A New Kind of Place

By the time the Virginia Company had its last charter, there was a new kind of community in Virginia. Although it was populated by English people, Virginia was not like England. Virginians built new kinds of houses and grew new crops. Even their family structure was often unlike that in England.


One of the most obvious ways Virginia differed from England was in its houses. In England, a house was a solid thing made of stone or brick. English houses were built to last many years.

In Virginia in the 1620’s, houses were built of wood. They were more like shacks thrown together. Their owners expected they would be either dead or back in England after a few years. Houses became sturdier in the 1630’s. The great plantation homes that would later be popular in the South were still a long way off. Most of those were built after 1700.


In England, people earned their living in many different ways, and farmers grew many crops. Those different and varied ways of earning a living gave England what is called a diversified economy.

Virginians grew tobacco. They did very little else. The Virginia Company had tried to give its colony a more diversified economy. After 1618, it had urged glassmakers, iron-masters, winegrowers, and other skilled people to move to Virginia to settle. Few of the artisans practiced their trades in the colony, however. Many died. The others gave up their trades to work for the quick profits of tobacco. By 1620, nearly everyone was growing tobacco.

Virginians did grow some corn. After four years or so, a piece of land would no longer grow tobacco, but it could grow corn for a few more years. Then the plot of land was abandoned and a new one was started.

The Virginians learned this easygoing style of farming from the Indians. It made sense in Virginia where the land was plentiful and workers were scarce. It was definitely not an English farming system. In England, where there was not much land, people carefully groomed and tended their small fields – they had to care for the soil so that it would produce for a long, long time.

The price of tobacco fell in the 1630’s and so some Virginians began to raise cattle and hogs. They used another easygoing method called pasture farming. In pasture farming, cattle or hogs are turned loose. They find their own food and generally take care of themselves. In England there was a little pasture farming, but as with their regular farming, there was not a lot of land available to let so many animals graze. Because Virginians had so much land available to them, it changed their farming methods greatly.

Some of the first colonists in Virginia had tried pasture farming. However, Indians took some of the cattle and hogs, and wolves ate the rest. By the 1630’s the Virginians had pushed the Indians and their settlements farther west. The Virginian settlers built a great fence to keep wolves from entering the settled area. Then they turned their animals loose. The animals multiplied far faster than Virginia’s human population.

Family Life

What made Virginia most unlike England? Perhaps it was the lack of women. In 1625 there were four adult men in Virginia for every one adult woman.

In its earliest years, Virginia was partially a military outpost. As the colony became more of a community, women arrived in greater numbers. In 1619 for example, the Company in England sent a ship full of women to the colony.

However, the spread of tobacco farming helped keep down the number of women in Virginia. English women did not work in the fields. So people seeking indentured servants preferred men. In the 1650’s, there were still about 3 men to every 1 woman in the colony. Without women, family life suffered, and few children were born.

Virginians died at a younger age than people in England. A woman born in Virginia in the 1600’s could expect to die in her late 30’s. A man could expect to live to be around 35 or 40.

When adults died young, their children, if they had any, would become orphans. A third of the children in one section of Virginia were orphans by aged 18.

Widows and widowers often remarried. If their second spouse died, they married a third time. The resulting families became very complicated. Sometimes they included children with no surviving natural parent. Children had to grow up fast. They had to protect any property they had inherited.

Patterns of Power

As the colonists of Virginia spread out from Jamestown, local government became very important and powerful. In 1634, the Virginia General Assembly took the first important step of setting up county courts as local governments. They included justices of the peace, sheriffs, and some other local officials.

Gradually the county courts took on more and more work that had once been done by the governor and the General Assembly. They heard minor legal cases, settled estates, even saw to it that bridges and ferries were repaired. In short, a good part of the day-to-day concerns of the people of Virginia were handled by the county courts. It became a custom in Virginia that young men of important families learned about government and politics while working in the county courts. Some of them went on to serve in the House of Burgesses.

Those leaders were very different from the “gentlemen” who first ruled Virginia. The new leaders were tough, self-made men. They not only survived the harsh life in the early Virginia colony, they also succeeded there.

