Jamestown: A Unit Study

Jamestown: A Unit Study
Jamestown: A Unit Study

On May 14, 1607, the weary travelers set foot on a low-lying island in the James River. The site was marshy and the water smelled rank, but the location offered a number of strategic advantages. For one thing, it was far enough inland to reduce the threat from prowling Spaniards. For another thing, it was uninhabited by the local natives. This would be the site of Jamestown.

The Birth of Jamestown

The world was rapidly growing in the eyes of Europeans. In 1492, Christopher Columbus had thrown light on a new continent. This continent was still relatively unknown at the beginning of the 17th century, and the prospect of its untapped resources was thrilling.

In June 1606, King James chartered the Virginia Company to establish a colony on the shores of North America and accomplish the many purposes mentioned above. As hoped, wealthy investors put their money into ships and supplies for the journey. The prospective colonists soon assembled, as well—a varied collection of adventure-loving young gentlemen, seasoned mercenaries, assorted tradesmen, unskilled laborers, and a few young boys. They set sail that December in three ships: the Susan Constant captained by Christopher Newport, the Godspeed under Bartholomew Gosnold, and the Discovery under John Ratcliffe.

Trouble at Jamestown

The trouble at Jamestown began almost immediately. The closest neighbors, the Algonquian alliance consisting of a number of smaller related tribes, launched an attack on the white men by way of greeting, and it soon became apparent that constructing a fort would be the first task. The fort took about a month to build, but afforded the settlers some peace of mind.

A week after the fort had been built, the colonists were ready to continue on their own. Captain Newport departed for England, taking some clapboard with him as the first fruits of the New World.

Captain Newport would return with more supplies and settlers, but his departure marked the beginning of Jamestown in earnest. The colonists would have to provide for themselves in the future, and this would be no easy task. Neither the gentlemen nor the laborers were skilled in farming, let alone farming in an unfamiliar climate. Furthermore, it took time to build houses, which resulted in a late planting.

Famine, Indian attacks, and unsanitary drinking water conspired against the colonists. Disease and death swept through Jamestown like wildfire. Out of 104 settlers who had set foot on the island, only about 50 remained alive as the bitter winter drew on. Captain Newport was expected to return sometime in November, but days passed and no ship came in sight.

Enter John Smith

John Smith
John Smith

John Smith had already gained some experience in dealing with the Indians, beginning with a trip up the river when Jamestown had first been established. As starvation loomed dangerously near, Smith turned to Chief Wahunsonacock, an important leader in the Algonquian hierarchy and the head of the 32 tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy. This move saved the colonists from starvation, but the deaths continued. By the time that Captain Newport finally returned in January 1608, only 38 men survived.

The next few years of Jamestown were turbulent. Earning income from the colony was difficult, since lumber was expensive to ship across the ocean. The founders of the Virginia Company had hoped that gold would be one of the primary exports of Jamestown, but this vision never materialized. As for farming, few of the colonists were skilled or even interested.

Two small pinnaces arrived on May 23, 1610, bringing Sir Thomas Gates and about 100 more settlers. These colonists had been part of a supply expedition, but had been shipwrecked in Bermuda during a storm and had built the pinnaces in order to escape and finish their voyage. In the process, they had eaten most of the provisions. Sir Thomas Gates tried his best to restore order to the colony, but by early June had concluded that the matter was hopeless. He gave the order to bury the cannon and armor and abandon Jamestown.

The few remaining settlers of Jamestown piled into the two pinnaces and set sail for England. However, they were still making their way down the James River when they were met by another supply expedition commanded by Lord De La Warr, the namesake of Delaware. Lord De La Warr had come to serve as the colony’s governor. He promptly returned the colonists to Jamestown, and the settlement began anew.

A New Way of Life

Although the hardships of life in Jamestown were far from exhausted, the timely restoration of the colony gave one of its members an opportunity to forever change the fortunes of the New World.

John Rolfe had been among the members of Sir Thomas Gates’s party. While shipwrecked in Bermuda, he had found an unfamiliar variety of tobacco, which had been planted there countless years before by stranded Spaniards. The English had some experience with tobacco, earlier explorers having brought it back from America beginning in the 1500s. However, this type of tobacco was quite bitter, while the Spanish tobacco in Bermuda seemed mild.

