Jamestown: The Site as Contested Property

Constance Jordan
Claremont Graduate School

English 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.

The English 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 with hostility.

Throughout 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 Click to See a Larger ViewPocahontas to the English settler John Rolfe in 1614 apparently signified to the Indians that peaceful co-existence was possible—despite 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 Click to See a Larger Viewwish 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 enter.

Yet this 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 acres—a 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.

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Ironically, the city of Jamestown itself was eventually destroyed by one of its own—an 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 Press, 1985.