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In 1606, a London-based joint-stock company known as the Virginia Company obtained a royal charter from King James I to establish an English colony in the New World. On May 24, 1607, a hundred English settlers landed up the James River and established the colony of Jamestown; both named after King James. The Jamestown settlement was only expected to last for a few years before its investors would liquidate the company for a huge profit. Instead they sparked the beginning of a whole era of English colonization. The Jamestown settlement became the first of many settlements that would appear all along the east coast of North America. Although Jamestown gradually thrived through the production of tobacco, the early settlers faced famine and cultural warfare that almost wiped out the entire settlement. In addition to this, the early Jamestown settlers encountered many other obstacles in the New World, which included death by famine and disease, Native American clashes, and the lack of leadership, and their efforts to overcome these obstacles had changed the colony economically and socially throughout the ensuing century.
When the settlers first disembarked up the James River, they chose to settle on a swamp infested with malaria-carrying mosquitos and this contributed to the diseases which the settlers were susceptible to and therefore contracted. They also lacked the supplies and the food to sustain themselves through the harsh winters, especially through the winter of 1609-1610 which was known as the “starving time”. Eventually, many settlers died from starvation, as well as rampant diseases. According to Document A, George Percy states that the greatest cause of death in the Jamestown settlement was starvation.
In addition to famine and disease, the settlers encountered resentful and ruthless Native Americans whom the former had pushed out from their native lands. The Powhatans had initially come to peace with the settlers thanks to John Smith’s efforts of truce; they provided for the settlers vegetables, fruits, and other foodstuffs. Eventually the colonists became less reliant on and more aggressive towards the Powhatans. The Powhatans eventually attacked and sieged Jamestown killing many livestock and colonists.
The colonists also lacked the leadership to keep them united throughout the first years of the settlement. The colonists had initially been entirely focused on finding gold that they did not look for raw resources and foodstuffs which could have helped them avoid famine. Eventually the settlement is saved when in 1608, John Smith takes charge of Jamestown. He instituted the rule that if a colonist does not work, then he will not be allowed to eat. Smith helped whip the colonists into shape at a time when they needed they needed it the most. Through Smith’s leadership, Jamestown continued to persist.
One of the greatest efforts of these Virginians to overcome the obstacles that they faced was when John Rolf introduced tobacco in Jamestown. Tobacco grew to become a demand in England and many of the Virginians took this opportunity to cultivate their own tobacco for export. According to Document B., tobacco laid the foundations of the colony’s entire economy. The bitter plant sprouted in every garden in Jamestown, and within a few years it soon evolved into miles of plantations all across Virginia. Along with acres of land, the cultivation of this cash crop also demanded a large labor force to harvest the plant. This necessity led to the practice of indentured servitude. Indentured servitude was a contract between a poor individual and a plantation owner. According to Document C., the indentured servant agrees to work for a plantation owner in exchange for the former’s passage to the New World. Along with indentured servants, slaves were also purchased by wealthy colonists to work on their plantations. The introduction of slaves in Virginia and its developing reliance on slave labor sparks the beginning of the slave trade in North America. In reference to Document E., ships of Africans sail to Virginia to appease the colonists’ need for slaves.
The introduction of indentured servitude and slavery in Virginia had social implications as well as an economic role. The existence of indentured servitude created a huge social gap between wealthy plantation owners and poor servants. The colonists who were small farmers placed in between the two on the social hierarchy of Virginia. But the slaves placed below the indentured servants creating an even larger gap between the rich and the poor. This social hierarchy continued to dominate Virginia even a century after the end of the colonial period.
Overall, Virginia grew to become a powerful colony because the Jamestown settlers continued to endure despite the death that resulted from disease, famine, and the vindictive Indians. These challenges faced by the early Jamestown settlers had such a significant influence over the economic and social identity of colonial Virginia.
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