Columbus went to Henry VII and asked for support, but Henry was busy and turned him away.  Shortly afterwards, he hired John Cabot.  In 1497 Cabot claimed Newfoundland for England.  In 1498 he went out to find Japan, found Hudson’s Bay instead, and was marooned there by his men.

England shortly got wrapped up in the Reformation and the antics of Henry VIII and Bloody Mary.  However, Elizabeth knew England had too many people and too little land.  However, she could not colonise the New World because Spain ruled the seas.  So, English Sea Dogs and privateers preyed upon Spanish shipping until 1588, when the Protestant Wind overcame the Invincible Armada.

There were only a few efforts at colonisation before 1588, and they were not very successful.

1578:  Sir Humphrey Gilbert attempts to colonise Newfoundland, which is already an important fishing station

1583:  Gilbert dies on another expedition to the Americas, but his half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, a favourite of the Queen, wishes to pursue his goals for riches and as a base against Spain.

1584:  Raleigh gets a grant to land in America, and explores a place he calls Virginia (now North Carolina).

1587:  Raleigh helps plant the Lost Colony.  A local Indian chief, Manteo, goes to London and pledges allegiance to Elizabeth, who takes the title Weroanza of Virginia, with Manteo as her feudal vassal lord.  Hostilities with Spain prevent it being re-supplied until 1590, by which point the settlers have vanished.  The word Croatoan was carved in a local tree, and the local Croatoan Indians have legends that involve adopting some of the colonists.  41 of their names survive in the tribe.  Others may have fled inland and survived for years, only to be killed by Powhattan in early 1607.

1606:  James I divides English Claims in North America between two private companies, the London Company (34th – 41st parallel) and the Plymouth Company (38th – 45th) giving them lands to the South Seas.

1607:  100 men arrive in Virginia aboard the Godspeed, Discovery, and Susan Constant.  Sadly, the colony is in a bad, swampy, malarial location, has too few willing workers, seeks quick profits, and is surrounded by hostile Indians under Powhattan.

The colony is a failure, and remains one for some time.  In the first 15 years of the colony, about 3,300 of 4,270 (or possibly far more—historians disagree) settlers died of disease and Indians.  That’s a death rate approaching 80%.

1608:  First relief ship arrives, finds 62 of the original 100 settlers were dead.  Captain John Smith’s command is all that keeps the town alive.  During the second winter, only 12 of 200 settlers die.  However, the London Company investors attempt a communal plan that fails miserably.

1609:  A second relief expedition sets out from England and gets shipwrecked in the Bahamas.

Winter 1609/10:  Starving Time.  Indians kill livestock and settlers starve or eat cats, rats, dogs, snakes, horsehides, and even exhumed dead bodies.  There is a great account of a man killing, salting and eating his wife on page 29 (12th ed.), for which he was executed.  In May, when the settlers stranded in the Bahamas make it to Virginia, they see no point in staying, and set off down the James River with the 60 survivors.  On the way down the river, they met an expedition led by Lord De La Warr.  He led them back to Jamestown and ended the communal system and established private ownership of land.

1617:  First shipment of tobacco to England.  It initially sells at three shillings a pound.  This is far less than Spanish tobacco (18 shillings a pound), but it’s still mighty profitable.  However, it’s labour intensive, so Virginians need labour.  Some labour came from indentured servants (who initially worked for the Company, and later for individuals) and some from African slaves.

1619:  20 Africans are unloaded from a Dutch ship.  These may have been slaves or may have been indentured servants.  Initially slavery was based on religion, so that one could enslave non-Christians, but later it had to move to race-based slavery or else they’d run out of slaves or run into the moral dilemma of not converting their slaves.

With indentured servants, slaves, and other immigrants coming as a result of the tobacco boom, the Indians grow agitated.  They had always been violent and dangerous, and they and the English had fought before, generally in a brutal manner.  John Smith has been captured and then released after a show of force prevented by Pocahontas.  In 1614, though, Pocahontas married John Rolfe of Virginia, daughter of Chief Powhatan.  The English had also shown how dangerous they could be.  The combination of these facts led the otherwise brutal Powhatan (who ruled a petty empire of subjugated local Algonquin tribes) to be peaceful with the English.  After his death, the new chief Opechancanough, initially (or at least apparently) friendly, alarmed by the growth of the English colony, tried a new tactic.  Happily, an Indian who had converted to Christianity warned his employer ahead of time so that Jamestown was saved.

1622:  The Indians under Opechancanough massacre 347 of 1,240 colonists.  That is about 28% of the population.  The surviving English descended upon the Indians just before the harvest, killed all they could, burnt their corn, and made treaties with the intention of breaking them in order to gain advantages.  One negotiator took a butt (that’s a barrel of 126 U.S. gallons) of poisoned sack (that’s a type of light, dry wine) to a peace parley on the Potomac, and bragged that he killed about 200 with the drink and got about 50 more with force of arms later on.  These tactics, especially burning crops and villages, were so dirty they were called ‘Irish Tactics,’ because that was the only group hitherto savage enough to use them against.  The idea with the Indians (at least for the moment), even more than with the Irish, was to utterly wipe them off the earth.  There may have been 20,000 Indians in Virginia when the English arrived.  The official count in 1669 was 2,000.

The massacre hurt the English a little bit up front, but hurt the Indians a lot more within a year or two as the English had their revenge, but it also hurt the colony as a whole, as fear of the Indians stopped attempts at glassworks and ironworks and mining out in the backcountry.  This is one more reason Virginia adopts so fully the tobacco economy and ultimately dependence upon chattel slavery.


This page last updated 30 August, 2003.