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The colonists, the first group of whom had originally arrived at Jamestown on May 14, 1607, had never planned to grow all of their own food. Their plans depended upon trade with the local Powhatan to supply them with food between the arrivals of periodic supply ships from England.
Lack of access to water and a relatively dry rain season crippled the agricultural production of the colonists. Also, the water that the colonists drank was brackish and only potable half the year. A fleet from England, damaged by a hurricane, arrived months behind schedule with new colonists, but without expected food supplies.
On June 7, 1610 the survivors boarded ships, abandoned the colony site, and sailed towards the Chesapeake Bay, where another supply convoy with new supplies and headed by a newly appointed governor, Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, intercepted them on the lower James River and returned them to Jamestown. Within a few years, the commercialization of tobacco by John Rolfe secured the settlement's long-term economic prosperity.
The English settlement at Jamestown had been established on May 14, 1607, with the arrival of three ships commanded by Captain Christopher Newport. The initial small group of 104 men and boys chose the location because it was favorable for defensive purposes, but it offered poor hunting prospects and a shortage of drinking water. Although they did some farming, few of the original settlers were accustomed to manual labor or familiar with farming. Hunting on the island was poor, and they quickly exhausted the supply of small game. The colonists were largely dependent upon trade with the Indians and periodic supply ships from England for their food.
A series of incidents with the Indians soon developed into serious conflicts, ending any hope of a commercial alliance with them. This forced the settlers into close quarters, behind fortified walls, severely limiting their ability to farm the area and trade with other Indian tribes. Various attempts at farming led to kidnappings and murders by the Powhatans while expeditions to establish relations with other Indians resulted either in the emissaries being ambushed and killed by the Powhatans, or proved fruitless in gaining sufficient supplies. The combination of disease, murder, and kidnapping almost obliterated the initial English population.
After dropping off the settlers, and returning to England, Christopher Newport returned to Jamestown again in January 1608 from England with what was called the "First Supply" and about 100 new settlers. Upon his return, he found that the effects of the lack of planning and lack of skills amongst the original colonists had combined with Powhatan attacks in reducing the original settlement to only thirty-eight survivors.
After expanding fortifications, reinforcing shelters, and placing armed men to defend crops from Indian attacks, Newport felt he had resecured the settlement by the end of winter. Therefore, he sailed for England again in April 1608, returning to Jamestown that October with the "Second Supply". On board were the colony's first two women—Mistress Forrest and her maid Anne Burras—as well as more supplies and additional settlers, including craftsmen trained to make glass.
Among the leaders, Captain John Smith had emerged as most capable of successfully trading with the Natives. Over the first several months of settlement, the survivors (including Smith), had gained sufficient intelligence of the surrounding tribes to start more focused diplomatic initiatives with Powhatan's enemies. Using the Discovery, the smallest of the three ships which had been left behind for their use, the colonists explored the surrounding area including the Chesapeake Bay. Smith successfully traded for food with the Indian Nansemonds, who were located along the Nansemond River in the modern-day City of Suffolk. He had mixed results dealing with the various other tribes, most of whom were affiliated with the Powhatan Confederacy. But for John Smith's efforts, the efforts by Powhatan would have destroyed the entire colony.
With the coming arrival of the new supply fleet, Captain Smith felt the colony was sufficiently reinforced to engage the Powhatan directly with a diplomatic initiative aimed at securing at least a temporary respite from Indian sniping, kidnapping, and assaulting. Taking a small escort they made their way through incessant attacks to the capital of the Powhatan Confederacy. During one legendary encounter with the warrior Opechancanough, his life was spared (according to Smith's later account) by the intervention of Pocahontas, the young daughter of Chief Powhatan.
This event proved fortuitous for the English, as Chief Powhatan was obviously unaware of the dire straits of the Colony. For shortly after Newport returned in early January 1608, bringing new colonists and supplies, one of the new colonists accidentally started a fire that leveled all of the colony's living quarters. The fire further deepened the colony's dependence on the Indians for food, proving to Chief Powhatan the weakness of the English colony.
In August 1609, Smith, who had gained the respect of the Powhatans, was injured in a gunpowder accident and had to return to England for medical treatment, leaving on October 4, 1609. With Smith gone, the Chief Powhatan felt clear to end the truce and he began a campaign to starve the English out of Virginia. The Powhatans stopped trading with the colonists for food.
