The Jamestown Colony PreQuel

By putting the story of the Jamestown Colony in proper perspective it's possible to better understand and appreciate all that went into overcoming the hardship and establishing an English foothold that would later become the original thirteen colonies.

Before we can take an in-depth look at the facts surrounding the establishment of the Jamestown settlement it's important that we first examine the historic "prequel". The success story that we read about in history class probably did not spend a great deal time explaining the long hard road of failure that was originally paved. That road was first traveled by the Spanish and the French.

Origins of the Jamestown Settlement

The area that was to become Virginia on the Chesapeake Bay was first sighted by the Spanish explorer Pedro de Quejo in 1525. In spite of beating the French and English to this site the Spanish decided to spend most of their efforts to the south where there was a great deal of gold and other treasures to extract. As far as can be determined the area would not be explored again until 1561.

The area we now know as Florida was being fully exploited by the Spanish and by understanding the strategic significance of the area Spain assigned Pedro Menedez de Aviles as Governor of the area.

His primary task was to guarantee that no other European nation was allowed to create any colonies on the eastern seaboard. In addition Spain expected him to combat the presence of pirates that could attack the Spanish treasure fleets on their way back to Spain. He was also the man responsible for establishing the settlement now known as St. Augustine.

In 1570 a small band of Spanish missionaries  landed at Chesapeake Bay. During the coming winter they suffered greatly from the bitter cold and hunger. When three of them sought help from a local Indian, who had spent nine years in Spain learning the European culture, instead of receiving much needed assistance they were killed. The rest of the camp was later raided this Indian/Spaniard and everyone was killed except for a small boy.

As a result of what happened to the missionaries the Spanish soon determined that there was no need for any further colonization. So ended the Spanish opportunity to settle the entire east coast.

The French Attempt to settle in the Jamestown Colony

Despite the failure of the Spanish to successfully settle in the Virginia area the Atlantic coast of the new world remained an attractive piece of real estate to the Europeans. In spite of numerous attempts they all seemed to suffer the same results.

A group of French citizens know as the Huguenots who were despised by their fellow countrymen for becoming Protestants sought refuge from persecution by attempting to establish a colony on the Atlantic coast. They received permission from the queen to attempt colonizing the area primarily because she wanted a place to get rid of them and also a launching pad for the French to raid Spanish treasure ships.

Their first attempt in the area now known as modern-day Beaufort, South Carolina was an utter failure. Their second attempt proved a bit more successful with the settlement of the area of modern-day Jacksonville which was called at that time Fort Caroline. However, this success was short-lived primarily because they didn't know how to sustain themselves.

It is believed that they either couldn't or wouldn't learn how to master the basic skills of farming, fishing and hunting. One year later they abandoned the settlement. The area was then visited on three occasions.

The Spanish were the ones who stopped by on the third visit and this visit was not a friendly one. The Spanish governor killed everyone that he found and destroyed the colony. The French never returned to the area.

The British Are Coming?

The British has been keeping a close eye on the activities of the Spanish and as a result grew worried of the growing wealth and might of Spain. Queen Elizabeth decided it was time for England to carve out their own piece of the pie. She had three goals she wanted to achieve:

  1. proselytize the Indians
  2. develop a reliable source for much needed raw materials as well as a place for the growing English population
  3. to counter the growth of Spain

What was most significant was that Queen Elizabeth understood that the Spanish were acquiring great wealth at a detriment to Great Britain. If something was not done soon her country would soon be in great danger. It was her belief that establishing British colonies along the eastern seaboard would be vital to the survival of the empire.

These colonies would serve as a launching pad for the British to raid many Spanish ships that were loaded down with gold headed back to Spain. She also saw these colonies as a way of holding back any further expansion by the Spanish.

Several attempts were made in the 1500's which ended in disaster. Most notable was the effort of Sir Walter Raleigh who would set up a base in the area which he would later call " Virginia" after the virgin Queen Elizabeth. This group would eventually end up suffering the same fate as earlier settlers.

The last settlement of the 1500's would mysteriously disappear as a fresh wave of settlers and supplies arrived after a three year delay due to the invasion of Great Britain by the Spanish Armada. The common trait among the Europeans was their inability to deal with harsh elements. If they were to survive they would need to learn how to produce their own food, get along with the local Indians and overcome the harshness of the land.

