rights to the land in and around Jamestown were never uncontested. From
its first settlement in 1607 to the destruction of the developed city
by arson in 1676, the territory remained an object of dispute. The letters
patent that in 1606 had given the Virginia Company the right to settle
the southern portion of the area known to the English as Virginia (comprehending
land from the 34th to the 44th parallel) had no more than dubious merit
in terms of the current law of nations. Englishmen were encouraged to
think it could be claimed because it appeared to them as "unused,"
at least in the sense that they understood the concept of land use.
In fact, as the first traders and settlers themselves reported, the
Indian inhabitants of these lands were not only aware of what they possessed
in land, but were relatively sophisticated traders in various kinds
of chattel, chiefly skins and furs. Ruled as a tightly organized confederacy
by their tribal governor Powhatan, the Powhatans were a nation with
evident dominion over and possession of the territory between the James
and York rivers (labeled Powahtan Flu and Pamaunk Flu on Smith's
map) as well as of land west, south, and north.
proceeded to settle Jamestown as if the land belonged to them, however.
In 1611, having sustained a colony within the immediate confines of
the peninsula, its Governor, Sir Thomas Dale, declared that he intended
to "secure" for his men "the principallest seates of
powhatan" ("Letter to Salisbury," Haile 554).The English
progressed up the James river to present-day Henrico, and by 1616, they
had settlements on both its shores. Inevitably, the Indians responded
the early modern period, a time-honored way of settling disputes between
peoples was by marriage between prominent parties. The property they
had as individuals became one, at least symbolically. The marriage of
Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas
to the English settler John Rolfe in 1614 apparently signified to the
Indians that peaceful co-existence was possibledespite the fact
that, having been abducted by the English, Pocahontas was treated initially
as a hostage. When the Powhatans refused to exchange their English prisoners
for her, the English burned several of their settlements. Undeterred
in his effort to consolidate English territory, Sir Thomas Dale sent
his representative Ralph Hamor to ask for another of Powhatan's daughters
in marriage. This time Powhatan refused. His statement on this occasion
reveals his acute understanding of the situation. Noting that there
have been too many men killed on both sides, Powhatan was reported by
Hamor to wish
to end his days in peace: "So as if the English offer me injury,
my country is large enough; I will remove myself farther from you"
(A True Discourse, Haile 835).
Indian flight to lands to the west was to prove the rule in the future.
By 1646, after a series of skirmishes and two bloody defeats of the
English by Opechankanough, Powhatan's successor, in 1622 and 1644, the
Indians had accepted a peace treaty by which they surrendered all their
claims to the areas of English settlement, receiving in their stead
a reservation north of the York River where whites were forbidden to
was not enough for the English. The colony had begun to parcel out land
to its settlers almost from its inception: settlers who arrived before
1614 got 100 acres, those who arrived or who sponsored another's arrival
after that date got 50 acresa so-called "headright."
Grants to settlers of high status were preposterously generous: the
governor got 3,000 acres, the treasurer of the colony got 1,500 acres,
and so forth down the ranks of officials. The process of settlement
continued under the crown, which took over the colony in 1624. By the
1650s, the colonists had spread north into Indian territory, overrunning
Indian land. Dominion in seventeenth-century Virginia could be said
to be registered in two distinct yet conflicted ways: the Indians' claims
were supported by origin; English claims rested on evidently specious
arguments of use. Boundaries were continuously in dispute.
the city of Jamestown itself was eventually destroyed by one of its
ownan English settler called Nathaniel Bacon. The occasion was
again one in which land was at issue. Bacon was the leader of a group
of settlers who, agitating for more property and grieved by the practices
of large plantation owners, sought to dispossess the Indians at the
borders of their own small farms. When the Governor of Jamestown, Sir
William Berkeley, denied Bacon official command of these renegade forces
and declared him an outlaw, Bacon besieged the city, and eventually
burnt it to the ground. The English had been burning the wooden dwellings
of Indians from the first years of their arrival; now they witnessed
a conflagration of their own structures of brick and mortar. Jamestown
was abandoned in the 1690s, and the government of the colony moved to
Williamsburg in 1699.
Suggestions For Further Reading
Dale, Sir Thomas. "Letter to Salisbury"
(1611). In Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness
Accounts of the Virginia Colony. Edited by Edward Wright Haile.
Champlain: Roundhouse Press, 1998.
Bailyn, Bernard. "Politics and Social Structure
in Virginia." In Seventeenth Century
America. Edited by J.M. Smith. Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1959.
Hamor, Ralph. A
True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia (1614). In Jamestown
Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony. Edited
by Edward Wright Haile. Champlain: Roundhouse Press, 1998.
Morgan, Edmund. American
Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New
York: W.W. Norton, 1975.
Washburn, Wilcomb E. The
Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon's Rebellion. Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957.
Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676:
The End of American Independence. Syracuse: Syracuse University