John Ratcliffe, captain of the Discovery, became colony president and tried to improve the colony's situation by obtaining food. Hoping to emulate Captain Smith, John Ratcliffe attempted a trade mission; shortly after being elected, he was captured by Chief Powhatan and tortured to death, leaving the colony without strong leadership. The Powhatans carried out additional attacks on other colonists who came in search of trade. Hunting also became very dangerous, as they killed any Englishmen they found outside of the fort.
The Sea Venture was the new flagship of the Virginia Company of London. The Virginia Company's "Third Supply" mission was the largest yet, led by the Sea Venture, which had been especially built for the purpose. The Sea Venture was considerably larger than the other eight ships traveling with her. She carried a large portion of the supplies intended for the Virginia Colony.
The "Third Supply" to Jamestown with a nine-vessel fleet left London on June 2, 1609. Veteran Captain Christopher Newport commanded the Sea Venture as Vice Admiral. Also aboard the new flagship were the Admiral of the Company, Sir George Somers, Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Gates, William Strachey and other notable personages in the early history of English colonization in North America.
While crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the convoy transporting 500 new colonists and supplies ran into a severe storm, possibly a hurricane, which lasted for three days. The Sea Venture and one other ship were separated from the seven other vessels of the fleet. Admiral Somers had the Sea Venture deliberately driven onto the reefs of Bermuda to prevent her sinking. The 150 passengers and crew members all landed safely on July 28, 1609, but the ship was now permanently damaged.
In the aftermath of the storm, one ship returned to England. The other seven ships arrived safely at Jamestown, delivering 200–300 men, women, and children, but relatively few supplies, since most had been aboard the large flagship. In the Colony, there was no word of the fate of the Sea Venture, its supplies, passengers, or the leaders who had been aboard her.
Captain Samuel Argall, piloting one of the ships of the Third Supply which made it to Jamestown, was among those who hurried back to England to advise of Jamestown's plight. However, no further supply ships from England arrived that year, nor the following spring.
At Jamestown, a drought earlier in 1609 during the normal growing season had left the fields of the colonists of Virginia barren. Between the lack of trade with the Indians, and the failure of the Third Supply to arrive with expected supplies, the colony found itself with far too little food for the winter. With the new arrivals, there were many more mouths to feed. There are different interpretations as to what occurred during the horrid winter of 1609-1610. Some sources say that the colonists were under siege by the Powhatan Native Americans but the lack of primary documentation reveals the hastiness in that conclusion. Others say that it was a mixture of the drought, harsh winter and deteriorating Native-English relationships or that it was brought on by the English and that it was completely avoidable for various reasons. Hundreds of colonists died horrible deaths from a culmination of different reasons that may never be known.
There are few records of the hardships the colonists experienced in Virginia that winter. Arms and valuable work tools were traded to the Powhatans for a pittance in food. Houses were used as firewood. Archaeologists have found evidence that they ate cats, dogs, horses, and rats. Cannibalism has been confirmed to have occurred in at least one case; the remains of a teenage girl of about fourteen years of age has been forensically analyzed and shown to have telltale marks consistent with butchering meat. A scientist has suggested another sinister possibility: arsenic poisoning.
On Bermuda, shortly after they were shipwrecked, the survivors fitted the Sea Venture's longboat with a mast and sent it to sea to find Virginia; it and its crew were never seen again. The remaining survivors spent nine months on Bermuda building two smaller ships, Deliverance and Patience, from Bermuda cedar and materials salvaged from the Sea Venture. Then, leaving two men to maintain England's claim to the newly discovered archipelago, the remainder sailed to Jamestown, finally arriving on May 23, 1610.
The survivors of the Sea Venture, led by Gates (the new governor) and George Somers, assumed they would find a thriving colony in Virginia. Instead, they found the colony in ruins and practically abandoned. Of the 500 colonists living in Jamestown in the autumn, they found 60 survivors with many of those sick or dying. Worse yet, many supplies intended for Jamestown had been lost in the shipwreck at Bermuda, and Gates and Somers had brought along with them only a small food supply.
