Timeline United States

Roanoke and Jamestown

When Spain and France started exploring and settling the American continent, it wasn’t too long until England jumped in. 

Not wanting to be left behind, but also not wanting to have to compete with their fellow European powers, the English focused their efforts on North America. Specifically, they started the east coast of what is now the United States. 

The first to do this for the English was Giovanni Caboto, also known as John Cabot, in 1497. He explored much of what is now the northeastern US and Canada. After him came Giovanni da Verrazzano, in 1522. He explored the area around modern New York down to the Chesapeake Bay and what is now North Carolina. 

During his voyage, he spotted what he thought was an isthmus, or a thin piece of land, connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific. Thinking Asia was just on the other side, Verrazzano and the people who financed his vision targeted this area for settlement.

Verrazzano turned out to be very wrong. These were actually the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and there was still a whole continent in between these two world oceans.

His error, though, wound up inspiring the English to try and settle this land they thought connected the Atlantic and Pacific. This marks the beginning of their permanent presence in North America, but it took a few tries to make this happen.

Attempt #1: Roanoke

The first real English attempts to colonize North America came in 1585 AD at Roanoke Island, on the coast of what is now North Carolina. 

Today, this colony is called the “Lost Colony” because it failed horribly. Food shortages and hostile Native Americans made life extremely difficult. 

The English didn’t give up immediately. They sent multiple resupply missions in the years after first landing on Roanoke Island. But during one of the final efforts, the arriving English colonists found a deserted camp and the word “CROATOAN” carved into a tree. The name of a nearby indigenous group, this was taken as a sign that the English were not welcome. 

The Roanoke colony was abandoned. 

Attempt #2: Jamestown

Roanoke failed, but this did not dampen the English spirit for colonization.

The next attempt came in 1607 when a group of wealthy London merchants organized under the Virginia Company. They all pitched in the money needed to finance a trip aimed at establishing a permanent settlement. 

Learning from what happened to Roanoke, the Virginia Company had three main criteria for a new settlement. 

First, it had to be surrounded by water on three sides but not be an island. Second, it had to have access to deep water so that English ships could use it as a port. Third, it had to be uninhabited. This last requirement was set to avoid the tragedy that had happened to Roanoke. 

In the fall of 1607 AD, around 100 men landed on the banks of Virginia and eventually chose a small island on the eastern banks of the James river (as they called it) for their new home.

Later, it was learned that this particular patch of land was uninhabited because the people living there didn’t think it was a viable spot. There wasn’t enough water and the soil was not good for farming. 

Too bad the settlers didn’t know that… 

As a result, the first few years of life in Jamestown were rough. Almost everyone died in the first winter, and the subsequent ones weren’t much better. It didn’t help that few of the original settlers had the skills needed to survive. Most were wealthy landowners looking to get rich, or poor beggars from the streets of London sent to work.

It wasn’t until John Smith’s  “don’t work, don’t eat” mandate that forced people to put in the effort required to survive in this harsh environment. 

Essentially, Smith, who was governor at the time, made work a requirement for receiving meals. Too many of Jamestown’s upper-class residents weren’t willing to do what was needed to survive, and this put everyone at risk. This rather strict policy basically forced everyone into action. This, plus the end of the drought from the first year helped things slowly improve. By 1612, the population was starting to grow. 

While no one lives there today, this small colony was the first permanent English settlement in North America.

Tobacco Enters the Scene

Remember, the whole point of Jamestown was to make money for the original investors. The hardships of the first few years made this impossible, but things changed in 1614. A man named John Rolfe, already wealthy and established, decided to plant some tobacco seeds he had acquired in Bermuda.

To his surprise, it grew exceptionally well in the hot humid climate of Virginia, and what he sent back to England for people to smoke was of higher quality and less expensive than what was available at the time. Demand for it quickly grew.

Rolfe decided that this should be the primary focus of the colony, and he arranged for more and more land to be used to grow tobacco which he could export back to England and make tons and tons of money. 

This was America’s first cash crop. This is a term used for agriculture that is grown to be sold in the market. It’s not just food for subsistence. But it would not be its last. The success of the tobacco plant in America inspired countless others to pursue profit through the planting of crops such as sugar, rice, and perhaps most lucratively, cotton. 

Success in Virginia: The Good and the Bad

The success of the tobacco crop and its value as a trade good helped make Jamestown a success but also inspired further colonization of America. 

It proved that treasure could be found in America. Though it wasn’t the gold or silver most people thought was there, it was treasure nonetheless.

This helped spread the idea that moving to North America could lead to economic success for anyone, which motivated thousands and thousands of people to move to North America. 

Tensions with Native Americans

The actions of the English after settling Jamestown made it clear to the Native Americans that Europeans had little interest in being friends. In many ways, it marked the beginning of their end.

As Jamestown grew, and more and more land was used for planting tobacco, the English began occupying lands that belonged to nearby tribes. 

This led to conflicts, many of which the English won. But disease was the real killer, wiping out Natives in swaths and leaving the lands they’d hoped to take largely empty. 

The Arrival of Slaves

The Arrival of Slaves

The potential profits of tobacco and other cash crops helped these industries boom. But the people who owned the land needed people to work it if their whole plan had any hope of being successful. 

Their solution: slavery. , Early Virginian landowners imported human slaves from Africa, the first arriving in 1619 AD. 

As cash crop production grew in Jamestown, Virginia, and many of the rest of the American colonies, so too did the slave population. Eventually, the slave population of the Southern Colonies was between 30 and 45 percent of the entire population.  

One Type of Colony

The emphasis on cash crops and the use of slave labor defined the southern English colonies. After Jamestown and the much larger Virginia colony came North and South Carolina, and Georgia. With climates favorable to cash crops, these colonies became focused on their production. 

Slavery grew and society quickly became divided primarily into landowners and slaves with relatively few people in between. 

Written by Matthew Jones

Illustrated by Jean Galvao