Jamestown - The First English Capital

Jamestown started as a fort, placed on an island without permission from the current inhabitants
Jamestown started as a fort, placed on an island without permission from the current inhabitants
Source: National Park Service, Jamestown - Sidney King Paintings, Watching the Colonists Construct James Fort

the tower next to the reconstructed church at Jamestown is the oldest remaining structure at Virginia's first capital

The investors in the Virginia Company named their first town after the king of England, who granted the charter that authorized their business venture. English sea captains were politically-correct as well, and the large tributary known locally as "Powhatan's River" was renamed the James River.

Christopher Newport followed his orders and brought the 104 colonists far upstream from Hampton Roads when selecting the site for Jamestown. The colonial capital struggled through hard times initially. England had experience with settling Ireland, but Virginia was far different.

Powhatan skillfully milked the colonists for ornamental copper and beads, plus the iron tools (hatchets, needles, etc.) that dramatically improved Algonquian agriculture and the manufacture of clothing. He even obtained guns and training to use them. The English were aliens who just appeared without warning in his territory, and Powhatan restricted their expansion outside the settlement for several years.

The English had abandoned Roanoke Island twice in 1584 and again in 1585 before the third colony in 1587 was "lost." Jamestown was abandoned too, in 1610. After the 1609-10 winter known today as the "Starving Time," the English settlers crowded aboard ship and fled Virginia.

They sailed down to the mouth of the James River, headed home in defeat. To their surprise, they met Lord De le Ware's ship, arriving from England with new supplies and new people. The colonists abandoning Virginia had not burned the fort at Jamestown before leaving, and Powhatan had not done so either. The English were able to return to Jamestown and start over again in June, 1610.

The colony struggled along through the first Anglo-Powhatan War in 1609-14, which ended essentially when Powhatan decided to adopt other tactics and signaled peace by allowing his daughter Pocahontas to marry John Rolfe in 1614. Rolfe identified how the colony could make a profit, after he imported sweet-scented tobacco seeds from the West Indies and grew a crop successfully. Tobacco, an agricultural product which had no value as a food, quickly became a wildly marketable product in Europe. The colony had discovered an economic basis for survival, and all open spaces - even the streets of Jamestown, at one time - were planted in tobacco.

Jamestown did not grow into a major population center initially, because the whole colony was slow to grow even after the success of tobacco became clear. To attract immigrants, the Virginia Company allowed colonists to establish a form of self-rule via a House of Burgesses. This ended the martial law imposed by Sir Thomas Dale in 1611. The elected representatives first met in July, 1619, and that group continues today as the General Assembly of Virginia.

The original meeting spot was the church in Jamestown, the largest facility in the colony. The brick Memorial Church on Jamestown Island constructed in 1907, and the reconstructed original version at Jamestown Settlement, show that the largest building was tiny, and cooled only by breezes.

In a society without easy access to soap and running water, where men squeezed tighly to fit into a small confined space with no fans or air conditioning in July, it's not hard to imagine why meetings were short and occasionally tempers would flare. Jamestown was a place where conflicts were resolved, but the process was not elegant.

During the General Assembly meetings, Jamestown smelled - literally. Horses contributed increased levels of manure, and humans splashed their equivalent into outhouses where the groundwater near the surface filled the holes.

The decisionmakers who gathered were men (no women could vote), and in the 1600's they were typically working men with callused hands from physical work on their farms. Their talents in making speeches or negotiating deals varied, but their hygiene was consistently different from modern times. The burgesses did not shower, apply ant-perspirant, and splash on some cologne each morning before gathering in a small space with no air conditioning. By the end of the day, that space would have been ripe with odors.

Settlement around the fort did increase, slowly. The 1622 uprising led by Opechancanough destroyed plantations away from Jamestown, including the settlement at Henricus that might have replaced Jamestow as the capital. Jamestown remained the central developed site in the colony.

