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Why Choose Jamestown Island?

Jamestown island

Jamestown Island, seen today from the deck of Jamestown Settlement’s re-created ship Godspeed.

After a voyage of almost five months, the English colonists arrived at Jamestown Island on May 13, 1607. The following day, they began landing their supplies and building what became the first permanent English colony in America. The English colonists arriving in Virginia in 1607 were operating under guidance provided by the governing council in England in the form of “Instructions given by way of advice,” which laid out certain steps they were to take upon arriving in Virginia and criteria they were to use when choosing the site for their colony.

The Virginia Company of London was a joint stock company. It was one of many formed in England around 1600. Funding for the company was provided by adventurers – shareholders of varying financial capacity who expected a return on their investment. The adventurers supported the establishment of a commercially viable colony in America. The Company was managed in England by a council which was appointed by King James I. A local council in Virginia was to make decisions for the day to day operations of the colony.

The royal charter of April 10, 1606, gave the London Company rights to establish a colony in North America between Cape Fear in what is today North Carolina and Long Island in what is today New York. The charter provided liberal rights to the company while providing the crown a percentage of any gold and copper discovered in the new colony.

Upon arriving at Cape Henry at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on April 26, 1607, the colonists opened a sealed box naming the members of the local council – Bartholomew Gosnold, John Smith, Edward Wingfield, Christopher Newport, John Martin, and George Kendall. These men were the leaders of the “captains and company which are sent at this present to plant there” to whom the “instructions by way of advice” were addressed.

Three ships

Jamestown Settlement’s re-created ships – Susan Constant (left), Godspeed (middle), and Discovery (right). The three ships are re-creations of those that brought the first colonists to Jamestown, Virginia, in May 1607, establishing the first permanent English settlement in America.

So, what were their directions?

“you shall do your best endeavor to find out a safe port in the entrance of some navigable river, making choice of such a one as runneth furthest into the land. . . [If the river has two branches] make choice of that which bendeth most towards the northwest, for that way shall you soonest find the other sea”

With the Portuguese and Spanish already controlling routes to Asia around Africa and South America, the English were looking for a Northwest Passage through the North American continent. The James River is more than 340 miles long. Just over 100 miles of the river are navigable to shipping, as far as today’s Richmond. At Jamestown Island, the James River has a breadth of more than two miles. It is no wonder that the English colonists hoped this mighty river might lead across the continent

“When you have made choice of the river on which you mean to settle, be not hasty in landing your victuals and munitions, but first let Captain Newport discover how far that river may be found navigable, that you may make election of the strongest, most fertile and wholesome place.”

Prior to landing at Jamestown, the colonists used a small boat called a shallop to explore as far as “the Countrey of the Apamatica”, probably near what is today Hopewell, VA, where the Appomatox River joins the James.

“But if you choose your place so far up as a bark of fifty tons will fleet, 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 farther up the better. For if you sit down near the entrance, except it be 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 within the land in boats, you shall from both sides of your river where it is narrowest so beat them with your muskets as they shall never be able to prevail against you.”

The English were genuinely concerned about the defense of their fledgling settlement. In 1564, the French had established a colony on the banks of the St. Johns River in what is today Florida. Seeing this as a threat to their Caribbean and continental domains, the Spanish wiped out that colony in 1565. The English were wary of repeating this scenario, especially since relationships with Spain were tenuous after the nineteen-year Anglo-Spanish War concluded in 1604.

“In all your passages you must have great care not to offend the naturals. . . and employ some few of your company to trade with them for corn and all other lasting victuals if [they] have any; and this you must do before they perceive you mean to plant among them. For not being sure how your own seed corn will prosper the first year, to avoid danger of famine, use and endeavor to store yourselves of country corn.”

The English understood that their relationship with the local tribes would be important to their survival. The natives would be needed as guides, to provide trade food, to identify natural resources, and as an ally against other Europeans. Yet, the instructions also make it clear how little trust the English had for anyone beyond their own countrymen. Do not offend, but do not trust seems to be the tone set in their instructions.

“You must take especial care that you choose a seat for habitation that shall not be over burthened with woods near your town. For all the men you have shall not be able to cleanse twenty acres in a year, besides that it may serve for a covert for your enemies round about you.

Neither must you plant in a low and moist place, because it will prove unhealthful. You shall judge of the good air by the people; for some part of that coast where the lands are low have their people blear-eyed and with swollen bellies and legs. But if the naturals be strong and clean made, it is true sign of a wholesome soil.”

So, in addition to finding a site that provided natural defenses against an enemy, the instructions directed the first colonists to choose a place that would be healthy – presumably with good fresh water, high ground away from marshes and swamps, and with good soil for growing any seeds brought from England.