Those leaders showed that something important had happened in Virginia. Power had settled at a different place in English America than in Spanish America. Power in Virginia was local, in the General Assembly and in the county courts.

New Troubles for the Virginia Company

The success of the Virginia colony in growing tobacco and attracting new settlers created some new problems. The settlers needed more land to grow tobacco. However, as they took up more land, they came into conflict with the Indians. Another problem was caused by greedy tobacco planters who overworked and underfed their workers, causing many to die.
Indian Conflict

By 1618, there were enough English people in Virginia so that some settlers began to move outside Jamestown. People started farms on both sides of the James River and along other rivers that ran throughout the Tidewater (the name of the flatlands along the Atlantic coast).

The Tidewater was home to dozens of groups of Algonquian-speaking Indians. They belonged to a confederation, which is an association or league, led by Powhatan. The Algonquians lived in ways much like other Indians of the Eastern Woodlands. The men hunted and fished, while the women tended the fields.

Click here for more information about the Algonquian Indians

Uneasy Peace: In the early days of Jamestown, the Indians were more powerful than the English settlers. For one thing, the Indians knew how to live in Virginia. Also the settlers needed the Indians to survive. The Indians traded their extra corn for iron pots, knives, and other products from Europe. Without that corn, the settlers would have died.

Relations between the settlers and Indians were uneasy from the beginning. Still the colonists were not at first a real threat to Powhatan’s people. Tensions increased as it became clear to the Indians that the colonists were going to stay.

Then in 1613, the situation suddenly changed. That year, a settler kidnapped Powhatan’s daughter, Pocohantas. She was held hostage because Powhatan’s people had captured some colonists. During her long stay in Jamestown as a prisoner, Pocohantas became a Christian. The next year she married John Rolfe, the tobacco planter. As a result of her marriage, Powhatan made peace with the colony.
Opechancanough: Virginia had several years of peace. However, just as the colony began to grow, Powhatan died. He was succeeded by Opechancanough. He planned to end the gradual takeover of his people’s lands by the English. On March 22, 1622, the Indians killed 347 colonists and drove the others from their scattered farms back to Jamestown.

For the Indians, that victory was the beginning of the end. The English attacked them and held nothing back, destroying many Indian villages and crops. Still the Indians held on to defend their land from English takeover.

In 1644, Opechancanough, who was getting quite old, went on the attack again. His warriors killed about 500 colonists in 2 days. In the battle that followed, Opechancanough was killed. The power of the Powhatan confederation was broken. A few Indians remained in Virginia, but most of the survivors moved to the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay.

A New Starving Time

In the years after 1618, settlers died almost as quickly as the company sent them to Virginia. The settlers were dying of hunger. However, the colony was growing enough food for its settlers. Why were they starving? Because of the greed of a few men.

Newcomers often fell into the hands of powerful men who made them work long hours and fed them little. A planter with enough workers could make a great fortune in tobacco in the 1620’s when tobacco prices were high. Those who could forced people to work for them. Those big planters controlled the colony’s food supply, and they let others go hungry.

Workers for Virginia

There were a few black slaves in Virginia. The first of them arrived in 1619. However, slavery did not grow rapidly in Virginia at that time. Planters who needed workers could hire indentured servants. Those were Europeans who couldn’t afford the journey from England to America and agreed to work for a master for up to seven years to pay their way. While they were under the indenture of a master, their food, shelter, and clothing would be paid for. The idea was their 7 years labor would pay back all of that. This was an agreement between master and servant.

Planters saw one big advantage in purchasing slaves rather than using indentured servants. Slaves worked for a lifetime, not only 7 years. However, slaves cost far more than indentured servants. Also, slaves might die before working long enough to make back their purchase price.

After 1700, slavery grew on the North American mainland. Through most of the 1600’s however, the English colonists used the labor of new arrivals who were indentured servants.
The End of the Virginia Company

The news arriving in England from Virginia during the early 1620’s was not good. The death figures were staggering. Also, though the colony’s leaders may have been making money, the Company in London was making none. Since the planters often traded illegally, the company did not profit from the growth in the tobacco trade. Investigators for the King decided that the company was poorly managed. As a result, in 1624, the Virginia Company lost its charter and the King took over the colony. He left the governing Councils and House of Burgesses in place, and their local control increased.