Brick houses were built along two new streets parallel to the shoreline east of the old fort site, surveyed by William Claiborne. Town development was spurred by a combination of government mandates and subsidies, and "James Cittie" evolved. Governor Harvie built a substantial home on a New Towne lot, and it served as the statehouse in the 1630's.1

Gov. Harvie's home is #6 on the map of New Towne at Jamestown
Gov. Harvie's home is #6 on the map of New Towne at Jamestown
Source: National Park Service, More Than a Fort: Historic Jamestowne's New Towne

During Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, the statehouse and most of the buildings at Jamestown were destroyed. After looking at the ruins of the town:2

the General Assembly voted to move the capital to Tyndall's Point, on the north bank of the York River opposite Yorktown - a place later known as Gloucester Point.

Tyndall's Point (Gloucester Point), considered as alternative to Jamestown after Bacon's Rebellion
Tyndall's Point (Gloucester Point), considered as alternative to Jamestown after Bacon's Rebellion
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606

The locally-approved move was vetoed by royal authorities in London, however, and the capital stayed at Jamestown. Through the 1690's, Jamestown was still a tiny village with inadequate meeting facilities for the House of Burgesses.

The statehouse in Jamestown burned again on October 20, 1698. The cause may have been arson, a fire caused by a prisoner in jail awaiting execution with nothing left to lose. Destroying the statehouse removed the meeting space for the General Court.3

The General Court was a smaller group than the House of Burgesses, since it consisted of just the governor and his Council of State. The appointed councillors were the wealthy members of the colony, the "upper crust" of the gentry. Despite the greater sophistication and fancier clothing of the people appointed to the Council, the odors in their meeting room would still be considered appalling to modern legislators, lobbyists, and visitors to the General Assembly.

Jamestown was an international port throughout its entire existence, exporting hogsheads of tobacco and importing textiles, metal tools, and other manufactured goods
Jamestown was an international port throughout its entire existence, exporting hogsheads of tobacco and importing textiles, metal tools, and other manufactured goods
Source: National Park Service, Jamestown - Sidney King Paintings, A Shipping Scene

Before the 1698 fire, proposals to move the capital to Middle Plantation nearby had been rejected as requiring too much effort. After the statehouse was destroyed, a team of students at the new College of William and Mary presented a proposal to move the capitol to their site. More significantly, Francis Nicholson was appointed as the new royal governor of the colony.

He had served previously as lieutenant governor in 1690-1692, before being appointed the royal governor for Maryland. Nicholson remained engaged with Virginia as a trustee of the College of William and Mary, so he was familiar with the advantages of Middle Plantation over Jamestown.

As Maryland's first royal governor after the Calvert's lost control over their proprietary colony, Governor Nicholson moved the Maryland capital from St. Mary's City to Annapolis in 1695. He helped design the new capital, and:4

played a leading role in laying out the new town in an imposing, meticulously planned metropolitan style. He did the same for the new capital at Williamsburg, serving as its chief planner and giving it a layout he considered appropriate for the seat of power in a prosperous and flourishing English colony.

The move occurred for multiple reasons. The colonists understood that the swamps at Jamestown were not healthy places. The road network on the Peninsula followed the faster-drying watershed divide, which passed through Middle Plantation.

As part of the decision to move, Middle Plantation was renamed Williamsburg. That honored the current king in London, just as the first settlement in 1607 was named after the king.

The General Assembly voted the necessary funds to construct a new capitol building in the new capital, the seat of government. In Jamestown, the meeting space of the General Assembly was called the Statehouse. The new building in Williamsburg that served as the home of the General Assembly was the first building in North America to be called a "capitol."5

The local county seat for James City County remained at Jamestown for nearly 20 more years, but the island first occupied by English colonists gradually reverted to farmland. By the 1750's, the brick church built sometime in the 1600's was abandoned. The tower survived, but the rest of building collapsed along with all other structures from the colonial period.6

in less than 10 years Jamestown expanded from a fort into a town, with houses aligned along two major streets
in less than 10 years Jamestown expanded from a fort into a town, with houses aligned along two major streets
Source: National Park Service, Jamestown - Sidney King Paintings, Jamestown About 1614 - Aerial View

NOTE: The oldest continuously occupied European capital in North America is Sante Fe, New Mexico - not Jamestown. In 1598, Spanish explorers settled in the Tewa town of Ohkay Owingeh, renaming it San Juan de los Caballeros. The Spanish established the first capital of New Mexico nine years before Jamestown. They moved along the Rio Grande to another town (Yunque), then finally settled at Sante Fe in 1610.

