The Colonial Period of the United States is often characterized solely by the wars and battles fought by the colonists with Native Americans, and other European powers between 1607 and 1775. But, it is instructive to review the social and economic history and growth of the colonies because: 1). They were primarily economic enterprises and 2). The eventual success of the Colonial Era Colonies was achieved through great hardship including famine, disease, war and survival. And these travails forged the crucible in which the United States and its system of self-government was formed.
The Jamestown Colony was established by the Virginia Company of London, which had been granted a proprietorship to establish a settlement in the Virginia Colony by King James I (reigned in England from 1603-1625). The Company’s investors were anxious to find success after the failure of the Roanoke colonies. With this objective in mind, the Virginia Company commissioned 3 ships – the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery – to carry over 100 colonists to establish a profitable enterprise farther north of Roanoke. After a lot of scouting and other activity – that will be discussed in other blogs – the colonist landed at Jamestown Island, in the James River (all named after James I) and established the first permanent British settlement in North America.
The plan was for the first settlers to disembark and start working to achieve the London Company’s goals, while the ships would return to England for resupply. Specifically, the Company envisioned that the colony would profitable supply gold, trade, and/or staple products for its stockholders. To this end, Captain John Smith was left in charge of the Colony, and Captain Christopher Newport returned to England for re-supply.
Captain Newport returned to Jamestown on January 1608 (this was the first of 3 resupply missions undertaken by him in 1608 and 1611). During his absence, the colonists struggled to survive, while intermittently fighting with the Native Powhatan tribe. One of the more noteworthy incidents occurred in late 1607, when Chief Powhatan captured John Smith, who eventually made agreements with the natives to trade with the Jamestown Colony (legend has it that Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, saved Smith’s life). But generally, the colonists had failed to fulfill the London Company’s goals, and as a result, Capt. Newport had new instructions for the colonists: in addition to essential staples and foodstuffs, the First Supply included a new group of colonists with specialized skills that the Company hoped would stabilize the colony and yield a profitable industry at the colony.
This period was just the beginning of the Jamestown Colony enterprise, which took more than 15 years to become fully established and profitable, primarily through Tobacco (see Virginia Encyclopedia for details). Subsequent blogs will explore the further economic, political and military development of Jamestown. As for the London Company, it continued its colonization efforts in North America, trying unsuccessfully to interest a group of English religious separatists called the Pilgrims to settle in the mouth of the Delaware or Hudson Rivers. In the end, the Pilgrims were blown off course and settled in Plymouth instead.