Changes and Reforms

While the Virginia settlers were struggling to stay alive, some important changes were taking place in the way the colony was governed.

New Charters

The King gave the Virginia Company of London new charters on 1609 and 1612. Those charters increased the land controlled by the company. They made it easier for the company to raise money, and they also gave the company more power. The new charters were important because the company later gave some of that power to the settlers themselves. This was the beginning of self-government in the English colonies.

The Charter of 1609: The charter of 1609 gave the company control over an area 200 miles north and 200 miles south of Old Point Comfort. The English still had now idea how big the continent of North America was – they didn’t know how far it was from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

The Charter of 1609 also made the Virginia Company of London a joint-stock company that could sell its shares to the public to raise money. In addition, full power over the colony was given to a council that met in England, and reported to the King.

The Charter of 1612: The company received even more privileges from the King when they got the Charter of 1612. The new charter changed the way the Virginia Company was managed. Instead of a council, the company’s shareholders now had power over the colony. They could now make decisions about the colony in four annual meetings, which they called “great courts”.

That change was very important for American history. In the Spanish colonies, the King and Queen had all the power over their colonies. However, in 1612, the English King gave real power over his country’s first American colony to a group of private investors. Those investors chose to share their power with the colonists themselves. This division of power in the English colonies was very different from that of the Spanish colonies, and was important to their success later.

The Reforms of 1618

In 1618, the Virginia Company wrote a set of reforms that they hoped would attract more people to Virginia and to make the settlers there work harder. They were also trying to cut the costs to the company.

First of all, the company gave land to the settlers. Those who had come to Virginia before 1616 received at least 100 acres. Tradespeople were promised a house and 4 acres of land in Virginia as long as they continued to practice their trades.

It cost the company almost nothing to give land away. In Europe, land was difficult to come by. Only people in the highest social classes owned land. Many people were eager to come to Virginia to become landowners.

Bringing People to the Colony: There were, of course, people who wanted to come to Virginia but could not pay for the trip. So the company offered to pay their way if they would work for the company for 7 years. When the 7 years were over, they would get 50 acres of their own.

The company also found another way to bring more people to Virginia. It promised to give people 50 acres for every person they brought to Virginia. This came to be known as the headright system.

The company hoped that Virginians would work harder when they were working for themselves on their own land. The more tobacco Virginians grew, the more money the company would make, since it controlled the colony’s trade.

The General Assembly: Finally the company changed the form of Virginia’s government. English people were proud of their liberty. They were hesitant to make homes where they would be less free than they had been in England. So the company gave settlers a share in their own government.

The company told their governor to set up a general assembly. The assembly would have two parts. One part was the Governor’s Council, whose members were appointed by the company. The second part was the House of Burgesses. Its members would be elected by the people of the colony. The General Assembly would meet at least once a year to pass laws for the colony. The laws could be vetoed, or struck down, by the governor and by the company in London if they felt they were not in the best interests of the company. The company could also pass laws for the colony. However, those laws would not go into effect until the General Assembly agreed to them first.

The first meeting of Virginia’s General Assembly was held on July 30, 1619. This date is very important. It marked the beginning in North America of government by the people through representatives they had chosen.

The company’s reforms did attract new settlers. In three years, twice as many people went to Virginia as had gone in the colony’s past.

The Virginia Company part 2

Hard Times in Virginia

Although the Virginia settlement at Jamestown survived, it did not thrive. The company’s investors spent a lot of money on the new settlement, and its officers did everything they could to make Virginia grow and prosper. However, the harder the company tried, the more the colony seemed to fail.

The death rate of its settlers was the biggest threat to the colony. Of the 144 persons who originally sailed for Virginia in December 1606, only 38 were still alive 13 months later. Only about a dozen settlers died during the winter of 1608 and 1609 when John Smith was in control. After he left, however, the death rate shot back up.

The company kept sending over new settlers who rarely lived to tell their stories. Worst of all was the winter of 1609 and 1610, know as Virginia’s starving time. There were 500 colonists alive that fall, but by the following spring only 60 remained. To survive, the settlers ate anything they could find.

