What are the legacies of Jamestown?

First Tobacco, Sidney King

First Tobacco, Sidney King

In spite of the many obstacles of poor communication, environmental challenges, disputes over land, and conflicting cultural traditions and beliefs, the colony at Jamestown survived to become the birthplace of our nation. The Powhatans, the English, and the Africans struggled through indescribable hardships and difficult interactions, as each played a unique role in the colony’s survival.

The colony at Jamestown laid the foundation for our system of free enterprise. Colonists came to Virginia to make a profit. They tried many things, including glassmaking and silk production. Nothing worked well for them until 1613, when John Rolfe cultivated a sweeter brand of tobacco and made it profitable for the company. It became profitable because it met the needs and wants of the Europeans for a better tasting tobacco. Tobacco served as money at Jamestown and was used to pay salaries and wages. However, most of the land required to grow tobacco was taken from the Powhatans. Dependence upon this cash crop became the key to survival for the colony. At the same time, tobacco growing could not have succeeded without the labor force the Africans provided.

Another legacy of Jamestown is the right of individuals to own property. In 1618, the Virginia Company gave colonists the right to own land. Until then, the company had owned all land in Virginia. This right to acquire land offered opportunities for upward economic and social mobility. Free Africans were also allowed to possess their own land. This concept of private ownership of land became the major source of conflict between the English and the Powhatans, but it was a major factor in America’s growth as a nation.

First Virginia Assembly, Sidney King

First Virginia Assembly, Sidney King

In 1619, another modest beginning gave birth to what would become the political character of the colony and an enduring American tradition. On an unbearably hot day in July, two burgesses selected from each of the seven plantations and four boroughs traveled to Jamestown to represent the interests of the colonists in the General Assembly. Prior to this time, the Virginia Company had appointed the governor and his council of advisors as the governing body for the colony. Even though the governor and his council would continue to be present at all meetings, thereby stifling some freedom of debate, this meeting in the church at Jamestown in 1619 was the first step toward representative government in America, which in time would grow to inspire people and nations all over the world.

The interaction of the Powhatan, English and Africans at Jamestown laid the foundation for an American society built by people of diverse cultures, traditions and beliefs. Throughout history these cultural interactions have included conflict, hardships, negotiation and compromise. As a result of English settlement, the Powhatans were forced to live on reservations located on less than desirable tracts of land. Africans were transported to Virginia against their will and forced into slavery for years to come. From its inception in 17th-century Virginia, slavery was rationalized as an economic necessity – first with tobacco and later with cotton. Tragically, during the eighteenth century, the institution of slavery took root in the American colonies. Eventually, it would tear the nation apart during the Civil War, which brought about the end of slavery. Over time, the United States has made great strides in civil rights, but continues to be challenged by the effects of the institution of slavery and the wrongs suffered by America’s original inhabitants. Yet, without the exchange of knowledge and skills of the English, the Powhatans and the Angolans, Jamestown would not have survived.

Jamestown’s legacies, including free enterprise, private ownership of land, representative government and our rich cultural diversity, came from the sacrifices and relationships forged by these three groups of people – Powhatan, English and African.