The Birth of America
Struggling from one peril to the next, the Jamestown settlers planted the seeds of the nation's spirit
Virginia, Earth's only Paradise!" So declared Michael Drayton, poet laureate of England, in a merry ballad marking the departure of three ships crammed with men anticipating fast fortunes in the New World. The prospective colonists set sail from London just before Christmas of 1606, bound for the Chesapeake Bay. It was the last Christmas most of them would ever know.
By the following August, when their Jamestown settlement was barely three months old, almost every day brought a new death.
September found half of those 105 original settlers in their graves. "Our men were destroyed with cruell diseases such as Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers, and by warres," a survivor reported, "but for the most part they died of meere famine."
Thirteen years before the Mayflower brought Pilgrims to Massachusetts, the Virginia colony served as England's toehold on a continent eventually inhabited and governed mostly by English-speaking people. History books list Jamestown, founded in 1607, as America's first permanent English settlement, and its 400th anniversary will be celebrated this year with festivals, exhibits, and commemorative coins, plus a springtime visit by Queen Elizabeth II. But that success in Virginia was not the piece of cake it first was billed to be. For years, Jamestown was a deadly fiasco, periodically in peril and ultimately revived and enriched by cultivation of a habit-forming weed and the toil of indentured whites and enslaved blacks.
In Europe's race to colonize the New World, England started late. For nearly a century after 1492, the English watched with envy as Spain dominated much of the hemisphere that Columbus discovered. In 1587, two decades after the Spanish settled St. Augustine in Florida, the English abandoned their insular ways and planted 110 men, women, and children on Roanoke Island off present-day North Carolina. When a supply ship returned later, all were gone. Even now, no one knows what became of that "Lost Colony."
Sir Walter Raleigh, the favorite courtier of Elizabeth I, reportedly lost 40,000 pounds on the venture. His reward, granted in advance, was knighthood and the Virgin Queen's permission to name the new land Virginia, in her honor. They envisioned Virginia as every place north of Mexico that the English could take and occupy.
Despite the costs and setbacks, pressures mounted for another expedition. English traders imagined colonists producing wine and olive oil, harvesting timber, and uncovering gold. Others saw Virginia as an ideal home for the poor. England's population was rising rapidly, but jobs were stagnant. Ministers noted that God ordered man to multiply and fill the Earth. What better place to do so than the vast andas they perceived itempty continent across the sea?
Pacific path. In 1606, several well-to-do Englishmen laid plans for what would become the Jamestown colony. With the blessings of James I, Elizabeth's successor, they formed the Virginia Company, a joint stock company in which investors, known as "adventurers," bought stock worth $3,000 a share in today's currency.
Encouraging investors and settlers alike was the popular notion that there existed on America's Atlantic coast a river within reach of the Pacificthe fabled short cut to Asia sought by Columbus and countless other explorers. Other Englishmen who bet their money or their lives may have seen the London play Eastward Ho! describing customs across the sea. It reported native Virginians gathering diamonds by the seashore and using chamber pots of pure gold.