What did Virginia look like pre-contact?

John Smith Map of Virginia

John Smith Map of Virginia

In April of 1607, the Englishmen sailed into the Chesapeake Bay, a body of salt water from the Atlantic Ocean that meets fresh water flowing from the Potomac, Rappahannock, York and the James rivers. These tributaries are tidal estuaries with tides being felt upstream almost as far as Richmond. After planting a cross at Cape Henry, thanking God for their safe voyage, the 104 English men and boys, along with the ships’ crew sailed up the James River, which they named after their King. After exploring up and down the James River for two weeks, they arrived at a point that seemed to fit the instructions they’d been given for selecting a place to settle. Thus, the three ships – the Discovery, the Godspeed and the Susan Constant – completed their journey of 144 days.

Because one of the goals of the English voyage was to find a “Northwest Passage” to Asia, several men, including John Smith and Christopher Newport, continued sailing up the James River. They discovered they could not go further when they encountered the fall line where the area we know as the Piedmont begins. Here, the rapids flow over the hard rocks of the Piedmont region, marking the natural end of navigation in the rivers.

The Powhatan people occupied the Coastal Plain or Tidewater region of Virginia, which includes the area east of the fall line and the area we know today as the Eastern Shore. They lived on high ground overlooking the many waterways, their main form of transportation. The mixed forests provided an abundance of plant and animal life. The Powhatans hunted and fished, with fish and shellfish in plentiful supply in the waters. The soil beneath the forest was rich and appealing to those who wished to farm.

King James VI of Scotland, Adrian Vanson, circa 1595

King James VI of Scotland, Adrian Vanson, circa 1595

The climate encountered by the English differed slightly from the climate we know in Virginia today, because in 1607 the Northern Hemisphere was experiencing a slightly cooler period known as the “Little Ice Age.” Winters were more severe and had fewer frost-free days per year in which to cultivate crops. Even so, there were many plants and roots available for gathering and rich soil, which made cultivation of crops possible.

In 1606 King James I granted the first of three Royal Charters to the London Company, giving it legal rights to plant a colony along the east coast somewhere between 34 degrees and 41 degrees North Latitude. Instructions were to go inland and find a suitable place for their colony. The English were especially concerned about attacks from the Spanish. The site the settlers chose for their settlement was almost an island, connected to the mainland only by a narrow sandbar. Because deep water touched the land, however, they could sail right up to the site and secure their ships to the many trees that filled the land. These geographical features also made it easier to defend from the Spanish. While these were positive features for the land they named Jamestown, in honor of their King James, there were also some very negative features of this environment including swampy land and brackish water from the James River. By the end of the summer, half the colonists had died, and many of those remaining were sick with various diseases such as dysentery and typhoid. Since the planting season had ended before the colonists had finished building their houses, they were unable to plant a crop and soon were very short of food. By the time the first supply ship from England arrived in January 1608, only 38 colonists were still alive to greet it. The environment proved to be one of the greatest challenges faced by the colonists.