Those who had lived through that winter had had enough. They decided to abandon Jamestown. The settlers packed up, piled on board some ships, and started down the James River heading for the Atlantic. As they sailed down the river, they meet a fleet of ships coming up the river toward Jamestown. On the ships were the colony’s new governor, Lord De La Warr, several hundred more colonists, and a great store of food and supplies. The settlers turned back, and the colony continued.

Click here to read more about the Disney Pocohantas versus the REAL story of Pocohantas

Disease: Why did the colonists die in such great numbers? Some were killed or executed by other colonists. A few were killed by Indians. Most died of natural causes. They had arrived in Virginia weakened by their long sea voyage and bad food. Thirty-eight people who had sailed with the first fleet in 1606 died before ever setting foot on American soil.

Those who made it to Virginia had to live their first months in the colony on supplies they brought with them. There were fish, wild birds, and wild game all around them in Virginia. However, John Smith reported that the colonists were too “weak and ignorant” to fish and hunt.

The new arrivals also had to adjust to a much warmer climate than that of England. Mosquitoes bred in the swamps surrounding Jamestown and carried the disease malaria. In the summer, germs bred in the water at Jamestown and the water became extremely dangerous to drink.

The Indians knew the dangers to their health of the swampy land, and in hot weather they moved to their other homes in healthier environments. The English settlers needed time to learn how to live in this strange place – time to learn what the Indians already knew.

Mistakes of the Company: Unfortunately, the company would not give the settlers that time that they needed to learn. The company wanted each voyage to pay for itself and return a profit to its investors. At least the colonists should send some promise of future profits. During those first critical years in Virginia, the company ordered the settlers to send back gold or news of a sea route to China (neither of which existed). The Company said that if they couldn’t find gold or a route to China, then they should at least send back resources like glass, tar, and cut timber that England usually had to buy from other countries.

The company also sent over many new colonists before the settlement was ready for them. The people it sent were not suited for the needs of Jamestown and Virginia. Many of the new settlers were gentlemen, and gentlemen meant people who did not work with their hands. Some of the new settlers were workers with skills that were all but useless in the wilderness. One set of early arriving settlers included a jeweler, two goldsmiths, and a perfume maker. What Jamestown needed was farmers and laborers.

Work Habits

The death rate of new settlers was only one of the colony’s problems. Another was the settlers’ refusal to work hard, even when their lives depended on it. Only force could get them to work, and then they rarely stuck to their jobs very long. When Governor Thomas Dale first arrived in May 1611, he found the settlers at their daily and usual work of bowling in the street!

Why were they so lazy? People in England at that time did not work very hard. The English labor system was designed to give everybody just a little to do. The colonists expected to work even less than people in England. Early reports from Virginia made them think that life there would be easy.

The Discovery of Tobacco

Fortunately, in 1614, the Virginians at last found a product that they could sell for a profit: tobacco. Europeans had learned about tobacco from the Indians. Columbus was the first to see Indians smoking tobacco. Soon the Spanish were shipping tobacco from the Caribbean and South America to Europe. Many Europeans quickly became addicted.

The Indians in Virginia smoked a type of tobacco that Europeans found unpleasant. So in 1612, a colonist in Virginia named John Rolfe, tried growing a milder variety of the plant that he had imported from the Caribbean. Two years later he sold four barrels of his tobacco in England. His success gave Virginians a cash crop, one that could be sold in great quantity in Europe.

The Virginia Company part 1

After Roanoke, the next major effort to settle America was made by the Virginia Company, which was modeled on earlier trading companies. It included two different groups of investors (people who put money into it). One group was based in London. The other group was in Plymouth, a smaller port on England’s southern coast.

In 1606, the Virginia Company won a charter from King James I that gave it the right to settle Virginia. Back then, Virginia included all of the North American coast from present-day Maine to North Carolina. The Plymouth group of investors were told to make their first settlement in the northern part of Virginia. The London group of investors were told to go farther south.

The Virginia Company of Plymouth established a colony at Sagadahoc, by the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine. But this colony had problems and lasted only a year.