What a Difference a New Century Makes

Things seemed to fortunately take a different and better path for the British. By 1607 a lot had changed in Europe and the New World. As a result of their defeating the Spanish Armada the British found a new confidence, a fresh hope for their future. From this arose a new model for colonizing the New World. The Virginia Company, a group of investors, was formed who would underwrite new ventures and would share in the risks and rewards of any colonization attempts.

One of the key figures that would rise up out of this new model was John Smith. Unlike other Englishmen of his time, John was not considered a "gentlemen", but was raised a farmers son. His rugged demeanor would prove to be key in changing the attitude of settlers in the new colonies.

After traveling Europe and Africa John ended up on the initial wave of ships sent to the New World by The Virginia Company. Upon arrival, in April of  1607, the group opened the sealed orders that had been sent with them. It was their good fortune that John Smith was named one of the seven rulers of the colony.

This was crucial because they would soon encounter what previous settlers did. Once the spring weather wore off the reality of the harshness of the area would soon take its toll on the group. Most of them were overwhelmed by hunger, disease and eventually death. To make matters worse they local Indians didn't care for them and raided their settlement quite often.

At one point Smith was captured and taken before the Indian chief Powhatan. It was decided that they would kill him bu smashing his head. But according to Smith if not for Powhatan's ten year old daughter, Pocahontas, he indeed would have been killed.

By September of that year very few of them had survived. Without any explanation the local Indians had an unexpected change of heart and began to supply them with much needed food and supplies. John Smith quickly discerned that it would benefit them to develop a trusting relationship with these Indians and to learn from them.

Smith eventually learned to navigate the river system to trade and acquire supplies. He was not afraid to use intimidation with other Indian groups he encountered along the river to negotiate favorable terms. He eventually encountered a young female Indian names Pocahontas who played a key part in their survival.

As he gained a knowledge of the land and the local Indians Smith was able to play a larger leadership role in the settlement. He soon made stipulations regarding new prospects that were interested in coming to the New World. He insisted that they not be pampered gentlemen. Newcomers would need to be willing and able to work and possess the skills and knowledge make the most of the natural resources in the area.

John Smith was so effective at putting his beliefs into action that during his tenure as leader of this initial settlement a new mindset was developed that was foreign to the British; one had to earn wealth and respect, not inherit it. Even though this new mindset would soon define the future America is was not well-received by the Jamestown colony.

As a result things began to unravel. Promised ships that were to bring supplies never arrived with provisions.

The demands that Smith made of most gentlemen colonists led to his failure as a leader. In the end there was constant fighting among the settlers for leadership while many refused to work and many more deserted the settlement and fled to Powhatan.

Miraculous Deliverance from an Enemy

The Virginia arranged for another batch of colonists to be sent to Jamestown in 1609. In preparation for this batch of some five hundred new colonists a lead ship, the Mary and John, was sent ahead to find a more direct route.

This proved to be a life-changing decision because the British were not aware that the Spanish were planning to take action wipe out the Jamestown colony. A small Spanish warship was sent to spy on the English and determine how difficult it would be to launch an attack on the settlement.

It just so happened that when the warship approached the Chesapeake Bay it spotted the Mary and John, which was a very large ship. In fact, it was positioned in such a way as to be blocking and guarding access to the bay. The Spanish concluded that they were not well-equipped to take on such large ships (assuming there were others in te bay) and decided turn around.

What makes this significant is that if the Mary and John had not taken a more direct route and arrived just the day before the Spanish warship would have discovered the Jamestown colony in great disarray and would probably have attacked it at that time. There was little chance that the settlement would have survived.

By the fall of 1609 John Smith decided to return to England. This left the group without a proven leader. As a result the relationship between Powhatan and the English deteriorated. Eventually he declared war on the Jamestown colony. As the English were sent out to trade for food they were slaughtered.


When you consider all the suffering that was experienced it is a miracle that any colonists were willing to stay. We now know that almost 90 percent of them died. The worst tragedy occurred in 1622 when a widespread Indian uprising resulted in the death of nearly one fourth of the colonists.

In spite of all this Virginia would turn out to be a success. Once again, you have to ask yourself, what if. When you consider all the what if's it is indeed a miracle that the miracle which we call the United States even happened.

What if:

  • the initial disasters at Jamestown had discouraged future colonists from coming
  • John Smith had not been among the early settlers
  • the Spanish warships had arrived a day earlier at Chesapeake Bay
  • earlier Spanish settlements had proven successful
  • the Jamestown settlement had not paved the way for the Puritans of Massachusetts

Follow this link for more information on the history of the Jamestown Colony

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