At an attractive spot on the north shore of
this river, about thirty-five miles above its mouth, they disembarked
on a beautiful May day (the 13th), tying their ships to the trees,
the water being deep close to the shore. A Virginia spring is full
of promise, and all was so fair on this charming morning that the
handful of colonists, only five score, easily forgot the London Company's
order "not to settle in a low or moist place." (Davis, Jane.
Jamestown and her Neighbors on Virginia's
Historic Peninsula, 1928)
accounts of the arrival of the first English settlers at Jamestown are
often found when the story of Jamestown is told. To appreciate the process
of selecting the site for the first permanent English settlement, consideration
must be given to discourses on New World exploration and to prior English
exploration and settlement attempts in the decades leading up to the
Virginia Company's venture in 1607. Only then is the selection of the
site of Jamestown viewed in proper context as a conscious decision,
not a random or poorly formulated act.
Hakluyt wrote his Discourse Concerning
Western Planting in 1584 to encourage England to enter the New
World empire game. This text justified English claim to territory in
North America. Hakluyt argued that "spedie plantinge in diverse
fitt places is most necessarie upon these laste luckye westerne discoveries
for fear of the danger of being prevented by other nations which have
the same intention." (Hakluyt, Quinn and Quinn, lines 1686-1689).
For the next 30 years, the Hakluytsthe Elder and Youngerand
Samuel Purchas compiled accounts of exploration and settlement to provide
guidance for English settlers in the New World.
same year Hakluyt wrote his text, Sir Walter Raleigh sent his first
voyage to Virginia to establish an English foothold in the New World.
This reconnaissance voyage to the Outer Banks region of present day
North Carolina was followed by settlement attempts in 1585 and 1587.
From this experience much was learned. Faced with the challenge of reaching
Roanoke Island through shallow, hazardous inlets, the importance of
a settlement with a deep water port and easy access to ocean going vessels
was realized. John White, the artist charged to make maps and prepare
drawings of the land and its inhabitants, produced
a map of the Bay's southern shoreline, on which "Roanoac"
graphically represented on the lower center portion of the map. During
the winter of 1585-86, Ralph Lane, governor of the second voyage, led
an exploratory party to the Chesapeake Bay to "found out a better
harborough then yet there is, which must bee to the Northward"
(Quinn, 1991, 273). De Bry's rendition of White's map of the southern
shoreline provides a recognized destination for future settlements.
After the second voyage returned to England in fall 1586, Richard Hakluyt
encouraged Raleigh that the"best planting wil be aboute the bay of the Chesepians"
(Hakluyt, Quinn, 1991, 494).
third voyage to Virginia in 1587 chose the Chesapeake Bay as the location
for settlement. John White, now Governor, wrote that "the Baye
of Chesepiok . . . we intended to make our seate and forte, according
to the charge giuen . . . vnder the hande of Sir Walter Ralegh"
(White, Quinn, 1991, 497-8, 523). This voyage never reached the Bay.
Ship pilot Simon Fernandez left the settlers at Roanoke so the sailors
could engage in privateering. These settlers became known as the Lost
Colony. The ultimate fate of the colonists may never be positively determined.
There is evidence that suggests that some of the settlers moved north,
perhaps assimilating with the Chesepiok Indians and indeed became the
first Englishmen living on the Chesapeake Bay (Quinn, 1985, 341-378).
years later the Virginia Company of London drafted Instructions
given by way of Advice for the settlers going to Virginia in
1606. Specific attributes for selecting a settlement site were provided.
The settlers were to look for fertile land, neither too moist nor low,
approximately one hundred miles from the mouth of the riverso
as to avoid confrontation with the natives and be less vulnerable to
enemy attacks. On the 26th of April, 1607, the Jamestown settlers arrived
in the Chesapeake Bay and landed at Cape Henry. For two weeks they followed
their instructions and explored 100 miles up the James River to the
falls. Secretary William Strachey reported that "At length, after
much and weary search . . . threescore miles and better up the fresh
channel from Cape Henry . . . on a spot of earth which thrust out into
the depth and middest of the channel . . . and no inhabitants by seven
or six miles near it . . . here, as the best yet offered to unto their
view" (Strachey, Purchas, 1752). This location was well inland,
had an easily accessible deep-water port, and militarily controlled
the channel. With these traits many of the needs of the settlement were
consciously avoided prime locations along the James River that were
occupied by the Powhatan Indians, the settlers were forced to consider
sites that met some but not all the guidelines in their instructions.
Contrary to the advice from the Virginia Company, the settlers chose
a low site surrounded by wet lands, which lacked fresh water and was
ridden with disease. This decision inadvertently caused tremendous suffering
for colonists during the first decade of settlement and jeopardized
the success of the colonial enterprise.
Jamestown evolved from a military or trading post into a model for future
English colonization efforts in North America. Today visitors walk through
the archeological ruins of the original townsite and experience the
story of the first permanent English settlement in America. Jamestown
Island is managed by the Association
for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and Colonial
National Historical Park.
Suggestions For Further Reading
Barbour, Phillip L., ed. The
Jamestown Voyages Under the First Charter 1606-1609. Vol. I.
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
Haile, Edward Wright, ed.
Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony, The
First Decade: 1607-1617. Champlain: Round House, 1998.
Hulton, Paul. America
1585: The Complete Drawings of John White. Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Purchas, Samuel. Purchas
his Pilgrimage, or Relations of the World and the Religions Observed
Contayneth a Theologicall and Geographicall Historie of Asia
(1619). New York: De Capo Press, 1969.
Quinn, David Beers. The
Roanoke Voyages 1584-1590. Vol. I and II. New York: Dover Publications,
Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606. Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Hakluyt, Richard. Discourse
of Western Planting. Edited by David B. Quinn and Alison M. Quinn.
London: Hakluyt Society, 1984.