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The Chesapeake, Virginia

Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, began as a business venture that failed. The Virginia Company of London, a joint stock company organized much like a modern corporation, sent 104 colonists to Chesapeake Bay in 1607. The company wanted to repeat the successes of the Spanish: The colonists were to look for gold and silver, for a passage to Asia, and for other discoveries that would quickly reward investors. If the work was heavy, the colonists were to force indigenous peoples to help them. The composition of the group sent to Jamestown reflected the company’s expectations for life in the colony. Colonists included silversmiths, goldsmiths, even a perfumer, and far too many gentlemen who were unprepared for rugged colonial life.

The colonists found a defensible spot on low ground and named it Jamestown. None of their plans worked out, and the settlers began to die of dysentery and typhoid fever. At the end of the first year, only about one-third remained alive. The Native Americans were troublesome, too. Organized into the large and powerful Powhatan confederacy, they grew tired of demands for food and launched a war against the settlers that continued intermittently from 1609 to 1614.

In 1619 the Virginia Company reorganized. The colony gave up the search for quick profits and turned to growing tobacco. Under the new plan, colonists received 50 acres from the company for paying a person’s passage to Virginia. The new settlers were indentured servants who agreed to work off the price of their passage. Thus settlers who could afford it received land and labor at the same time. In 1624 King James I of England made Virginia the first royal colony. He revoked the Virginia Company’s charter and appointed a royal governor and council, and established a House of Burgesses elected by the settlers. Despite fights with the Powhatan confederacy (about 350 settlers died in one attack in 1622), the Virginia colony began to prosper. It had found a cash crop, a source of labor, and a stable government.

 

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