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Money makes the world go round, right?
Well, back in the day—in the late 1500s, to be more specific—things were no different. England wanted to compete with Spain and Portugal in having lots of land, goods, and power. You know, the normal stuff.
So, tired of being outdone by Spain, Britain decided to get on the Colonies Parade. In 1606, James I chartered the Virginia Company to sail out and set up some colonies in North America. Like any capitalist business venture, the Virginia Company was also hoping to score some gold and silver. The Spanish had to have found it somewhere. They set up shop in Jamestown.
And the English lived happily ever after on American shores, right? Not so much.
Jamestown got off to a very rocky start: despite the delivery of roughly 6,000 settlers over Jamestown's first 15 years, the town counted only 1,200 living residents as late as 1625. And of course, it failed to find the gold and silver its investors wanted. But finally, it struck it rich in another way: by growing tobacco. In fact, the success of tobacco triggered a Gold Rush-like boom that lasted through the 1620s.
For a time—and after conquering the learning curve—Jamestown was the most successful British colony in the New World. It generated a small fortune in import tax revenue and provided English tobacco merchants with a valuable product for re-export throughout Europe.
However, Virginia achieved its economic success only by introducing slavery to England's North American colonies. (Hey America, you're gonna regret that hundreds of years of later.)
So, 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.
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.
Last but not least, Virginia eventually survived only by developing a one-dimensional economy that depended upon the ruthless exploitation of servants and eventually thousands of African slaves. Ironic slow clap for Virginia, guys.
We can find a lot that's true within this comparison of the two Anglo-American colonies, but also a lot 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, too.
More to the point, Virginia was always more than the snake pit 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 emphatically refuse 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.
The answer to their woes? The tobacco plant, an intoxicating drug long-favored by American Indians, but a new hot item in Europe.
The booming society that soon grew up around the cultivation of tobacco did have its undeniably horrific elements, obviously: indentured servants were brutally exploited, and by the middle of the 17th century, slavery and the racism that continues to plague America had taken deep root.
But tobacco also offered unique opportunities for 17th-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. So, what went wrong in Jamestown, and what went right?
Winthop Jordan, The White Man's Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (1974)
This is the abridged version of Jordan's monumental White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the N****, 1550–1812. Only 200 pages and well-written, this book continues to provide a provocative starting point for the exploration of racism in America.
Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975)
This classic exploration of Jamestown and colonial Virginia attempts to explain the evolution of a colony paradoxically committed to both slavery and freedom.
Karen Ordahl Kupperman, The Jamestown Project (2007)
Kupperman challenges the tendency to treat Jamestown as the dark underside of American colonial development. Placing it alongside a number of English initiatives at the beginning of the 17th century, she argues that colonial Virginia provided a testing ground for English expansion and that the lessons learned at Jamestown benefited the colonies that followed.
Helen Roundtree, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture (1992)
Written by an anthropologist, not a historian, this interesting book explores the culture, society, and economy of the Native Americans that greeted English settlers in Jamestown. Within the more interesting sections, Roundtree explores the Native Americans' religious beliefs, political structures, and understanding and methods of war.
Alden Vaughan, American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia (1975)
John Smith was truly a larger-than-life character. His short but critical role in Jamestown's early history is nicely explored in this book. Those interested in a narrowly focused biography will be disappointed by the equal space given to the development of the colony, but overall, this is an interesting, useful, and highly readable book.
Sir Walter Raleigh by Nicholas Hilliard, ca. 1585.
Pocahontas and Thomas Rolfe. The authenticity of this portrait is questioned but some believe it was painted in England shortly before her death in 1617.
This engraving of Pocahontas was made during her visit to England in 1616.
17th-century tobacco label.
This image by Simon de Passe was etched on a 1616 map of New England.
Nathaniel Bacon. Engraving by T. Chambars after a painting by Seipse.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
Shekhar Kapur's sequel to his 1998 film Elizabeth isn't completely accurate in its portrayal of the queen's relationship with Walter Raleigh. Nor is the film balanced in its treatment of Mary Stuart and Spain's Philip II and their schemes to place a Catholic monarch on England's throne, but there's enough rough historical content within the film to make it worth viewing.
The New World (2005)
Reclusive director Terrence Malick's The New World is a breathtakingly ambitious but only partially successful cinematic retelling of the story of Jamestown's founding. The plot meanders along an uncertain path through much of the lengthy film, and historical accuracy isn't its strong suit, but the naturalistic cinematography is stunning.
This Disney film pays meticulous attention to the historical details—well, not really. But it does encourage us to think about how early American history might have been different if there had been more singing.
Virtual Jamestown is an excellent and growing site offering primary sources (including the complete works of John Smith), interpretive essays, biographies of critical figures, maps, and artifact images.
Jamestown Rediscovery is a useful site for those interested in current archeological work at the site of the original Jamestown settlement. It provides archeological footprints, a progress report of the excavation, and images of recovered artifacts.
Perhaps as many as 85% of Virginia's 17th-century immigrants arrived as indentured servants. This site provides information about how individuals might determine whether their ancestors were indentured servants.
John Smith's Works and More
Virtual Jamestown makes an extensive collection of early Virginia documents available. These include the Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, John Smith's works, several documents pertaining to Bacon's Rebellion, and several period accounts of Jamestown.
Smith on Pocahontas
John Smith's 1616 Letter to Queen Anne describes Pocahontas.
A handful of documents relating to colonial Virginia, including charters of the Virginia Company, can be found at Yale University's Avalon Project.