Gateway to the Classics: Colonial Days by Wilbur F. Gordy
Colonial Days by  Wilbur F. Gordy

The Settlement of Jamestown

When Raleigh found that his private fortune was not ample enough for planting colonies, he assigned his interests to a number of merchants and rich men, who secured a charter from King James in 1606 and organized two companies for the purpose of colonizing America.

One of the companies was composed of London merchants and was called the London Company. The other was composed of men living in the west of England and was called the Plymouth Company. The London Company was to occupy the land between 34 degrees and 38 degrees north latitude, extending from Cape Fear to the mouth of the Potomac River; the Plymouth Company, between 41 degrees and 45 degrees, extending from the mouth of the Hudson River to New Brunswick. The area lying between 38 and 41 degrees either company might occupy provided it came no nearer than one hundred miles to a settlement which had been made by the other company.

The Charter

The most important provision of the charter was that the colonists as citizens in America should have the same rights and privileges as were enjoyed by citizens of England. In addition to the charter, the emigrants received from King James and the London Company rigid instructions as to what they should do when they reached Virginia. The Church of England was to be maintained, and the authority of King James was to be supreme. The king wished the colonists to understand that they were under his absolute control.

Another of his instructions was very unwise and, as we shall see later, almost ruined the colony. In substance it was as follows: For five years after the settlement in Virginia no colonist was to have any land of his own; all were to work together and put the products of their labor into a common storehouse, out of which every colonist should have his needs supplied.

The members of the London Company, being merchants, were dreaming, as De Soto, Cortez, and other Spaniards had dreamed years before, of the gold and silver to be found in America. With the hope, therefore, of making themselves rich by finding quantities of precious metals and developing a large' trade, they decided to send a colony to the New World. It was easy to persuade men to join this gold-hunting venture.

The Colonists Sail for the New World

On New Year's Day, 1607, a fleet of three frail vessels, bearing one hundred and five colonists, sailed from England. More than half called themselves "gentlemen," or men unused to labor; the others were laborers, tradesmen, and mechanics. They were all ill-fitted for the hardship of life in a new country. Instead of going straight across the Atlantic, they followed the coast of France and Spain down to the Canaries, and thence made their way to the West India Islands. Here they stopped for some time before completing their voyage.

It was their intention to land at Roanoke Island, but in a severe storm they lost their reckoning and arrived at the entrance of Chesapeake Bay. Sighting a headland, they named it Cape Charles, after one of the sons of the English King. On April 26th a small party of the colonists, landing here, was attacked by unfriendly Indians, who wounded two of the men with arrows.

But the tribes were not all hostile. At another landing-place, according to the account taken from an early narrative, the Indians were very amiable. The chief, at the head of feathered and painted warriors, welcomed the newcomers with music on a reed flute. As he came nearer, the white men must have been amused, if not startled, by his grotesque figure. His body was painted crimson and his face blue. His fantastic costume included two feathers in his hair, birds' claws set with copper hanging from his ears and from his neck a string of shell beads.

As the colonists sailed up the river, which they called James, in honor of the King of England, they were deeply impressed by the beauty of the scenery. It was early May. The dogwood and other trees were in full bloom, and the ground along the river-side was brilliant with sweet-scented flowers of many colors. To the tired voyagers it all seemed like fairy-land.

The Colonists Settle at Jamestown

About fifty miles from the mouth of the river they selected a place for their settlement. It was a peninsula, connected with the shore by a narrow neck of sand, thus affording some advantages in case of an attack from the land. Moreover, the river at this point was so deep that vessels could be moored close to the banks and tied to tree trunks. But the land was low and damp, and the air malarial.

The colonists at once set about building a fort. Upon the ramparts they planted cannon in such a way as to command the approaches to the settlement, because they feared attacks from the Indians. Their first dwellings were either rough cabins with roofs of sedge or bark, tents made of old sails, or simply holes dug in the ground, according to the ability or thrift of the colonist in providing his shelter.

Their first church was equally simple in structure. For a reading-desk they nailed a board to two trees, for seats they used logs of wood, and to protect the congregation from sun and rain they stretched overhead an old sail-cloth. In this primitive place of worship they held religious services twice every Sunday.

Such was the crude beginning of the first permanent English settlement in the New World—a settlement which the colonists named Jamestown in honor of King James.

