We explored both the historic Roanoke and Jamestown settlement sites while in Virginia and northern North Carolina. These were the locations of the first attempts of England to settle in North America. Roanoke settlement was a complete failure and Jamestown settlement was a huge struggle. The national park service and Virginia both had great exhibits at and near the settlement locations. We found out some things that Hollywood got flat wrong about Roanoke and Jamestown during our visit. Overall it was very entertaining and educational.
The Spanish had a head start in extracting wealth from the New World. The New World was what North and South America was called. Extracting wealth was on everyone’s mind at the time. The Spanish got a head start by backing Christopher Columbus. An interesting fact is that Columbus first approached Portugal for support.
Portugal rejected backing the Columbus exhibition based on the fact that Columbus projected the distance to be at 2400 miles which could not possibly reach the Orient. The idea that the earth was flat was not even a concern. It was an established navigation fact, known for centuries that given enough distance, circumnavigation of the globe would be fine.
As a side note, the Vinland Map, which “proved” that the Norse visited Newfoundland well before Columbus, has been determined to be a modern forgery. The Norse may have visited the coast of Canada before Columbus, but in all documents, they stated that they considered it too far and too risky. The Norse rejected the idea of exploration further to the west of Greenland.
Spain ruled the seas
By the time that the English starting getting adventurous, Spain had already established missions in Mexico and Florida and explored most of what is now known as Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Sir Walter Raleigh financed the Roanoke colony attempt in 1583 almost a hundred years after 1492. Portugal had established colonies in South America. Spain was in full wealth extraction mode by the time the English attempted to establish the Roanoke settlement.
Spanish settlement in Virginia
In 1570 the Spanish tried to establish a settlement on what is now called the York River. It failed. The accepted history of this settlement is that the Indian tribes in the area killed all the settlers in an attack.
The first Roanoke settlement
To make the story short, the English attempted to settle at the north end of what is now known as Roanoke Island in 1583. Due to a lack of supplies, three years after the settlement was established, the entire settlement was evacuated by Sir Frances Drake in 1586.
The lost Roanoke settlement
A second attempt to establish a colony was made two years later. In this case, due to a lack of food, the leader went back to England to get some more supplies. When he returned in 1590 the entire Roanoke settlement was abandoned. The houses were dismantled and carried off. Even today no one knows where the settlers went. They were never found.
With full knowledge of the failure at Roanoke, the English attempted settlement again in 1607. This time the chosen site was at Jamestown on the James River (both named for King James). This location wasn’t ideal due to its lack of good water and a good place to grow crops. This time however resupply was timely and several trips from England to the settlement were made successfully. Part of the reason that the Jamestown site was chosen by the settlers was due to it being hidden from the Spanish. The Spanish wanted to and tried to settle Virginia.
John Smith was elected by the colony as the first Governor of Virginia in 1608. Unlike the story presented in more than one Hollywood movie, Smith was not married to Pocahontas. Most likely, John Smith was also not rescued from the wrath of her father by Pocahontas. Pocahontas’s father was the Chief of the Powhatan. John Smith returned to England in 1609 never to return to Virginia.
Pocahontas was married to John Rolfe, an Englishman, and Jamestown settler. She made the trip to England with him where she died in 1617.
The Jamestown settlement numbered about 700 people in 1619. Our campsite was just across the river from the Jamestown settlement at Chippokes. The Chippokes plantation site was used by the Jamestown settlers to grow food starting in 1619. The Chippokes location held much better promise as a settlement site than the Jamestown site. Chippokes had the ability to harbor sailing ships and provided the agriculture that Jamestown struggled with.
Slavery started in Jamestown in 1619 in late summer when an English-owned privateer ship flying Dutch colors delivered the first Africans to the colony. The slaves were from Angola and were first captured by the Portuguese. Their original destination was Veracruz in Mexico. While enroute, the slave ship was intercepted by the privateers (government-backed pirates) who took the cargo (slaves) to Point Comfort near the mouth of the James River. The privateers sold these slaves to the colony in trade for food. Technically, these first slaves were sold as indentured servants. The conditions of enslavement, treatment, and their future proved that these servants fit the definition of slaves.
The one product that fueled settlement in Jamestown and provided for export to England was tobacco. The Virginia coast was ideal for growing tobacco and even though other food items grow well, tobacco was the gold. Since tobacco is a crop that requires lots of work, slavery became an ever more important part of the tobacco trade.
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Links to places mentioned in this article.