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Finding a Home in Virginia: The Selection of the Site of Jamestown

Curt Gaul
National Park Service

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)

Romanticized 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.

Richard 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 Hakluyts—the Elder and Younger—and Samuel Purchas compiled accounts of exploration and settlement to provide guidance for English settlers in the New World.

The 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" island is 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).

Raleigh's 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).

Twenty 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 river—so 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 met.

Having 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.

By 1620, 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, Inc., 1991.

——. Set 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.