Viewing the fort, we found the palisades torn down, the ports open, the gates from off the hinges, and the empty houses (which owners had taken from them) rent up and burnt, rather than the dwellers would step into the woods a stone's cast off from them to fetch other firewood. And it is true, the Indians killed as fast without, if our men stirred but beyond the bounds of their blockhouse, ...
It was decided to abandon the colony. On June 7, 1610, everyone was placed aboard the ships to return to England, and they began to sail down the James River.
During the period that the Sea Venture suffered its misfortune, and its survivors were struggling in Bermuda to continue on to Virginia, back in England the publication of Captain John Smith's books of his adventures in Virginia sparked a resurgence of interest in the colony. This helped lead to new interest and investment in the Virginia Company. There was also a moral call in England by clergymen and others for support for the stranded colonists.
On April 1, 1610, three more ships were dispatched from England bound for Jamestown, equipped with additional colonists, a doctor, food, and supplies. Heading this group was the new governor, Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, better known in modern times as "Lord Delaware".
Governor West and his party arrived on the James River on June 9, just as the Deliverance and Patience were sailing downriver to leave Virginia. Intercepting them about 10 miles downstream from Jamestown near Mulberry Island (now a part of the massive U.S. Army Base at Fort Eustis in Newport News), the new governor forced the Deliverance and Patience to return to the abandoned colony. This was not a popular decision at the time, but Lord Delaware was to prove a new kind of leader for Virginia.
Among the survivors of the Sea Venture who arrived at Jamestown in May 1610, and were turned back by Lord Delaware, was a young Englishman named John Rolfe. His wife and young daughter had perished during the journey and delay at Bermuda. While it can be said that Lord Delaware literally turned the colonists around, it could be equally said that John Rolfe (among the group sent back to Jamestown on June 9) was the individual most responsible for turning the failing economy of the young colony around. His fortunes and those of the Colony were both about to change.
Rolfe, a businessman from London, had planned to become a planter upon arrival in Virginia, and had some new ideas about exporting tobacco for profit. He knew that the native tobacco from Virginia was not liked by the English settlers, nor did it appeal to the market in England. However, he brought with him some seeds for several new strains of tobacco to experiment with. Using the sweeter strains, Rolfe is credited with being the first to commercially cultivate Nicotiana tabacum tobacco plants in North America in 1611; the export of this sweeter tobacco beginning in 1612 helped turn the Virginia Colony into a profitable venture. Soon, Rolfe and others were exporting substantial quantities of the new cash crop. New plantations began growing up all along the James River, from the mouth at Hampton Roads all the way west to Henricus, and on both sides of the river, where export shipments could use wharves to ship the product.
John Rolfe became prominent and wealthy, and soon held an interest in several plantations, including a large farm on Mulberry Island, just ashore from where Lord Delaware had met the group departing Jamestown only a few years earlier. John Rolfe is said to have founded Varina Farms near Sir Thomas Dale's progressive new city of Henricus and in 1614, he married Chief Powhatan's daughter, the Native American princess Pocahontas, who had converted to Christianity and taken the name Rebecca. The couple had one son named Thomas Rolfe, who was born in 1615.
The arrival of Lord De la Warr with a substantial armed force of pilgrims filled with patriotic fervor spreading Protestantism and the English, resulted in a counter-offensive against the Powhatan Confederacy. The campaign ended the Powhatan siege and resulted in the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe which introduced a short period of truce between the English and the Powhatan Confederacy. Although the truce was a short one, it allowed the English to fully secure the colony's fortifications and housing, expand its farming, develop a network of alliances with other Indian nations, and establish a series of outlying smaller settlements. The Powhatan Confederacy attempted two other wars against the English, including the Second Powhatan War which was initiated by the Massacre of 1622 and the Third Powhatan War which was initiated by another surprise massacre of the colony's vulnerable women and children. However, each attack was met with stiff resistance, a counter-offensive, severe reprisals and eventual defeat of the Powhatan Confederacy. After almost forty years of tenuous existence surrounded by a general hostile Indian nation, the Virginia Colony emerged victorious and effectively devastated the Powhatan nation and broke up the Confederacy by 1646.
Through the descendants of Thomas Rolfe, many of the First Families of Virginia almost 400 years later trace their lineage to both the Native Americans of the Powhatan Confederacy and the English-born settlers of Jamestown. With tobacco as a successful export crop, the financial future and permanency of the Virginia Colony was assured.