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Most of Powhatan's people (known by the colonists as the Powhatan Indians) lived in villages of a few hundred inhabitants surrounded by large tracts of cleared land: cornfields and former cornfields. Except for defensive palisades, the landscape was unfenced. By a quirk of evolutionary history, North America had, except for dogs, no large domesticable mammals; its native species, such as bison and deer, could not be tamed. With no horses, cattle, sheep, goats, or chickens to tend, villagers had no need to enclose their fields.

Between the villages was the forest, splendid with chestnut and elm but hardly untouched. "It was touched, and sometimes heavily," says Donald Young, an ecologist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. In the fall, Indians burned the underbrush, keeping the forest so open and parklike, colonist John Smith wrote, that "a man may gallop a horse amongst these woods." With Indian villages dotting the region's many riverbanks, the Chesapeake Bay was a jumble of farm fields, marshes, deep forest, and secondary forest (young trees growing on abandoned plots). Jamestown peninsula was an example of the last; it had been cleared, perhaps for farm fields, a generation or two before the English arrived.

The new colony was a private enterprise funded by a group of venture capitalists called the Virginia Company. Much like investors in today's dot-com start-ups, the backers wanted a quick return. They believed, incorrectly, that the Chesapeake Bay region was laden, like Mexico and Peru, with vast stores of gold and silver. The goal was to acquire these precious metals as expeditiously as possible. Spain, too, believed that gold and silver could be found there. It had long ago claimed what is now the U.S. East Coast for itself and in 1570 had planted a mission a few miles north of Jamestown.

The local Indians wiped out that mission. English colonists who settled on Roanoke Island 110 miles (180 kilometers) south of Jamestown in the 1580s may also have met their end at the hands of a native group—very possibly the Powhatan. Nonetheless the Virginia Company directors worried more about protecting their investment from distant Spain than from the Indians. They instructed the colonists—their employees, in today's terms—to settle far from the ocean, "a hundred miles [160 kilometers] from the river's mouth," which would minimize the chance of sudden assault by Spanish ships. And they told them to make sure the settlement was close to a deepwater anchorage, so they could lay up "provisions with ease." In all they did, the directors warned, the colonists should act with "great care not to offend the naturals [Indians]."

Jamestown was the result. Not wanting to antagonize Powhatan, the newcomers—tassantassas (strangers), as the Indians called them—looked for uninhabited ground. Because native villages occupied all the good land upriver, the colonists ended up picking a site about 35 miles (55 kilometers) from the mouth of the James. It was a peninsula near a bend in the river, at a place where the current cut a deep channel so close to the shore that oceangoing ships could be moored to the trees.

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