Why Jamestown Matters: If the Colony Had Collapsed the English Might Not Have Been Established as the Major Colonial Power in North America

By Horn, James | American Heritage, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Why Jamestown Matters: If the Colony Had Collapsed the English Might Not Have Been Established as the Major Colonial Power in North America


Horn, James, American Heritage


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IF JAMESTOWN, ENGLAND'S first permanent colony in the New World, had failed 400 years ago--and it came within a whisker of being abandoned on any number of occasions--then North America as we know it today would probably not exist. Instead of English, we might be speaking French, Spanish, or even Dutch. If Jamestown had collapsed, the emergence of British America and eventually the creation of the United States may never have happened.

By the time John Smith and his fellow colonists landed in Virginia in 1607, many European colonies had failed already, owing to harsh winters, rampant disease, hostile Indians (or other Europeans), and difficulties with provisioning. The Spanish lost colonies in Florida, the French at Fort Caroline (Florida) and Port Royal (Nova Scotia) and the English at Baffin Island, Roanoke (North Carolina), and Sagadahoc in Maine. Few colonies lasted more than a year and many hundreds of colonists died, often in terrible conditions. The spread of English settlements along the North Atlantic seaboard in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was far from inevitable.

So, too, the early colonists of Jamestown encountered daunting challenges. Unable to survive solely on their own, they counted on periodic reprovisioning and new infusions of settlers from their sponsors in England, the Virginia Company of London.

In November 1609, two and a half years after Jamestown was first settled (during which the colony had been a total loss to its investors), members of the Company learned that a hurricane had scattered a fleet of eight ships sent out earlier in the year to bring 500 settlers, food, arms, ammunition, and equipment to the beleaguered colony. The principal vessel, the 250-ton Sea Venture, was feared lost. As the Company members filed into their London office, their faces reflected their deep concerns. Should they continue to finance their risky and costly gamble in the New World or just pull the plug and let the colony collapse?

Their decision would change history. Instead of giving up, the members sprang into action to save their investment and calm investors and others who would soon learn the news of the disaster themselves. In December, the Company published A True and Sincere Declaration, a bold defense of the colonization effort that asked why this "great action" of the English should be "shaken and dissolved by one storm?" The carefully reasoned argument restated the colony's purpose--to take possession of North America, bring Christianity to the Indians, and produce valuable commodities--and outlined why Jamestown would eventually become profitable. If these were the right and proper goals for the colony when the expedition had set out, the Company asserted, why should they be abandoned now?

The treatise worked, enabling the Company to raise money for another fleet, under the command of Lord De La Warr, which set out in April 1610 and arrived just in time. The winter and spring of 1609-1610 had proved particularly deadly to colonists. A combination of Indian attacks, disease, and starvation killed three-quarters of the 400 settlers in six months. When De La Warr's ships anchored off Jamestown Island in June, the new governor turned around surviving colonists who had just abandoned the site and put the colony on a more secure footing. …

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