Having explored up the river at some length, the colonists “went backe to our ships, and discovered a point of Land called Archer’s Hope,” the only site we know the colonists considered prior to Jamestown Island. In his account of the voyage, colonist George Percy described the place as:

sufficient with a little labor to defend ourselves against any enemy; the soil was good and fruitful with excellent good timber; there are also great stores of vines in bigness of a man’s thigh, running up to the tops of the trees in great abundance; we also did see many squirrels, conies, blackbirds with crimson wings, and divers other fowls and birds of divers and sundry colors of crimson, watchet, yellow, green, murrey, and of divers other hues naturally without any art using; we found store of turkey nests and many eggs. If it had not been disliked because the ship could not ride near the shore, we had settled there to all the colony’s contentment.”

Navigational chart

A modern chart showing the area around College Creek (Archer’s Hope) and Jamestown Island.

Archer’s Hope was at the mouth of what is today College Creek. From Percy’s description, it appears that the mariners in the group weighed in with strong concerns about the difficulties of unlading the colonist’s supplies and later reloading any exports being sent back to England. The modern chart shown here illustrates that small boats would have been needed to move materials back and forth between ships and shore – a time consuming process requiring a great deal of manpower. The largest of the three ships – Susan Constant – required nearly 12 feet of water to float and future ships brought to Virginia would likely require even more water.

The colonists moved about eight miles upriver to Jamestown Island, where Percy says that “our ships do lie so near the shore that they are moored to the trees in six fathom [36 feet] water.”

The choice of Jamestown Island largely met the criteria in the instructions to the colonists. The James River is a large river flowing out of the west. Shortly after establishing their colony on Jamestown Island, Captain Newport, John Smith, and others would explore to the river’s fall line near what is today Richmond. While the James did not prove to lead across the continent, the river did offer a highway inland, opening rich lands and resources. Jamestown Island is about 30 miles from the mouth of the river, and 20 more from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. This ensured that the colony would not be easily discovered by other European ships seeking shelter from a storm or roving along the coast. England was an island nation, and selecting an island provided advantages, especially when considering that the colonists and their investors in England considered the Spanish as the primary threat to the settlement. While Jamestown Island was certainly used by the local Powhatan tribes for hunting and fishing, there is no evidence of a year-round community living there in 1607. Establishing a colony here would hopefully not cause an immediate rift with the local tribes. The biggest advantage, and one probably seized upon as a great advantage for the mariners, was the 36 feet of water up to the shoreline that allowed the ships to tie to trees. This allowed cargo to be shifted between ships and shore with relative ease and made Jamestown Island stand out above Archer’s Hope, which seemed perfect in every other way.

It was the last piece of advice that appears to have been least considered and most costly to the colonists – “Neither must you plant in a low and moist place, because it will prove unhealthful.” Jamestown Island is low lying, surrounded largely by marshes, and the James River is still brackish and tidal along its shores. The colonists chose Jamestown Island for their colony on May 13, 1607. Leaving 104 men and boys in Virginia, on June 22, Captain Newport departed Jamestown with the Susan Constant and Godspeed, leaving the smallest ship – Discovery – behind for the colonists’ use. George Percy’s account of the colony quickly takes a dark turn. His often-detailed descriptions of the local flora and fauna are replaced with almost daily accounts of colonists dying. In an especially descriptive passage, Percy writes that:

“Our men were destroyed with cruel diseases, as swellings, flixes, burning fevers, and by wars, and some departed suddenly, but for the most part they died of mere famine. There were never Englishmen left in a foreign country in such misery as we were in this new-discovered Virginia. . . Our food was but a small can of barley sod in water to five men a day; our drink cold water taken out of the river, which was at a flood very salt, at a low tide full of slime and filth, which was the destruction of many of our men.”

By the time Captain Newport returned to Jamestown with more supplies and colonists in January of 1608, hardly 40 of the original 104 colonists were still alive. In the end, Jamestown survived, but just barely. The choice of Jamestown Island proved unhealthy and contributed to the high fatality rate seen in the first years of the colony. Only the successful voyaging of ships thousands of miles across the Atlantic with more colonists and supplies allowed Jamestown to survive its early years. The capital of the colony was moved to what is now Williamsburg in 1699.

Hank Moseley
A professional mariner working on Jamestown Settlement’s three re-created ships

Selected Sources

Phillip Barbour, The Complete Works of John Smith (1580-1631) Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965

Phillip Barbour, The Jamestown Voyages Under the First Charter 1606-1609 London: Cambridge University Press, 1969

Edward Wright Haile, Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony Champlain, VA: Roundhouse, 1998

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