What was the first year like at Jamestown?

Building the re-created James fort, Jamestown Settlement

Building the re-created James fort, Jamestown Settlement

The instructions for the colonists had been to locate a site which would be far enough from the coast to avoid being surprised by Spanish warships, a major concern of the Virginia Council. In May 1607, upon selecting the site they named Jamestown in honor of their King, they noted the channel was deep enough to tie their ships to the trees on the shore. This was an important consideration, saving time and effort in loading ships for transport of goods to England. They also felt it could be easily defended against local Indians should they prove hostile. The Powhatan Indians were wary of the Englishmen from their first sighting. According to John Smith, some of the Indians welcomed them hospitably, offering food and entertainment, while others discharged their arrows and then retreated as the colonists fired their guns.

After building a rudimentary fort and experiencing an Indian attack almost immediately, the settlers realized their vulnerability. On May 26, they set about building a more substantial fortification. This second fort has been described as triangular with a bulwark at each corner containing four or five pieces of ordnance. Two of the bulwarks faced the James River from where any Spanish assault would come and the other one faced inland. According to Company requirements, the settlers constructed three public buildings inside the fort – a church, a storehouse and a guardhouse – set around a market square. Timber-framed houses were also eventually built along the walls to replace the tents in which the colonists had been living.

English housing inside re-created James fort, Jamestown Settlement

English housing inside re-created James fort, Jamestown Settlement

A week after the building of the second fort, Captain Newport sailed for England and the realities of life in the wilderness set in as colonists experienced a variety of challenges including hunger and disease, each of which took a heavy toll. The colonists were so weakened from sickness it was reported they could hardly stand. George Percy wrote that most died from famine, but the major killer was more likely polluted river water, full of “slime and filth,” which led to salt poisoning, dysentery and typhoid. An epidemic swept the settlement and left half the 104 men and boys dead before the end of September. Only about 50 survived as winter approached. The colony was on the brink of collapse. With Captain Newport gone and Captain Gosnold having died, the leadership disintegrated, and the men began quarreling among themselves. It was around this time that the Powhatan, rather than resuming hostilities against the weakened, disease-ridden Englishmen, instead brought food to the fort and saved the colonists’ lives.

In January 1608, eight or nine months after leaving Jamestown, Captain Newport returned with new immigrants. They discovered that only 38 of the original settlers had survived and only ten were physically able to work. In addition, the deposed president of the council (Wingfield) was under house arrest, one member of the council had been shot (Kendall), another was about to be hanged (Smith) and other leaders were about to abandon the colony. Though weakened and hungry from the voyage, the new colonists set to work. The fort was once again filled with activity and renewed purpose.