May 14 – Jamestown was Founded

Gay Lynn HillAmerican History, Bell Ringers

On May 14, 1607, Jamestown was founded.

The arrival of European settlers in the Americas was the start of a new era in America, as well as world history. Colonists came for many reasons – some primarily to get rich quickly (few accomplished this), others because they were fleeing persecution, and some simply out of adventure.

The Jamestown Charter lists the only purpose of the colony as “propagating the Christian religion.” In reality, however, the main motivation, for most of the colonists, was financial (compared to the Pilgrims a few years later, who were fleeing persecution).

Jamestown had a deadly start. In only a few years, the colonists had wiped out the local Paspahegh tribe. And in the first year, 80% of the colonists died, many of starvation or its effects.

One of the problems in the early years was the lack of willingness to work on communal farms. Many of the men (the first two women only arrive the second year) shirked their common responsibilities in favor of pursuing private wealth, and output of all kinds suffered. In 1613, Governor Thomas Dale assigned them private property, and production of food and other agricultural products began to rise, and with it the success of the colony.

  1. At the time of Jamestown, it was taken as a given that “propagating the Christian religion” was a good thing. Later, the process was described as bringing “civilization”. More recently, it has been “spreading democracy”. In each case, of course, there were mixed motives. Do you think any of these motives were, or would be, valid today? Or asked another way, what aspects of our civilization and culture are you confident enough in to say that we should actively try to spread them?
  2. The first Jamestown settlers would not have expected an 80% death rate. But after the first year or two, additional settlers would have had at least some information about the risks. Why do you think settlers continued to come? What do you imagine must have been the circumstances of people willing to take such risks? What rewards do you think they expected?

Image Citation:

23, June 1995, Governor Rat Cliffe from Walt Disney Productions of Pocahontas [Digital image].  Retrieved from <>.