Jamestown became the first permanent colony in America in 1607 when 105 English men and boys set sail on a four and a half month voyage to Virginia to explore and exploit her natural resources for the London-based Virginia Company. Named after Queen Elizabeth – the ‘virgin’ queen, Virginia was rumored to possess gold and a shortcut to China. Three ships – Susan Constant, Discovery and Godspeed – set sail from London in December 1606. They followed the southwest trade winds and ocean currents to the Caribbean where they stopped and re-supplied the ships, and then turned northward toward Virginia. These sailing ships required winds to move them, yet advances in mapmaking and navigation made it safer and faster to cross wide oceans, and advances in ship building and design made it possible to carry more supplies and cargo.

The voyagers arrived at Cape Henry, Virginia on April 26, 1607. They erected a cross where they landed, and Captain Christopher Newport led an expedition up the river they named for their king. On May 13th, the explorers settled on a peninsula farther up the river, built a fort there and called it Jamestown. Only one man died on the voyage from England to Virginia, but before the end of their first year in Jamestown typhoid, dysentery, brackish water and Indian attacks would claim the lives of two-thirds of the men holding on in the little fort they built.

The colonists came to Virginia seeking riches, and in 1612 they finally found what they sought in the form of a ‘golden weed’ – a sweet strain of nicotiana tabacum that Sir John Rolfe procured in Trinidad and planted in Virginia. Rolfe married Pocahontas, the favorite daughter of the Powhatan Indian chief, while the settlers grabbed up huge tracts of land for the cultivation of their new cash crop. The first women arrived in Jamestown in 1608, and in 1620 a large group of women set sail for the soon-to-be Royal Colony in hopes of snagging prosperous planter husbands. Yet, the vast land claims required for tobacco cultivation alarmed the Powhatan Indians, and in 1622 an uprising led by the chief’s brother killed a quarter of the colonists throughout the James River plantations including nearby Berkeley and Westover.

The cultivation of tobacco was labor intensive and required year-round effort. In 1619, a Portuguese slave ship captured by English privateers landed in Virginia. The English settlers traded supplies for the Africans on the ship, and the newcomers were quickly put to work in the tobacco fields. By the mid-1600s slavery would be an institution in Virginia.

Located within a mile of the original Jamestown Fort, Jamestown Settlement features a theater and film entitled 1607: A Nation Takes Root as well as a fascinating, state-of-the-art 30,000 sq. ft. multi-media multi-gallery museum containing many artifacts and interactive exhibits documenting and interpreting the history of the three cultures that gave birth to America – Powhatan Indian, English, and African. Outdoors there is a path to a living history museum that is great for kids as well as kids-at-heart. It features a walking trail to a recreated colonial fort and Indian village where there are costumed interpreters, demonstrations and activities. The James Fort replica is based on English correspondence from 1610. The original fort contained a storehouse, guardhouse, and the first Church of England in America. The recreated Powhatan Indian Village is based on the discoveries at a nearby Indian village excavation site.

The living history exhibit features replicas of the three ships that sailed to Jamestown from England. Visitors can go aboard and explore Susan Constant, Discovery and Godspeed. The ships occasionally set sail with a volunteer crew. An indoor café offers light meals, snacks, and refreshments, and a well-stocked gift shop carries books, apparel, gifts and holiday items. Open daily for guided and self-guided tours, history really is fun at Jamestown Settlement!

Pictured at the top: Godspeed, with 2400 sq. ft. of sail, and a 70’ mast, carried 39 passengers and 13 crew members from London to Virginia. The replica pictured above at Jamestown Settlement was built using 17th century documents describing shipbuilding and rigging. Pictured below: The Powhatan Indian chief’s daughter, Pocahontas, married Sir John Rolfe, the father of the American tobacco industry. She became a Christian, adopted English attire, sailed to England with Rolfe and was presented at court.

Historical Photo


Pocahontas, Mary Ellen Howe, 1994.