Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in the New World, founded in 1607 under the direction of the Virginia Company. Although the settlement struggled to survive at first, the discovery of tobacco made Jamestown a success and it remained the capital of the Virginia colony until 1699.
In 1605, a group of influential merchants seeking to profit materially from the natural resources of America petitioned England’s King James I for permission to settle in America. The following April, the king chartered the London Company (later known as the Virginia Company) and granted it the right to settle a colony between 34 and 41 degrees north latitude.
The charter created a joint-stock company, which allowed the merchants to seek investors and operate as a private business. The charter provided that the colony would be governed by two councils, one in America and one in England, and guaranteed that colonists would enjoy the “liberties, franchises, and immunities” of English subjects.
On April 26, 1607, the Sarah Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery arrived in Virginia carrying 105 passengers, who named their settlement Jamestown after the king. From the start, the colony was beset by troubles.
The Chesapeake Bay region was then controlled by a confederation of Algonquian Indian tribes led by the paramount chief Powhatan. Powhatan was instrumental in helping provision the colonists in the early years, but the two groups often came into conflict thereafter.
More immediately, the colonists died in large number of disease and starvation: Only 38 of the original passengers survived “seasoning,” or their first winter in America. Ultimately, the colonists proved unwilling to grow their own food, preferring instead to search for gold, leading to internal dissension.
A series of governors tried with varying degrees of success to salvage the colony, including most notably John Smith, who ordered that “he will not work, shall not eat.” Yet such attempts often proved fruitless such as in the winter of 1609–10, appropriately termed “the starving time,” when desperate colonists turned to cannibalism and ate the dead.
Only the constant infusion of new colonists kept Jamestown afloat. Relations with the Indians improved in 1614 when Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas married John Rolfe, yet it was Rolfe’s introduction of tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) two years later that finally made the colony profitable.
Because tobacco sold in London for five to 10 times as much as it cost to grow, soon “the marketplace and streets, and all other spare places were planted with tobacco.” Within a decade, Virginia became the wealthiest and most populous colony.
Despite Jamestown’s success, the Virginia Company teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. In the late 1610s, the company tried to make the settlement more profitable by giving more control to colonists.
It instituted the headright system, which gave land to settlers, and the House of Burgesses, the first representative assembly established in America. Yet when a violent Indian attack in 1622 wiped out a fifth of the colony’s population, the king revoked the company’s charter and, in 1624, he placed Virginia under the control of the English government.