Quebec City could contest the claim of Sante Fe, since that location moved in 1610. Quebec City was founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, after discovering the river narrowed at that point.

Saint Augustine, Florida, settled in 1565, rightly claims to be the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America. Jamestown is famous now as the oldest successful English settlement in North America - but it is a latecomer compared to Spanish settlements, and today Jamestown is just an historic site rather than a settled town.

St. Augustine's status depends upon the qualifiers. Mexico City has been occupied longer than St. Augustine, if you include the original period of settlement that preceded the arrival of Europeans. The town of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic was started by European colonists before St. Augustine, but it is located on the island of Hispaniola rather than on the mainland of the North American continent.

Jamestown is not the oldest continually-occupied anything. It was populated for only a century. It lost most of its residents when the colonial capital moved to Williamsurg in 1699.

by the time Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson produced their map of Virginia, Jamestown was essentially farmland
by the time Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson produced their map of Virginia, Jamestown was essentially farmland
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia (by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, 1755)

Since Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America, why do school children studying the history of the United States focus on Plymouth Rock and the tale of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts? The Separatists (as they were known at the time) arrived in 1620, which was 13 years after Jamestown was settled.

The answer involves the American Civil War, which ended in 1865. During Reconstruction, new public schools were established in the old Confederate states to educate the freed slaves and poor whites. Many teachers for those schools came from the northern states, especially Massachusetts.

After the horrors of the Civil War, those teachers - and many historians - preferred to highlight the heritage of the Mayflower Compact and free association in Massachusetts as the basis for American democracy. The 1619 General Assembly met in Virginia before the colonists arrived in Massachusetts, but the Virginia form of democracy had led to a slave-based economy and a Civil War. The role of the Pilgrims and Puritans, the "latecomers" who settled in Massachusetts, began to receive more attention than the role of the first English colonists in North America.

Spanish Exploration and Settlement in the Southeast Before Ajacan

Spain and Jamestown

Jamestown - Why There?

State Capitol Buildings

Historic Preservation and Tourism at Jamestown



1. "Backstreete - Main Street of Jamestown 1620 - 1699," National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/new-towne-backstreete-main-street-of-jamestown-1620-1699.htm; "The Home of Governor Harvey - 1630s," National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/new-towne-the-home-of-governor-harvey-1630s.htm (last checked October 2, 2016)
2. Alonzo T. Dill and Brent Tartar, "The 'hellish Scheme' to Move the Capital," Virginia Cavalcade, v.33, No.1, Summer 1980 pp.4-11
3. "A Short History of Jamestown," National Park Service, April 2011, https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/a-short-history-of-jamestown.htm (last checked October 2, 2016)
4. Natalie Zacek, "Francis Nicholson (16551728)," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, February 21, 2014, http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Francis_Nicholson_1655-1728 (last checked October 2, 2016)
5. "Capitol," Colonial Williamsburg, http://www.history.org/Almanack/places/hb/hbcap.cfm (last checked October 2, 2016)
6. "17th-century Church Tower," Historic Jamestowne, http://historicjamestowne.org/visit/plan-your-visit/17th-century-church-tower/ (last checked October 2, 2016)

Jamestown was the commercial and shipping center of the colony in the 1600's
Jamestown was the commercial and shipping center of the colony in the 1600's
Source: From Fort to City - Jamestown in 1621 (Keith Rocco painting)

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