History and Founding of Virginia Colony

The ruined tower of the 17th century Jamestown Church; the nave was reconstructed in 1907 on the original foundations

Tony Fischer/Getty Images

In 1607, Jamestown became Great Britain's first settlement in North America, the first foothold of the Virginia Colony. Its permanency came after three failed attempts by Sir Walter Raleigh beginning in 1586 to attempt to establish a stronghold in the land he called Virginia after his queen, Elizabeth I. And its continued survival was very much in doubt for the first fifteen years.

Fast Facts: Virginia Colony

  • Also Known As: Colony and Dominion of Virginia
  • Named After: Queen Elizabeth I (the "Virgin Queen"), named by Walter Raleigh
  • Founding Year: 1606
  • Founding Country: England
  • First Known European Settlement: Jamestown, 1607
  • Residential Native Communities: Powhatan, Monacans
  • Founders: Walter Raleigh, John Smith
  • Important People: Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, Thomas Dale, Thomas Gates, Pocahontas, Samuel Argall, John Rolfe
  • First Continental Congressmen: Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Pendleton, Peyton Randolph, George Washington
  • Signers of the Declaration: George Wythe, Richard Herny Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton

Early Colonial Life

On April 10, 1606, King James I (ruled 1566–1625) issued a charter creating two companies for Virginia, one based in London and one in Plymouth, to settle all of the land between the Passamaquoddy Bay in Maine and the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. Plymouth would get the north half and London the south. 

The Londoners left on December 20, 1606, in three ships carrying 100 men and four boys, and they landed in what is today the Chesapeake Bay area. A landing party scouted for a suitable area, and the three ships worked their way up what they called (and is still called) the James River, landing at the site of Jamestown on May 13, 1607.

The location of Jamestown was chosen because it would be easily defended since it was surrounded by water on three sides; the water was deep enough for the colonists' ships, and Native Americans did not inhabit the land. Unfortunately, there were reasons the Native Americans did not inhabit the land; there was no potable water source, and the marshy landscape emitted great clouds of mosquitoes and flies. Disease, heat, and skirmishes with the Native Americans consumed both colonists and their supplies and by the time the first supply ship arrived in September, only 37 of the original 104 colonists were living.

The Starving Time

Captain John Smith assumed the colony's leadership in September 1608, and his leadership is credited with improving conditions and stockpiling stores. England continued to send supplies and colonists and in late Spring 1609, after the colony had been reorganized into a joint stock venture, London sent nine ships and 500 colonists. The ship bearing the deputy governor Thomas Gates wrecked off the Bermuda coast. The 400 survivors straggled into Jamestown in the late summer, too sick to work but fully capable of consuming the stockpile of stores. Disease and famine set in, and between October 1609 and March 1610, the colony population dropped from 500 to about 60. The winter became known as "The Starving Time," and the colony became known as a deathtrap.

During the early period of the colony, Jamestown was primarily a military outpost, populated by men, either gentlemen or indentured servants/ The servants who survived were obligated to work for their passage for a period of seven years. By 1614, those indentures began to expire and those who chose to remain became free laborers.

Signs of Recovery

Leadership of the colony by Thomas Dale and Thomas Gates kept the colony going between 1610 and 1616, and the colony began to grow strong after John Rolfe began his experiments with tobacco, Nicotiana rustica, to make it more palatable to the English taste. When a royal family member of the Powhatan tribe named Pocahontas married John Rolfe in 1614, relations with the Native American community eased. That ended when she died in England in 1617. The first enslaved African Americans were brought to the colony in 1619.

Jamestown had a high mortality rate due to disease, colonial mismanagement, and raids from Native Americans. The presence of women and family units encouraged some growth and stability, but factionalism and fiscal insolvency continued to plague Virginia. In 1622, a Powhatan attack on Virginia killed 350 settlers, plunging the colony into warfare that lasted a decade.

Charter Changes

Jamestown was originally founded from a desire to gain wealth and to a lesser extent to convert the natives to Christianity. Jamestown went through several forms of government in its first decades, and by 1624, they used a representative assembly known as the House of Burgesses, the first institutional instance of representative self-government on the North American continent.

Threatened by the House of Burgesses, though, James I revoked the charter of the bankrupt Virginia Company in 1624, but his timely death in 1625 ended his plans for disbanding the assembly. The colony's formal name was the Colony and Dominion of Virginia. 

Virginia and the American Revolution

Virginia was involved in fighting against what they saw as British tyranny from the end of the French and Indian War. The Virginia General Assembly fought against the Sugar Act which had been passed in 1764. They argued that it was taxation without representation. In addition, Patrick Henry was a Virginian who used his powers of rhetoric to argue against the Stamp Act of 1765 and legislation was passed opposing the act. A Committee of Correspondence was created in Virginia by key figures including Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry. This was a method by which the different colonies communicated with each other about the growing anger against the British. 

Virginia residents who were sent to the First Continental Congress in 1774 included Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Pendleton, Peyton Randolph, George Washington.

Open resistance started in Virginia the day after Lexington and Concord occurred, on April 20, 1775. Other than the Battle of Great Bridge in December 1775, little fighting happened in Virginia though they sent soldiers to help in the war effort. Virginia was one of the earliest to adopt independence, and its hallowed son, Thomas Jefferson, penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776. 

Significance

  • First permanent English settlement in the New World at Jamestown.
  • It provided a source of fertile land and great wealth to England in the form of the cash crop, tobacco.
  • With the House of Burgesses, America saw the first institutional instance of representative self-government.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Barbour, Philip L. (ed.) "The Jamestown Voyages under the First Charter, 1606–1609." London: The Hakluyt Society, 2011. 
  • Billings, Warren M. (ed.). "The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century: A Documentary History of Virginia, 1606–1700," revised edition. Durham: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 
  • Earle, Carville. "Environment, Disease, and Mortality in Early Virginia." Journal of Historical Geography 5.4 (1979): 365–90. Print.
  • Hantman, Jeffrey L. "Monacan Millennium: A Collaborative Archaeology and History of a Virginia Indian People." University of Virginia Press, 2018.