesting of tobacco had to be done by hand and these tasks were time-consuming.

The English in Jamestown introduced the headright system, which gave a 'headright' of land to those who could pay for their own transport to the colony. Additionally, those willing to pay for the transportation of people across the Atlantic to the colony also gained land – the more workers one brought into either territory, the more property one could acquire. Those who were paid for by an existing colonist usually migrated as indentured servants: in return for their passage, they would work for planters for periods ranging from four to seven years.

Labourers for the growing tobacco industry also came from Africa. In 1619, a Dutch ship brought more than twenty Africans from the Spanish Caribbean islands to Jamestown. They were the first known African inhabitants of the English Colonies in North America.

Over the next few decades, small numbers of Africans, mainly from the West Indies (Caribbean), were brought and sold to the English colonists. By 1670 the African population of Virginia was around 2000.

The Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–32)

Opechancanough, Powhatan’s brother and successor watched the English colonists steadily closing in on tribal lands and attempting to convert members of the tribes to Christianity. He began to recognise the danger the English presented to the Confederacy.

On March 22, 1622, the Powhatans launched a coordinated attack along the James River. By the end of the day, about one-third of the English population was dead.

The colony reeled from the attack, but it did not collapse. Reinforced by new shipments of men and weapons, the colonists struck back. Over the next few years, they repeatedly attacked Opechancanough’s villages.

The Royal Colony of Virginia

The 1622 attack that failed to destroy Jamestown succeeded in ending the Virginia Joint Stock Company, which had never made any profits from its venture. In 1624, King James I revoked the company’s charter and made Virginia a royal colony, ruled by the King through appointed officials.

Legacies of the Jamestown settlement

What were the legacies of Jamestown on the new royal colony and on the future of America?



The Headright System

Established by the Virginia Company in 1617 (later adopted by the King when Virginia became a royal colony in 1624) the headright system was a land grant policy to encourage settlement and expansion of the colony. Any person who could pay their own passage to Virginia was granted 50 acres of land, and additional land for every other person afforded their passage. This allowed for the continued expansion of the population of Virginia, even with a high mortality rate, and the creation of large planter farms known as plantations to take root in the southern colonies.

The Governmental System

In 1619, the Virginia Company allowed the men of the settlement to elect representatives to a legislative body called the House of Burgesses. At the local level, Virginians adapted forms of government to suit their needs. Only a few decades after Jamestown took root in the New World the colonists had evolved a system of representative government with considerable local autonomy, a pattern that has continued in the United States to the present day.

Conflict with the Powhatan Confederacy

A brief peace returned in the 1630s, but it did not last. In 1644 the Powhatan tribes tried one last time to repel the English but failed, and Opechancanough himself was captured and killed.

By 1646, the survivors of the Powhatan Confederacy accepted a treaty formally allying themselves to English authority. Thus, the Powhatan’s efforts to resist the spread of white settlement had ended.

Jamestown - Key takeaways

  • Jamestown was established in 1607 by the Virginia Joint Stock Company with the purpose of trading and mining for gold and silver.

  • The first colonists at Jamestown were ill-prepared for the harsh conditions and struggled through the first years of the colony with only 38 of the original 104 settlers surviving the first winter.

  • John Smith worked with the local Powhatan people, trading metal tools and weapons for food which prevented the colonists from starving.

  • The planter John Rolfe introduced tobacco to the colony in 1612, which became the foundation of the colony’s success. In 1614 he married Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, establishing peace for close to 8 years with the Indigenous people.

  • The expansion of the colony led to tensions with the Powhatan people, and an attack in 1622 killed one-third of the English population.

  • In 1624, Jamestown was made into a Royal Colony by King James I. The colony continued to face conflict with the Powhatan Confederacy until 1646.

1. George Percy, 'Observations gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia', Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes, compiled by Samuel Purchas (London: H. Fetherston, 1625) 4:1689-1690.

Frequently Asked Questions about Jamestown

Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in North America, established to trade and mine for gold and silver. Many of the early settlers died due to ill preparation for the harsh conditions, malnutrition, and disease. John Smith played a key role in the early survival of the colony, working with the local Indigenous people to trade metal tools and weapons for food. The success of the colony rested on tobacco cultivation, introduced by John Rolfe, who also married Pocahontas - the daughter of the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy - to calm the cross-cultural conflict. Jamestown faced multiple instances of conflict with the Powhatan Confederacy, which in 1622 succeeded in wiping out a third of the English population. Jamestown became a royal colony in 1624. 

Jamestown was founded in 1607 by the Virginia Joint-Stock Company.

  • Jamestown was established in 1607 on a swampy island in the James River in what is today the state of Virginia.

  • Though not the first attempt to establish an English colony in North America, Jamestown is the first successful permanent settlement. 

  • The survival of the colony is due in part to the early leadership of John Smith, and the introduction of the cultivation of tobacco by John Rolfe. 

  • The colonists had a working relationship with Powhatan Confederacy until the expansion of the colony due to the production of tobacco caused armed conflict between the settlers and the Indigenous People, ending with an Indigenous People defeat in 1646. 

  • The success of the colony overall led to the creation of the colony of Virginia.

It was the first successful English colony and settlement in North America. 

Jamestown did not fail overall, but it did have many struggles. Many colonists who arrived were ill-prepared for the living conditions, resulting in many deaths. In addition, the colony did fail to produce enough profit for its parent company, the Virginia Company, and in 1624 it was taken over by King James I and made a Royal colony. 

Final Jamestown Quiz


One of the biggest problems during the first years of the Jamestown settlement was?

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The lack of skills the colonist had in growing food

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Captain John Smith helped Jamestown survive when he:

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Imposed work and order on the colonists

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The Englishman who first introduced tobacco in Virginia was:

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John Rolfe

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In 1619, another important part of Virginia society was introduced:

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Enslaved Africans

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 English people came to the New World because of? 

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All of the Following

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Which of the following was the most important export from the colony of Virginia?

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True or False, the Jamestown settlement failed to produce enough profit to be maintained by the Virginia Company, becoming a Royal Colony in 1624.

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Which of the following was NOT an immediate issue encountered by the settlers of Jamestown?

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Conflicts with the Native Americans

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What caused the population of Jamestown to drop significantly over the winter of 1609 to 1610?

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The colony was struck with disease and starvation

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What system was put in place by the Virginia Company in order to entice Englishmen to come to Virginia?

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The Headright System

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