On This Date In History: The first permanent English settlement in the New World was at Jamestown in the Virginia Colony. While it was established in 1607, English merchants and adventurers had failed several times in attempts to create colonies in America. Throughout the sixteenth century, Britain was well aware of the existence of the New World and was intrigued by the possibilities. When Elizabeth I rose to power, a powerful sense of nationalism developed that encouraged dreams of expansion. But, England was a bit nervous about their powerful rival, Spain. Spain was the dominant European power in the Western Hemisphere and they had the most formidable navy in the world. But, in the latter half of the century, “sea dogs” such as Sir Francis Drake successfully raided Spanish merchant ships and confidence in Britains ability to challenge the Spanish on the high seas rose. Ulitmately, the door for Britain into the New World was opened in 1588 when the Spanish Armada was defeated soundly by the Royal Navy. It was a bold attempt by Philip II to end England’s ability to challenge to Spain’s commercial supremacy and also bring the island nation back into the Catholic Church. It turned out to be a total fiasco as the much smaller Royal Navy ended in a single stroke the Spanish Navy’s dominance of the Atlantic.
In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert led an expedition to New Foundland, which he claimed in the name of the Queen. He traveled along the coast in search of a good spot for a military outpost the might become a profitable colony. Instead, on this date in 1583 Sir Humphrey was nowhere to be found because the previous day a storm had arrived and Gilbert went down with his ship. Gilbert’s half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh recruited his cousin, Sir Richard Grenville, to lead a group of men to Roanoke Island to establish a colony in 1585. Grenville deposited the settlers on the island. Grenville returned to England but did stay long enough to piss off the native population by burning down an Indian village in retaliation for a minor theft. When Sir Francis Drake showed up the following spring, the beleagured settlers promptly boarded Drake’s ship and went home. Raleigh tried again in 1587 when he sent an expedition of 91 men, 17 women and 9 children. John White led the expedition and shortly after they arrived back at Roanoke Island, his daughter gave birth to Virginia Dare, who was the first American-born child of English parents. Obviously, White wasn’t too sentimental because he then left the settlers to pick up where the previous Roanoke settlers had left off. He returned to England with the intention of returning with supplies in a few months. But, hostilities with Spain messed up that plan and he didn’t make it back until 1590, when he found the island deserted with no clue as to the colonists’ fate except the word “Croatoan” carved on a tree. No one really knows what happened to them but many historians suspect the Indians knocked off the colonists in retaliation for Grenville’s burning down their village.
So, by the time the Jamestown colonization attempt came about, the English were well acquainted with failure and Jamestown seemed destined to continue the string of futility. 144 men began the journey to the colony that was established by James I with charters to the London and Plymouth Companies. But, only 104 survived the voyage. Since the king had afforded them the opportunity, they thought it might be a good idea to name the settlement in his honor. But, the majority of men on the expedition were more interested in searching for gold or other fortune and had no desire to do any work. After all, the purpose of the colony was to turn a profit and the companies wanted a quick return on their investment. They also faced unanticipated challenges. We often hear of how natives to America suffered from disease introduced by European settlers. Well, it works both ways and many of the Jamestown settlers succombed to diseases that had no effect on the Indians but proved fatal for the British. Greed and rootlessness contributed to the failure to grow food and a lousy diet limited the colonists ability to fend off disease. When a ship arrived with supplies in 1608, all but 38 of the settlers were dead.
Now, 27-year-old Captain John Smith had joined the original expedition. He was a good organizer and had built a reputation as quite the world traveler. He was also used to being a captain and probably had a sense of arrogance. In fact, his abrasiveness became so irritating on the 4 month voyage across the Atlantic Ocean that his fellow colonists had Smith put in irons. When they first arrived at the colony, the settlers opened a locked box which had the names of 7 men whom the company had designated to be leaders of the colony. I’m sure that the folks were greatly dismayed to find Smith’s name on the list. However, with disater staring them in the fact, they obviously were desperate because, on this date in 1608, John Smith was elected as Council President of Jamestown in the Virginia Colony. He imposed work and order on the community and organized raids on neighboring Indian villages to steal food. Nevertheless, the settlement continued to struggle even after Smith took charge when a fire wiped out many of the structures. But, what appeared to be a concluding event for the life of Smith ended up being a life and colony saver.
Attacks from local tribes declined as, presumbably, Smith had figured out that stealing food from the neighbors wasn’t too smart. In turn, the Indians helped the greenhorn English to learn how to live in the New World. That second winter, only 12 of the nearly 200 colonists died and by the summer of 1609, Jamestown appeared to have a chance at survival. I guess Smith’s heavy handed ways were not seen as any longer necessary because, with conditions improving, the council deposed him from his position and he returned to England to get treatment for a serious powder burn. The goodtimes didn’t last in Jamestown though as by 1610, famine and disease took its toll and only 60 people were left when a ship with more settlers showed up. Relations with the Indians also went in the tank with several wars. The Indians, of course, eventually lost but it wasn’t a total blowout as evidence by the settlements razing in 1622. You can visit the reincarnation of the Jamestown settlement. You’ll be amazed at how small the ships they used to sail the seas really were.
It is interesting that the majority of the images that we have of Smith don’t seem to resemble that of the youthful man who took the helm at Jamestown. Most paintings do not depict Smith as a young man at all, but instead a robust man who might fit in an Old Spice commercial. Prior to photographs, it was possible for artists to depict their heroes or villains as the wanted them to appear, but not necessarily as they really did appear. In any event, as I mentioned, John Smith was an adventurer and while he was in the colony he mapped much of the Tidewater area. He is credited with discovering Tangier Island, where Snow White and I vacationed a couple of years ago. Smith saw the Island with a white beach (which has largely disappeared) and it reminded him of Tangiers…so he called the Island Tangier. Smith was obviously not a very creative fellow because a nearby Island he named after himself. The third island in the group he called Watts Island, after one of his crewmen. The collection of three islands, Tangier, Smith and Watts, he called the Russell Islands,or Russell’s Isles….again after one of his crewmen. If Donald Trump had been on board, perhaps we would have the Trump Islands. Good thing Englebert Humperdink wasn’t part of the crew.