John Smith

Immediately after landing, on May 13th, the members of the Council, with the exception of John Smith, proceeded to elect a president. The choice fell upon Edward Wingfield.

King James had appointed councillors before the colony sailed from England, but instead of making known who they were, he gave strict orders that their names should be placed in a sealed box, not to be opened till the colony reached America. Curiously enough, when the names were taken from the box, there was found among them that of John Smith, who, during the voyage over, had been put in irons on a foolish charge of plotting mutiny; but for some weeks he was not allowed to take his seat with the Council.

John Smith was, in some respects, a remarkable man. By his own account, which some historians think is highly colored, his experience had been a romantic one. He was born in 1579, and was left an orphan at an early age. Being of a restless and roving nature, he went in youth and early manhood to foreign lands, where he passed through many dangers, more than once barely escaping death. Thrice he engaged in single combat, each time with a powerful Turkish captain, and each time he killed his adversary. Whatever may be thought of the account he gave of his adventures, there is good reason to believe, as our story will make plain, that he was a brave man. But for his courage and good sense, all of the Jamestown colonists must have perished.

The Little Colony in Distress

Troubles were already threatening when the colonists settled in their new home. The roundabout voyage by which they had crossed the Atlantic had taken over four months, and during that time much of the food, intended for the first few weeks on land, had been consumed. To make a bad matter worse, instead of promptly returning to England for more supplies, Captain Newport delayed until June 22d, a period of fifty days, in order that he might go with John Smith on what proved to be a fruitless exploring expedition up the James River.

By the time Newport left for England, the supply of provisions had run so low that the colonists were put upon short rations. The allowance, per day, for each man was one pint of wheat or barley, already spoiled, of which porridge was made by boiling it in the muddy water of the James River.

When we remember that the colonists had no sheep nor cattle, and hence were without mutton and beef and milk and butter, we realize how slender was their diet. They had a few chickens, but not enough to use for food. Famine soon overtook them. Nor was that their only misfortune. The sultry midsummer heat and the dampness of their surroundings helped to bring on fevers and other diseases.

To add to their distress, the Indians frequently attacked the settlement. Every third night, therefore, each man had to take his turn, whatever the weather might be, in keeping watch. During the tedious hours of sentinel duty the men lay upon the bare ground and, already weakened by lack of food and by the intense heat, many fell ill. Sometimes three or four died in a single night. The time came when there were not enough able-bodied persons to care for the sick, and by the close of September nearly half of the Jamestown settlers had passed away.

The Indians Capture John Smith

Autumn, however, brought better conditions. With cool weather wild fowl flocked to the rivers, fish became abundant, and the ripened corn furnished good material for bread. As the outlook became better, Smith decided to go up the Chickahominy River on a voyage of exploration. He was in search of the South Sea, as the Pacific Ocean was called, which at that time was believed to be at no great distance west of Jamestown.

On a bitter cold day, early in December, with nine white men and two Indians, he ascended the Chickahominy River in a barge. When a point had been reached where the stream was too shallow for them to proceed farther, they landed. There Smith left seven Englishmen behind to guard the barge, and with the remaining two white men and the two Indians continued the journey in a canoe.

They had not gone far when suddenly they were set upon by some two hundred Indians, who killed the two white men and pressed hard upon Smith. Although he fought with desperate bravery and with his pistol killed two of his assailants, in a short time he had to surrender.

The Indians tied their captive to a tree, and it looked as though Smith were never to see his friends again. But immediately, with great presence of mind, he began to divert the savages with an ivory compass which he took out of his pocket. The red men tried to touch the trembling needle, and when they could not on account of the glass that protected it, they wondered exceedingly. Playing upon their simplicity and superstition, Smith pointed to the stars to indicate that there was some mysterious connection between the compass and these heavenly bodies.

Perhaps the Indians at first believed he had superhuman power. At all events, instead of putting him to death, they journeyed with him from village to village and exhibited him among their people as a prize. This experience was of much value to Smith, for it gave him a knowledge of Indian life and character, which aided him on many occasions afterward in managing the red men.

Pocahontas Saves Smith's Life

In the course of their travel they came to an Indian village, Werowocomoco, on the north bank of the York River, about fifteen miles in a bee-line from Jamestown. Here lived the leading chief of the tribe, Powhatan, who received his guest with great formality.

