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Jamestown: Conflict in the New World

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  • 1:12 The Charter
  • 1:40 The Problems
  • 2:28 John Smith and Starving Time
  • 4:15 Military Rule
  • 5:22 Massacre and Charter Dissolved
  • 6:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson focuses on the settlement of Jamestown and the conflicts that occurred between the native populations and the English settlers. While exploring this topic, it will highlight England's response to the troubles that plagued the settlement.

England's Involvement

If I walked into a random place, let's say our local movie theater, and asked 50 people what they knew about Jamestown, Virginia, there's some hope I'd hear it was an early American settlement. Someone might even correctly tell me it was the first permanent English settlement in America, and there were lots of conflicts between the settlers and the natives. However, if I dug deeper and asked what England's response was to these conflicts, I'm guessing I'd get a bunch of blank stares, and people excusing themselves to get popcorn in time for the previews.

The reasons for this lack of knowledge problem are varied, but I can think of two right off the bat. First, lots of people doodled or slept through history class. Second, those who were awake were mostly taught American history, in which England is consigned to the role of bad guy in the American Revolution. Yes, England gets a role, but is never the star of the show. Today, we're going to remedy this by discussing how England responded to the problems at Jamestown. To get things rolling, let's get to know the English of Jamestown.

The Charter

To begin, we have Scene One - The Charter. In 1606, the Virginia Company of London, a group of investors, was given a charter, or a written grant, by King James I to settle the parts of North America not already claimed by Spain and France. Desiring a place that would be easy to defend, the company chose land near a river in the Chesapeake Bay region. In honor of their king, they named the river the James and the settlement Jamestown.

The Problems

This brings us to Scene Two - The Problems. Within a very short time, the English settlers met with serious problems. First, they had settled near lands occupied by the powerful Powhatan natives, a chiefdom of well over 10,000 members. Although trade was established between the English and the natives, the relationship was shaky at best. Adding to the woes of the settlers were undrinkable water, lack of food and a very unfamiliar climate. Making matters worse, many of the settlers were from the upper-crust of English society, and were unaccustomed to manual labor. Put this together with the fact that they had no farming skills, and it's no wonder things went poorly.

John Smith and Starving Time

Smith became leader of the settlers in 1608.
Captain John Smith

This brings us to Scene Three - The Hero and the Starving Time. Fortunately, Captain John Smith emerged as the settlers' leader in 1608. One of his first acts of business was to let everyone know those who didn't work, didn't eat! Unfortunately, Smith's role as leader was short lived, as in 1609 he sustained an injury and returned to England. Once Smith left the scene, things went further downhill. A period of warfare between the settlers and the natives, as well as the deaths of many English from starvation and disease, ensued. This has come to be known as The Starving Time.

In 1610, the few surviving settlers had reached their limit and decided to abandon Jamestown and head back to England. Ironically, as the exhausted settlers made their way up the James River, they were met by an English ship bringing not only supplies, but a second charter from King James. It seemed Mother England and the Virginia Company were not willing to give up their investment quite so easily. The exhausted settlers were ready to run from further conflict, but England was poised to keep up the fight.

However, this time Mother England would play a larger role as the second charter called for stronger central leadership. Along with supplies, the new ships brought a governor who would rule the settlement through military law. This allowed for harsh punishment of any dissenters and brings us to Scene Four - The Military Rule. On an interesting side note, this governor was none other than Thomas West, the Lord De La Warr, whom the state of Delaware is named after.

Military Rule

Under this rule, the governor's first action was to force the bedraggled survivors to return to Jamestown for another go at settlement. In order to make Jamestown a success, England's appointed governor had a plan. Rather than simply rely on trading with the natives for food, the new settlers tried their hand at things like glassmaking and woodworking. However, it wasn't until one of the colonists, the famous John Rolfe, introduced tobacco in about 1613 that things started to really hum.

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