Once safely landed in Jamestown, Rolfe began to experiment with the seeds he had collected in Bermuda. He perfected the harvesting and curing process until the new type of tobacco was sure to withstand a long sea voyage to England. By 1614, he had a product ready for export.

Finally Jamestown could boast of having a profitable commodity. Many of the colonists gave up their other fruitless enterprises and experiments and turned to raising tobacco. The Virginia Company quickly realized the importance of this crop and began to look for ways to promote its growth. The result was the Great Charter, a document outlining a new form of government for the colony. The settlers were granted representation in a General Assembly of their own and, most importantly, they were allowed to own land, rather than hold it in common as they had previously.

The End of Jamestown

The concept of land ownership was not one readily grasped by the Powhatans, however. By the time that the Great Charter was written, Chief Wahunsonacock had died and his brother Opchancanough had come to power. Opchancanough had nursed a sense of his wrongs for years, but he did not vent his feelings in the on-and-off skirmishing of the past. Instead, he worked patiently to earn the trust of the people of Jamestown. All along, however, his plan was to destroy them permanently.

On March 22, 1622, the massacre began, starting with the plantations and working in toward Jamestown itself. A friendly Indian managed to warn the settlement just in time. Still, over 300 people were killed that day, about a third of the English population.

This event, combined with the failure to find gold or to set up any industries other than tobacco farming, finally convinced King James that the Virginia Company was useless for managing the colony. In 1624, he revoked the charter and put all of Virginia directly under the control of the English government, thus creating one of the original 13 colonies.

Jamestown was the capital of Virginia until 1698, when the statehouse was accidentally burned. The General Assembly moved to the town of Middle Plantation, which was later renamed Williamsburg after the reigning king. Jamestown was soon nothing more than a relic of the past.

The Significance of Jamestown

Jamestown: A Unit Study

Jamestown set the stage for the next few periods of American history. It was the first English colony to survive for any length of time, thus giving the British Empire its foothold in the New World. Jamestown also served as a seedbed of ideas for the new nation that eventually arose. Parts of the Great Charter, most notably the concept of a representative government, were adopted into the American Constitution.

It is difficult to point to one event as the birth of America. We could easily select any of the milestones between the arrival of the Vikings and the writing of the Constitution. Nevertheless, the establishment of Jamestown was unquestionably an occurrence of prime importance to the founding of the nation.

Further Investigation

Jamestown Was Established
Brief history from the Library of Congress kid’s site.

A Short History of Jamestown
Background from the National Park Service.

John Smith
Biography from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

John Rolfe
Biography from the National Park Service.

Jamestown Timeline
From the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.


Map of Discoveries
Interactive map to explore Jamestown.

Create the Jamestown Replica
Download includes directions and templates to create a Jamestown diorama.

Jamestown Study Guide
Can be used for narration prompts or wrapping up


Pocahontas by Ingri and Edgar d’Aulaire
Biography from a favorite author/illustrator team for the youngest readers.

The Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith by E. Boyd Smith
Public domain biography of Pocahontas’s life for younger readers.

Richard of Jamestown by James Otis
Wonderful fictional tale of Jamestown told from the viewpoint of a young man who sails with John Smith aboard the Susan Constant and is an eyewitness to the beginning of the colony. John Smith does have hero’s status here. Also available in PDF.

The World of John Smith

The World of Captain John Smith by Genevieve Foster
This series of books reprinted by Beautiful Feet Books presents all that was going on in the world during the period of time the subject lived. Some find that interesting, others feel it makes the books choppy.

Captain John Smith {Free eBook}
Quality historical fiction.

Jamestown, Virginia by Charles E. Hatch
Revised handbook published in 1957 by the Department of the Interior, covers the places, people, and artifacts of Jamestown. Includes suggested reading list and map that would be great for a notebook!

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans

Discovering Jamestown: The Voyage
This lesson plan from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation includes an excellent video explaining the charter, selection of a landing place, and more!

Packing a Trunk for Jamestown
What do you take when planning to travel to settle a new country? Lesson plan from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

Jobs in Jamestown
Lesson plan that includes researching and writing about the various jobs there were for the settlers.

John Smith’s Map of Virginia
Lesson plan from George Mason University that examines the primary source document.

Virginia: A Unit Study
More on what became the state of Virginia in our own unit.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Virginia Map
For locating the Jamestown settlement.

Jamestown Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.