The first colonists at Jamestown found life on the swampy tip of an Indian hunting ground by the James River to be grueling and often deadly. The Virginia Company hoped to make a start in this new world that would ultimately bring profits to King James, the men who ventured there, and, of course, the Virginia Company itself. But the coming of “the Starving Time,” sometimes hostile tribes, and sickness turned a dream into a nightmare.
Virginia’s First Capital
Though many died, some survived, and more came, including women and children. Ultimately, Jamestown would continue for decades until the descendants of those early settlers burned its capitol building during Bacon’s Rebellion, forcing the powers-that-were to move the seat of government to nearby Williamsburg.
A Princess and a Soldier
What did Pocahontas and John Smith have to do with any of this? In the colony’s beginning, Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, was curious about the newcomers and befriended John Smith, bringing him food at the settlement. After being kidnapped by her father's rival and given to the English, she learned their European customs, took a new name and ultimately married Englishman John Rolfe.
Her friend John Smith, a soldier who had seen many exotic places, had also been a captive of the English. Believed to have encouraged a mutiny on board ship, he came to the new land in chains. But the explorers found themselves without solid leadership. Afraid of what might happen—and finding a letter implying they should, they freed John Smith, and he soon took charge.
Working to Survive
One of his main rules was that those who did not work would not eat. This was very important as there were few men to do the work necessary to survive. Of those, some were gentlemen who considered themselves too good to do physical work. This did not make John Smith popular, but it saved the colony.
..that he that will not work shall not eat (except by sickness he be disabled) for the labors of thirty or forty honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintain an hundred and fifty idle loiterers...
John Smith’s and Pocahontas’ friendship became the basis for some peaceful years for Jamestown, during which time the colonists learned that while gold was hard to find, growing tobacco was the key to making their fortunes.
A Difficult First Century
Jamestown would be the center of Virginia’s colonial government for almost a century, but its troubles were far from over. Conflicts with the tribes, some of which were warring with each other, led to a great massacre in 1622. The feeling that the colonial government wasn’t looking after the needs of the born-there colonists properly sparked Bacon’s Rebellion, which erupted in flames at Jamestown in 1676.
There are many good educational sites on Jamestown, including National Geographic’s On the Trail of John Smith, and Historic Jamestowne for Kids and Families, which includes activities to print out and do at home.
Learn more about this struggling colony with our Jamestown book list.
Good sources for early Virginia studies, suitable for grades 3 to 6.