In December 1606, the Virginia Company of London sent 144 men (no women) to sea on 3 ships, the Susan Constant, Goodspeed, and Discovery. They reached the coast of Virginia in April and then spent a month looking for a place to settle. The company in London wanted to avoid the mistakes of Roanoke. It gave the settlers many directions about the colony’s location. It should be on land that was easy to defend, and that was far enough inland to avoid attacks by sea. It should be on a wide river so that settlers could easily trade with Indians farther upriver. Colonists were also supposed to avoid swamps – however, for some reason they ignored this direction.

The colonists built a plantation, called Jamestown, in 1607 on a swampy peninsula 30 miles up a river they named the James River, after King James I. In this area there were several groups of Algonquian-speaking Indians. The Indians never entirely trusted the newcomers, but they did help them by supplying corn the settlers needed to survive.

Trouble: At first, Jamestown’s future did not look very bright. The colonists began quarreling with each almost immediately. That delayed the important work of building a fort and houses, and of planting crops.

Some people refused to work on company projects. They tried to make their own fortunes by trading privately with the Indians. Some settlers traded tools and other goods stolen from the company’s storehouse. Many others went off to search for gold (there was none in the area).

Captain John Smith: That the Jamestown colony even managed to survive at all was due to Captain John Smith, a 27 year old adventurer. He had already seen much of the world before joining the Virginia expedition of 1606. The company had appointed Smith to a seat on a council of seven settlers that was to govern the new colony in Virginia. At its first meeting, however, the council kicked Smith out of office because he supposedly had taken part in a mutiny at sea.

So Smith set off on his own to explore the land and learn about its people. In the summer of 1608, he explored Chesapeake Bay. On his return to Jamestown, he found that the colonists were doing absolutely nothing except talking about gold and digging for gold. This was a complete waste of time, as there was no gold in Virginia.

Worse yet, in their feverish search for gold, the settlers had done nothing to grow, gather, or store any food for the winter. Unless someone acted quickly, they would starve during the cold months. So Smith went out again and got supplies from the Indians. A few days later, in September 1608, he was elected president of the governing council of Jamestown.

Click here to play the Jamestown Online Adventure
Although the original Jamestown no longer exists, historians, scientists and archaeologists have used much of the evidence that remains to do some cool virtual 3D reconstructions of Jamestown. Click here to see those. Some are flash and may not work on your iPads, so use a computer instead.

Smith’s Rule: Smith governed Jamestown with an iron hand. He made a rule that those who did not work at what he told them to do would not eat. Soon the colonists began building houses and a fort and planting crops. Smith even managed to send a shipload of cedar-wood to England for the company’s profit.

Smith also improved relations with many neighboring Indians. He won the respect of Powhatan, the leader of several neighboring Indian groups. This was not an easy thing to do. According to Smith’s story, he and Powhatan did not start out on very good terms.

Smith said that he was captured by members of Powhatan’s tribe in 1608 while looking for food. Powhatan ordered Smith’s death. He was saved because Pocahontas, Powhatan’s daughter, pleaded for Smith’s life. No one is sure if this story is true – we know that Smith liked to exaggerate many stories about his adventures, and told many tall tales. Whether it is true or not, Powhatan did come to trust Smith’s word.

In the summer of 1609, John Smith was burned badly in a gunpowder explosion. He was forced to return to England for long term medical care. But by then, it looked as if the Jamestown colony might survive even without him.

The Virginia Company’s Rule: The Virginia Company had learned from Smith’s example that the colony needed strong leaders. So it decided in 1609 that Virginia would be ruled by a governor and a council. The governor appoint the members of the council and his decisions would be final.

Between 1610 and 1618, a series of strong and strict governors ruled the Jamestown colony. They ordered that the settlers march to work each morning to the beat of a drum. Those who refused or lagged behind faced harsh punishments. People could be executed for stealing from the company store, trading with the Indians without permission, selling goods produced in Virginia for their own personal profit, or taking food from the gardens. Colonists could also be punished for many other crimes, including criticizing the main company in London. The colony managed to survive under those strict laws. The fact that they managed to survive at all was quite an accomplishment.

12/6/11 First Attempts


12/1/11 Explorations in the New World

England’s story was much like that of France. The English made some promising beginnings in North America. Then for a long time, they did almost nothing.