On being ushered into Powhatan's presence, Smith beheld, a crafty old savage, tall, thin, and sour-looking, clad in a cloak made of raccoon skins with all the tails attached. He was seated on a sort of bench covered with skins, in front of the fire. At the right and left of the chief were Indian maidens, and ranged along the sides of the long wigwam were squaws whose faces and bare shoulders, painted a deep red, vividly set forth the strings of white shell-beads which hung about their necks. In front of the women stood the grim warriors in dignified silence.

One squaw brought water to Smith with which to wash his hands, and another a bunch of feathers on which to dry them. He was then feasted, and a council was called. The Indians seem to have been divided in their opinion of Smith, but after some discussion they put an end to his suspense. For they forced him to lay his head upon two stones, beside which stood Indian warriors with upraised clubs ready to dash out his brains. At such a prospect even his stout heart must have quailed.

Just at this critical moment Powhatan's favorite daughter, Pocahontas, a maiden twelve or thirteen years old, rushed up and threw herself upon Smith's body, putting her arms about his neck. Now mystery was added to suspense. But by her action the little Indian girl simply indicated her wish, according to an Indian custom, that the prisoner's life should be spared, and that he should be adopted as a member of the tribe. When this is understood, there is really nothing mysterious or even romantic in the behavior of Pocahontas. To Powhatan and the other Indians the incident was commonplace enough, and the old chief yielded to his daughter's wish in allowing the prisoner to live.

Having passed safely through this ordeal, Smith, after two or three days, was put through the second stage of tribal adoption. By Powhatan's orders he was led into a long wigwam out in the woods, and left on a mat before the fire. The chief himself passed into an adjoining room and uttered a succession of the most doleful sounds.

Returning to Smith's presence, he went through further strange ceremonial, and told Smith that he might return to Jamestown. At the same time he added that if Smith would send from Jamestown two cannon and a grindstone he should receive a tract of land and should become the old chief's son. All this indicated that the rescued prisoner had been adopted into Powhatan's tribe.

Smith Again at Jamestown

Smith returned to the settlement on January 8, 1608, after an absence of about four weeks. On the same day Captain Newport also arrived from England. With him came one hundred and twenty new colonists. These, added to the thirty-eight who alone remained of the original one hundred and five, brought the number up to one hundred and fifty-eight. This meant more mouths to feed, and food was still scarce. It was well for the colony that Smith had been adopted into the Indian tribe, for Pocahontas, who had become his warm friend, often came to the settlement with corn and venison and wild fowl for the needy settlers.

In the following summer Smith went out again in search of the Pacific, this time exploring the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. Of course he did not find the Pacific, but he sailed three thousand miles, making accurate maps of the country.

In September Captain Newport, who had again sailed to England for supplies, returned with seventy new colonists. He reported that the London Company was complaining because the colonists had found no precious metals. He had been warned, he said, not to return to England without finding a lump of gold or discovering the passage leading to the Pacific.

He also brought directions that Powhatan was to be crowned. As the old chief refused to come to Jamestown, Newport and Smith had to go to him at his village on the York River. When they requested him to kneel and receive his crown, he refused. It was doubtless with amusement that the two white men forced the chief upon his knees and placed the crown upon his head. When he arose they gave him a pitcher, a basin, a bed, and a scarlet robe, while he in turn handed them his old coat of raccoon skins as a present for King James.

On Newport's sailing to England a short time afterwards, the colonists made Smith president. He was their natural leader, because he knew so well how to manage not only the Indians but also the unruly colonists.

Smith Gets Corn from the Indians

Soon after his election as president the colony was facing a new danger. Ever since Powhatan had adopted Smith as a son the Indians had been supplying the settlers with food. But late in the autumn of 1608 the Indians refused to bring anything more. Corn must be had from the red men, however, or the colonists would starve. Decisive action was necessary, and Smith determined, if persuasion failed, to use force.

With twenty-seven men he started down the James in a pinnace, on the way to Werowocomoco, Powhatan's village. When they landed they took possession of an empty house not far from the village and remained there for the night. The next day, when Powhatan came to visit them, he rudely asked, "How long are you going to stay, and why have you come? I did not invite you, and I surely have no corn for you. But I think I can fill forty baskets if for each of them you will give me an English sword."

