Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 10907
Did the United States begin in 1776? Try 1607! Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement, establishing the first government. Watch and read about the trials the settlers endured and licked!
In the spring of 1607, settlers from England established the first permanent English settlement in North America. The settlement was located at Jamestown, which is in present-day Virginia. Jamestown holds significance in American history because it was not only the first permanent settlement, it also established the first government in North America and laid the foundations for what would become the United States of America.
In 1606, England began looking for ways to expand its wealth and power.
Spain and France had already had success is establishing settlements in the Americas, and the English government decided to commission a team to see if they, too, could find fortune in the new world.
The king issued a charter — a document, written by a sovereign power that defines rights for a group of people — to the Virginia Company of London, granting them permission to establish a settlement in North America, and equipping the settlers with the same rights as Englishmen.
In December 1606, about 100 men set sail on a several-month journey for North America, hoping to find gold and raw materials that could be produced in the Americas and sold in England.
Historians are uncertain exactly when the English settlers arrived at Jamestown, but it is believed they arrived in April or May 1607. The settlers had several reasons for establishing their fort along the banks of the James River.
First, the water was deep enough for the ships to dock. The river also provided fresh water and food. Finally, it was far enough inland that the settlers did not have to worry too much about attacks from the Spanish.
While at first the area appeared to be ideal for establishing a home, it soon proved too good to be true.
It is a miracle that the Jamestown colony survived the first year. The James River provided fresh water to the settlers, but it also provided a breeding ground for mosquitos. Many settlers died from malaria, a disease carried by mosquitos.
Those who did not die from mosquito borne illnesses risked death from the Native Americans and starvation. The Powhatan Indians, who had resided along the James River for centuries, feared the settlers and attacked those who ventured outside the fort.
The winter was a particularly trying time for the settlers, and many died from starvation. The settlers did not come to the new world equipped with farming and hunting skills. Food was so scarce that many historians believe the settlers resorted to cannibalism. During the winter of 1607-1608, also known as the "starving time," more than half of the settlers died.
The likelihood of the Jamestown colony surviving seemed unlikely. Then, in 1608, Captain John Smith arrived at Jamestown, and life at the colony began to improve. Smith became the leader of Jamestown and worked to build positive relationships with the Native Americans.
The Powhatans taught the settlers how to plant crops and hunt for food. They also began trading food for English goods. Once the colonists were taught to grow and hunt food, Smith instituted a policy stating that anyone who did not help with the work would not eat.
The settlers never found gold at Jamestown, but they did learn to grow tobacco. Tobacco became highly valued in England, and helped the English colony to generate substantial profits. By the time John Smith went home to England in 1609, Jamestown looked completely different from when he had arrived a year earlier.
Jamestown is significant because, as the first permanent English settlement, it was the first settlement in what would eventually become the United States. The Jamestown settlement also established the first government in North America.
In 1619, the Virginia Company of London gave the settlement permission to set up its own government. At the time, there were 11 small communities around Jamestown. Each community selected two men who would represent them in creating laws for the settlement.
This lawmaking group was known as the House of Burgesses, and was the first glimpse of democracy — a system of government where the people elect their representatives — in the new world.
To learn more about the first year at Jamestown, watch National Geographic's video entitled The New World: Nightmare at Jamestown and read Social Studies for Kids' article entitled Jamestown: First English Colony in America.
The New World: Nightmare at Jamestown
When you are ready, journey on to the Got It? section for a deeper look into what you have learned so far, and the settlement of Jamestown itself!
Resources Referenced in the Lesson