Steeped in legend and shrouded by time, Jamestown has long intrigued modern-day Americans. As the first permanent English colony in North America, Jamestown represented, then and now, a new beginning, a chance to conquer a continent, and a foothold for expansion of English law, customs, and traditions. Add to that a tale of love between a Native American princess and a dashing English explorer, and it’s no wonder so many people regard Jamestown with romance and adventure.
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In actuality, Pocahontas probably never saved Captain Smith, but these six true facts about Jamestown may be even more fascinating than the myth of Jamestown.
1. Jamestown colonists resorted to cannibalism.
Although we now celebrate Jamestown as the first lasting English settlement in the Americas, for a few grim winter months in the colony’s earliest years, permanence was far from certain. Plagued by a lack of farming know-how, hostile native peoples, and a harsh winter, Jamestown dwindled from 300 colonists in November 1609 to just 60 the following spring. Colonists who lived through the winter called it the “starving time” and admitted they made it through by eating dogs, snakes, and, occasionally, people.
Early reports of cannibalism from the winter’s survivors were met with skepticism back in England—no one wanted to believe that Englishmen would dig up corpses for food. But writing in 1625, George Percy, the youngest son of the eighth Earl of Northumberland, recalled that as Jamestown’s interim president in 1609, he had sentenced another man to death for killing his own pregnant wife and consuming her salted flesh. In 2012, archaeologists at Jamestown found the bones of a girl, estimated to be about 14, that bore the telltale knife marks of cannibalism.
2. Pocahontas probably never saved Captain John Smith’s life.
Thanks to centuries of exaggerated storytelling, most recently in Disney’s 1995 feature film, the story of Pocahontas has become an American myth: Plucky native princess saves the life of a dashing English gentleman adventurer by throwing her body between him and the stone about to bash his brains in. Together, they bring peace, at least temporarily, to Jamestown.
But many historians now doubt Captain John Smith’s life was ever truly in danger when Pocahontas stepped in front of him. By binding Smith and threatening him with large stones, the Powhatan Indians were more likely conducting a ceremony to honor Smith as another chief. Some believe that as the daughter of the chief, Pocahontas would not even have been present at the ceremony to see Smith bound and later released.
Assuming Pocahontas was around when Smith believed his life was at risk, he was not the last Jamestown colonist to affect her life. In 1613, Pocahontas—whose real name was Matoaka (Pocahontas was just a nickname meaning “playful one”)—was tricked into visiting Jamestown and kidnapped. She remained a captive until 1614, when she agreed to marry widower John Rolfe. That union did result in peace, for a time, between the Powhatan and the colonists.
Pocahontas and Rolfe had a son, and in 1616, all three traveled to England, where Pocahontas met King James I. On their return to Jamestown in 1617, however, Pocahontas became ill and died soon after returning home.
3. Tobacco grown from smuggled seeds saved Jamestown.
John Rolfe brought more than peace to Jamestown. He also brought the seeds of its salvation—literally. For Jamestown’s first several years, the colony’s leaders placed little emphasis on farming, directing the colonists’ energies to various trades such as silk making, glassmaking, and forestry, believing that they could trade with the Native Americans for food. Unfortunately, when hostilities broke out with the Powhatan Indians in 1609, the entire colony nearly starved to death.
Jamestown’s economic focus shifted when John Rolfe arrived in Jamestown in 1610 bearing South American tobacco seeds. That tobacco strain quickly became Virginia’s major cash crop and fueled the colony’s growth in numbers and wealth. Tobacco became Virginia’s number-one export from the early 17th century until the end of the 20th century.
Native North American peoples had been smoking tobacco for thousands of years before the English colonists arrived, but Rolfe brought seeds from a better-smoking South American species to Jamestown. To this day, no one is sure where Rolfe got those seeds. Spain, which controlled Central and South America in 1610, had outlawed the sale of such seeds to non-Spaniards on penalty of death. Rolfe may have acquired them while shipwrecked on Bermuda for 10 months—where his wife and daughter died—before arriving in Jamestown in 1610.
4. Tobacco brought the first Africans to Jamestown.
The rise of labor-intensive tobacco farming in Jamestown created the need for more laborers than ever in the colony, a need met early on by indentured Africans who first arrived in 1619. John Rolfe, who had introduced tobacco farming to Jamestown, noted that in late August 1619, “20 and odd” Africans came from a Dutch warship. The Dutch ship had captured the Africans from a Portuguese ship heading south to the Spanish colonies. Some of the Africans became the property of the colonial governor while others likely became indentured servants working in the tobacco fields.
While Virginia did not institute slave laws until 1662, the first de facto slave in the English colonies lost his freedom near Jamestown decades earlier. In 1640, James Punch, an indentured servant from Africa, tried unsuccessfully to escape his servitude in what is now York County, adjacent to Jamestown. He was captured, and as punishment, Punch’s indenture servitude was extended to his entire life, effectively enslaving him (the two white indentured servants who escaped with him merely had their servitude extended when recaptured). Recent research by Ancestry genealogists discovered that Punch is an ancestor of President Barack Obama, through his mother’s family.
5. Jamestown colonists executed a Catholic spy.
During Jamestown’s first years, Spain was concerned about more than just smuggled tobacco seeds. Spain was worried about any English presence in the Americas, since Spain was, at the time, the dominant colonial power in the Western Hemisphere. To get information about England’s plans for settling North America, Catholic Spain relied on spies planted in England’s Protestant colonies. And Jamestown possibly had just such a spy—or at least, Jamestown colonists executed someone they accused of being a Spanish Catholic informant.
In 1609, councilman Captain George Kendall fell under suspicion after another man (himself facing execution for threatening to strike the new Jamestown council president) accused Kendall of being a Catholic spy. The council tried and executed Kendall in 1609, the first capital trial and execution in English Colonial America.
The Spanish conspiracy may have extended beyond Kendall. In July 2015, archaeologists announced they had found a silver box containing bone fragments in the grave of Captain Gabriel Archer, a lawyer and one of the colony’s early leaders. Scientists believe the box was a reliquary, a common Catholic object of religious devotion. The fact that Archer was buried with the reliquary suggests that he, too, may have harbored Catholic sympathies.
6. The oldest continuous law-making body in the Western Hemisphere first met in Jamestown.
Of course, we celebrate Jamestown today not because of its early struggles, but because of the English heritage and traditions it began on this continent. One of those traditions includes the oldest continuous law-making body in the Western Hemisphere, the Virginia General Assembly.
First meeting on July 30, 1619, at the Jamestown church, the General Assembly succeeded a counsel of quarreling elites followed by several years of harsh martial law codified as the “Laws Divine, Moral and Martial.” But with growing prosperity from tobacco and peace from the union of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, the colonial governor, George Yeardley, arrived at Jamestown in 1619 and announced the creation of a colonial legislative assembly, which included Gov. Yeardley, his council, and 22 representatives, known as burgesses, from the settlements that had grown around Jamestown.
During their first session, which lasted six days, the General Assembly adopted measures against drunkenness, idleness, and gambling; passed laws relating to both the protection from and baptism of Native Americans; and imposed a tax on every man and servant of “one pound of the best Tobacco.” The General Assembly continued to meet at Jamestown until 1699, when Middle Plantation, later Williamsburg, became the capital of the colony. Today, of course, Virginia’s General Assembly meets in the Commonwealth’s capital of Richmond.
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—Sandie Angulo Chen