I have always dreamed about visiting Jamestown. Since grammar school I have learned about the colony, but never had the chance to visit… until now.
At the turn of the seventeenth century, Europe was a collection of states constantly jostling with one another for political dominance and prestige. England looked enviously upon its Catholic imperial rival Spain, whose global empire and powerful armies were financed from the riches of the New World.
After the disaster at Roanoke some years earlier, few were willing to risk their lives and fortunes in search of wealth in the hostile conditions of North America. Yet the temptation that the English might “strike gold,” as the Spanish had done, was too great to ignore. By 1607 new funds for an expedition were raised by the Virginia Company, a joint stock venture privately owned and operated by wealthy English entrepreneurs. After four months, The Susan Constant, Discovery, and Godspeed landed ashore, near the James River in Virginia with 104 men and boys.
My visit to Jamestown illuminated the difficulties the colony faced within the first decade. Starvation, disease, lack of supplies, and conflict with Powhatan Indians plagued the settlers. Initially, they arrived during a drought, and too late in the season to tend soil for crops. Compounding this, few of the earliest settlers had the practical skills and hardy constitution required to found a colony. Unprepared, the men struggled to survive. By the time the first supply ship arrived with additional settlers and craftsmen, two thirds of the colony’s population had perished.
Our men were destroyed with cruel diseases as swellings, fluxes, burning fevers, and by wars, and some departed suddenly, but for the most part they died of meer famine. There were never Englishmen left in a foreign country in such misery as we were in this new discovered Virginia…..Our food was but a small can of barley sod in water to five men a day; our drink cold water taken out of the river, which was at a flood very salty, at a low tide full of slime and filth, which was the destruction of many of our men. Thus, we lived for the space of five months in this miserable distress, not having five able men to man our bulwarks upon any occasion. – George Percy’s Observations Gathered out of a Discourse (August – September, 1607)
The Powhatan tribe and the Jamestown settlers had a tumultuous relationship. The English established their fort on land the tribe used for hunting. Initially, the Powhatan chief was generous and gifted food to the starving settlers. However, diplomatic relations soon turned hostile as supplies started to dwindle. By 1609, after the English demanded too much food, armed conflict erupted. Constant attacks by Powhatan raiders confined the colonists to the claustrophobic conditions inside the fort. Without the ability to farm or trade for food, and with the weather turning cold, the young colony was about to experience its greatest period of strife. Historians refer to the winter of 1609-1610 as the “Starving Time,” when famine caused the English to eat snakes, leather, and even the remains of deceased settlers. Only around 60, members of the colony survived to see spring.
John Smith’s leadership proved vital to Jamestown’s survival in the early years. In 1608, he became the third president of the colony’s council. Aside from the strict discipline he enforced, Smith also vividly documented the landscape of seventeenth-century Virginia and negotiated the exchange of supplies with the Powhatans. Unfortunately, Smith’s map of Virginia was out for conservation, so I did not have the chance to see it. However, I did manage to find one at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum Exhibit” “Promoting America: Maps of the Colonies and the New Republic.”
Following the Starving Time, Jamestown’s third supply shift arrived in mid-1610. One of the settlers on board, John Rolfe, would attempt the first planting of tobacco seeds in Virginia in the years following. The Virginia soil took well to the plant and Jamestown finally had a lucrative cash crop that could turn a profit.
In 1624, after years of reports detailing tremendous loss of life and loss of profits, the English crown disestablished the Virginia Company’s charter and seized the colony to restore order and protect English interests and prestige.
At Jamestown Settlement, the past comes alive through exhibition galleries, outdoor areas, and historical interpreters.
Inside the visitor center, guests are encouraged to engage with Jamestown rich history thorugh artifacts and other educational initiatives. A major $10.6 million renovation of the exhibition galleries and technology in 2019 expanded and enhanced these spaces. These funds were used to conduct new research into the settlement to present more inclusive histories in the galleries, and produce new interactive 4-D informational videos. The video on Bacon’s Rebellion, is a multi-sensory, multi-layered experience which disseminates the history of the 1676 conflict. While I enjoyed the video, one of the central screens malfunctioned, and really disrupted the overall view of the show.
The introductory film, “1607: A Nation Takes Root,” provides historical context for the site. Typically, I am not a big fan of these videos, but this one encapsulated the major themes of the exhibition. The film traces the evolution of the Virginia Company that sponsored the Jamestown Colony, examines the relationship between the English colonists and the Powhatans, and chronicles the arrival of the first recorded Africans in 1619.
Jamestown Settlement’s permanent exhibition follows the lives of the Powhatans, English, and Africans in Virginia. “The People of Seventeenth Century Virginia: Three Old Cultures, One New Country.” I really appreciated how they introduced these three cultures. Instead of merely listing data, the exhibition used over 500 artifacts, mannequins, period rooms, and interactive technology to tell the stories of these three groups. Inside the Powhatan and African exhibit cases, visitors view a snapshot of their everyday life, and artifacts that highlight how they lived, what food they ate, and other information. For the English, visitors take a stroll down a recreated Westminster street, and can peer into shops to learn more about this time period.
The museum attempted to spotlight the lives of women throughout this exhibition. One example is a section on Pocahontas. This exhibit attempts to debunk fact from fiction through historical facts (and artifacts) from Pocahontas life. In addition, it discusses the cultural appropriation of her image. The museum promotes the portrayal of her in the Walt Disney animated film, because it positions her as a strong, independent woman who advocates for the lives of her people. In addition to this section, the exhibit also has a small area which highlights women in early Virginia. Here, visitors can watch a handful of videos of historical actors relaying the stories of real women who settled in the area around Jamestown.
Due to COVID-19, audio devices and touch stations were removed, but the museum did provide each visitor with a sanitized stylus, so they could safely use it to interact with digital maps and other kiosks throughout the exhibition. Jamestown Settlement also has an app which visitors can download to enhance their gallery tour.
Unfortunately, this museum also banned photography, so please feel free to view some photos from the exhibit here.
Outdoors, the living history sites are primarily based on historical documents, objects, archaeological findings, and oral histories. Here, visitors can learn from historical interpreters and tour the recreated ships, James Fort, and Paspahegh village.
This was my first encounter with historical interpreters. Their mastery of knowledge concerning the character they were playing, the geography, their various demonstrations, and period appropriate costumes really impressed me. At the recreation of a Paspahegh town, historical interpreters tended a fire while disseminating information to surrounding guests. On the deck of the Susan Constant, sailors manned the ship and relayed stories about the voyage to the new world.
Although I managed to see a great deal on this trip, it is important to note that I encountered several closed areas due to COVID-19. This became apparent at James Fort, which is a recreation of the fortified palisade from 1610-1614. Some of the dwellings and enclosed spaces were closed to visitors. However, the Anglican church, and storage house were open, and guests could walk inside. Similarly, I toured the deck of the Susan Constant, but visitors were barred from exploring interior portions of the vessel.
At sunset, I had the opportunity to visit Historic Jamestowne, the site of an active archaeological dig. For years, many believed the location of the fort to be lost or submerged in the James River. Since 1994, Jamestown Rediscovery has worked in the area and their archaeologists uncovered over three million artifacts, which increase our understanding of the lives of these early settlers. Most notably, they have discovered the actual location of the James Fort, near the church tower.
Stay tuned for future Mary’s Musings posts about Yorktown & Colonial Williamsburg!
“A Short History of Jamestown.” National Park Service. August 24, 2020.
“History of Jamestown Rediscovery.” Historic Jamestowne. Accessed March 30, 2021.
“Life at Jamestown.” Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Accessed March 30, 2021.
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