Smith boldly answered, "We have no swords for you. Of course we can get corn with our weapons if we wish, but we are your friends, and we shall not use force with you unless you compel us to do so."

The crafty old chief then promised that in two days corn should be brought. But he said the Indians felt some misgivings about bringing the corn, because the white men had their weapons with them. He urged Smith to send them to his boat.

The next day Powhatan returned to the white men's house and again requested that they should not keep their guns with them. But Smith knew well that the Indians were planning mischief. When, later in the day, he detected signs of treachery, he at once sent for his men, most of whom were on board the pinnace.

Meanwhile he and only one other white man were left in a house with Powhatan and some squaws. The old chief quietly stole out of the building. Soon the purpose of this sudden move was made plain, for in a few minutes scores of armed warriors had surrounded the house to cut off escape.

Aware of the danger, Smith and his companion, with drawn swords, rushed out of the door and so startled the red men that they almost fell over each other in their frantic effort to get out of the way. As soon as possible Smith gathered his whole force about him, every man of whom was ready with loaded gun for anything that might happen. With grim determination he compelled the Indians to carry basket after basket of corn down to the English barge while the white men stood looking on.

When the corn was all loaded, the tide was so low that the barge was stranded. As they had to wait for high water, it was necessary to call upon the Indians for supper. Before food could be brought, however, Pocahontas came and told Smith that he must get away as soon as possible, because the Indians were planning either to kill them all while at supper, or to surprise them later in the night. Here again, as in other cases, Pocahontas saved the settlers' lives.

Upon leaving Werowocomoco the colonists went up the York River to the village of Powhatan's brother to get more corn. They were shortly surrounded by several hundred warriors; but Smith, rushing into a wigwam, dragged out the chief, and, putting a pistol to his breast, shouted, "Corn or your life!" Smith got the corn.

Smith's Able Leadership

In this dangerous expedition, when the Indians in overwhelming numbers were thirsting for the white men's blood, Smith was complete master of the situation. His readiness and boldness in moments of extreme peril made a deep impression upon the Indians and greatly increased his power over them. They looked upon him as a superior being. Never again, therefore, while he remained in the colony, did they give the settlers further trouble.

Smith had also won the confidence of the settlers, who now had the highest respect for his authority. Before his election as president of the colony from twenty to thirty men were doing the work of the entire company of two hundred, most of whom were lazy and shiftless and unwilling to do anything but seek adventure and look for gold. Truly had Smith declared, in speaking of the men who came to Jamestown, "A hundred good workmen are worth a thousand such gallants."

To bring about a better state of affairs, Smith called the settlers together one day and said, in substance, "I am your president, and I expect you to obey the regulations I make for the good of the colony. Hereafter he who will not work shall not eat." This became a law.

Soon after this law was made everybody was busy with some useful occupation. But some of the colonists hated rough labor so much that they were likely to swear when it hurt their hands. That was bad for their morals, and, to put an end to the swearing, Smith ordered that for every oath that escaped a man a can of cold water should be poured down the sleeve of the offender's uplifted right arm. Smith's exacting law and rigid discipline brought about a much better state of affairs in Jamestown.

Smith Returns to England

Although the outlook was more hopeful than it had been before, Smith felt that the good of the settlement would be served by removing to a more healthful location. He therefore sailed up the James River in September, 1609, and near the present site of Richmond selected, and bought from the Indians, a tract of land among the hills.

But he was not destined to build up the colony in this new location, for during his return trip to Jamestown a bag of gunpowder on the boat exploded and seriously wounded him. His condition was so critical that he was obliged to go back to England for skilled medical treatment. Although, after recovering his health, some years later, he came again to America and explored the coasts of New England, he never visited Jamestown again.

Smith's departure was a grievous loss to the colony. His great courage and energy had carried them through many dangers, and could he have remained with them during the following winter they might have been spared the horrors which history has had to relate.

When Smith left for England, Jamestown had five hundred settlers and fifty or sixty houses, and was strongly defended with palisades. The colony had twenty pieces of cannon, and three hundred guns, with horses, cattle, and about six hundred swine.

It is safe to say that the strong, manly qualities and the practical common sense of John Smith saved Jamestown from destruction in the early years of its existence.

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