In 1607, England planted 105 colonists on the coast of Virginia in a new settlement named Jamestown. Over the first decade of its existence, the colony struggled simply to survive. Despite the delivery of roughly 6000 settlers over Jamestown's first 15 years, the town counted only 1200 living residents as late as 1625. But the discovery that tobacco could be successfully grown at Jamestown and sold abroad for great profits triggered a gold rush-like boom that lasted through the 1620s.
By 1630, tobacco prices had fallen, ending the smoky bonanza of the previous decade. But even if the gold rush in tobacco was over, the crop still provided real opportunities for Jamestown's settlers, most of them indentured servants, to attain success. By the end of the seventeenth century, Virginia was England's most valuable overseas colony. It generated a small fortune in import tax revenue and provided English tobacco merchants with a valuable product for re-export throughout Europe. But Virginia achieved its economic success only by introducing slavery to England's North American colonies; by the end of the century, the slave ships docked alongside the tobacco fleet in the Chesapeake provided a stark reminder of the horrific cost of Virginia's success.
Why Should I Care?
Early Virginia has often been viewed as the dark side of American colonization—the struggling and exploitive antithesis of the righteous Puritan settlement that developed in New England. While northern colonists sought religious freedom, this version of early American history goes, Virginia's settlers sought only wealth. While New England was settled by stable and pious families, Virginia was settled by a tumultuous crew of young single men. While New England immediately thrived, and within decades built a healthy society filled with churches and schools and participatory local governments, Virginia failed miserably in its first decade even to feed itself. And it eventually survived only by developing a one-dimensional economy that depended upon the ruthless exploitation of servants and eventually thousands of African slaves.
We can find much that's true within this comparison of the two Anglo-American colonies... but also much that's misleading. While the Puritan settlements of New England may have fancied themselves "a city upon the hill," a shining beacon of righteousness in a world full of sin, New England's colonists instigated their own fair share of horrific brutality. More to the point, Virginia was always more than the hellhole of disease, slavery and exploitation that its critics imagined it to be. The colony's founding vision was more complex, and in many ways just as utopian, as that which sent the Puritans to Massachusetts Bay. The founders of Jamestown drew from the theories of Richard Hakluyt and Walter Raleigh in planning a complex, progressive colony that would integrate the Indians, offer opportunities to England's poor, and refuse, emphatically, to imitate the Spanish Empire's brutal use of African slaves.
In practice, their idealistic vision for the Jamestown colony proved impossible to implement. Hundreds of early Virginia settlers died and the colony teetered on the brink of collapse until its leaders finally abandoned well-intentioned plans that simply didn't work in the swampy reality of the Chesapeake lowlands. But eventually, displaying a resiliency and entrepreneurial spirit that might fairly be called quintessentially American, Jamestown's colonists figured out how to sustain their struggling community. In the tobacco plant—an intoxicating drug long favored by American Indians but only recently made popular in Europe—they found Jamestown's salvation, an exportable product that could provide economic sustenance or even affluence for Virginia's colonists. The robust society that soon grew up around the cultivation of tobacco did have its undeniably horrific elements, to be sure—indentured servants were brutally exploited, and by the middle of the seventeenth century slavery and the racism that continues to plague America had taken deep root. But it also offered almost unique opportunities for seventeenth-century Englishmen born into poverty to achieve individual economic advancement; to some extent, the vision of upward mobility later idealized as "the American Dream" was born at Jamestown.
In the end, then, the little outpost of English settlers founded at Jamestown in 1607 was no utopia. But it was also no failure, and its history is no less central to the American story than the more familiar tale—celebrated every Thanksgiving—of the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock nearly a decade and a half after Jamestown was founded some 600 miles to the south.
This is the story of the Jamestown colony, the oldest permanent English settlement in America, which failed as a utopia but succeeded as a tobacco plantation.
What went wrong in Jamestown? And what went right?