Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, was founded in 1607. Many of its colonists died during the first few difficult years, but thanks to the leadership of Captain John Smith and others, Jamestown endured and served as a starting point for important explorations of the Chesapeake region. Jamestown marks the beginnings of the colony of Virginia and of a lasting English presence on the continent.
Jamestown and the James River were named in honor of King James I of England. He gave a royal charter to a private commercial enterprise, the Virginia Company, to establish settlements on the east coat of North America.
Jamestown was important to England. The English had been lagging behind Spain, a chief rival, in establishing a toehold in North America. Although, there were seasonal English fishing communities in Newfoundland, attempts at permanent settlements had failed.
The Virginia Company was formed by a group of private investors with the noble-sounding goal of settlement and exploration, but with profit on their minds. They hoped to get rich by exploiting the resources of North America and by discovering a navigable route to the Pacific.
In December 1606, the Virginia Company sent three ships—the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery—carrying more than 140 English men and boys, including Captain John Smith, to the Chesapeake Bay region. The vessels, plagued by storms and mutiny, took nearly five months to cross the Atlantic.
The ships arrived in Virginia on April 26, 1607, near the future site of Cape Henry, where the men claimed the country for King James and England. Learn more about Captain John Smith and the Virginia Company.
It took two weeks after the first landing for the expedition to select a site for a permanent settlement. The English moved their ships up the James River, looking for a place that had potable water, a deep channel for anchoring close to shore, and an inland location hidden from Spanish ships. They selected an island near the north shore of the James River, which they named “Jamestown” in honor of their king, King James.
But the island’s marshy terrain was damp and bug-infested, and lacked fresh water. With these conditions and a shortage of food and potable water, the colonists soon fell prey to salt water poisoning, typhoid, and dysentery. Of the original 104 colonists who arrived with John Smith, only 38 were alive to greet the first supply ship in January 1608.
Unbeknownst to the colonists, the chosen island was in the territory of the Paspahegh Indians who pay tribute to the paramount Chief Powhatan.
After Captain John Smith’s departure, the colony entered a dark period of conflict with Powhatan's tribes and a time of starvation when the majority of settlers died. Of the 220 colonists alive in December 1609—the start of the “starving times”—only 60 remained the next spring. Almost 10 years after the founding of Jamestown, only 350 people populated the colony. Eventually new leadership stabilized the colony and secured its future. Learn more about Smith's departure from Virginia.