England’s King Henry VII sponsored a voyage by John Cabot in 1497. Cabot was looking for a water route through North America to Asia (the fabled “Northwest Passage”). He did not find one, but he did explore Newfoundland, Labrador, and Nova Scotia. He claimed those lands for England. Cabot died in 1498.

Cabot’s son, Sebastian, continued the work. Sebastian Cabot explored Hudson Bay in 1508 and 1509 while again searching for a water route to Asia. However, young Cabot received so little encouragement in England that he went to work for Spain. The only contact England had with North America in the early 1500’s was through English fishermen who fished each summer off the coast of Newfoundland.

The Reasons for the Delay

The reasons why the English showed so little interest in the Americas were partly economic. During the early 1500’s, while the Spanish were conquering Mexico and Peru, the English were content to stay home. England’s main product at the time was wool. Merchants traded the wool for foreign goods at the great port of Antwerp in Belgium. That trade grew slowly and brought steady profits to London merchants.

The wool trade was also convenient. Most of England’s trade with Antwerp came and went in foreign ships. So the wool merchants of London saw little reason to get into more risky ventures. However, without ships, the English could do very little outside their homeland. There was another important reason for England’s hesitation to expand into the Americas. In the early 1500’s, England was a friend of Spain, which claimed most of the Americas. France’s King Francis I made it clear that he did not feel like France needed to honor that claim. However, France was an enemy of Spain. England could not explore and establish colonies in the Americas while it had ties with Spain.

England’s Situation Changes

England’s alliance with Spain came to a sudden end in the 1530’s when England’s King Henry VIII divorced his first wife. Catherine of Aragon, who was a Spaniard. The Pope did not approve. So King Henry took his country out of the Catholic Church and made himself head of the new Church of England. Suddenly England became a Protestant country. It was one of several countries that broke away from the Catholic Church. Spain, however, remained a Catholic country.

Click here to learn more about crazy King Henry VIII and his family, the Tudors.

Then in the 1550’s, the trade with Antwerp collapsed. England had to start trade with other parts of the world. English merchants needed to get their own ships to do that.

England’s Great Queen

When King Henry VIII died, his Protestant daughter, Elizabeth, became queen. The reign of Elizabeth I saw a complete change in England’s place in the world.

Elizabeth ruled England for nearly 50 years from 1558 to 1603. At the beginning of her reign, Spain worked to undermine her power and bring England back to the Catholic Church so that they could be allies with Spain again. However, at the end of her reign, England remained firmly Protestant and stronger than ever.

Queen Elizabeth I was an amazing woman and a powerful queen - click here to learn more about her life.

Sea Dogs: Early in her reign, Queen Elizabeth tried to avoid war with Spain, which was the richest and most powerful country in Europe. Instead, she fought in other ways. Daring sailors called “sea dogs” set out with her knowledge, and sometimes with her secret support, to raid Spanish ships.

One of the most famous “sea dogs” was Francis Drake, who sailed around the world looting Spanish ships. In 1580, Drake returned to England with his ship loaded with gold and silver. Queen Elizabeth made him a knight on the deck of his ship. Naturally the Spanish were not pleased. They prepared for war. Elizabeth did the same. She hired John Hawkins, another sea dog, to build up England’s navy. He turned it into an effective fighting force.

The Armada: In 1588, Spain sent a massive fleet of ships, called an Armada, to invade England. The Armada was destroyed by the English in one of the great naval battles in history. Clearly England had become something more than an enemy of Spain. It had also quickly become a great naval power.

A Slow Start: Many people in England still wanted to find a way to Asia through the northern parts of the Americas (the “Northwest Passage”). For that, a group of London merchants sent Martin Frobisher on three expeditions in the 1570’s. He failed, of course, but he did learn a great deal about Hudson Bay. Others added more knowledge.

Gradually, more and more was learned about North America. However, England did not start a permanent settlement in the Americas during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. England got a lasting foothold in North America finally by 1607, about the time that France was establishing Quebec. By then, the Spanish held colonies in the Americas or over 100 years.

What difference did the delay make for England and France? It meant that the French and the English were left the parts of the Americas that Spain did not want. Their lands were less rich in gold and silver than those the Spanish had already claimed. So the English and French had to find other ways to find value in their American lands.