Jamestown Day is commemorated on May 8. Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in America. This year marks the 415th anniversary of its founding. Today, it’s composed of two cultural heritage sites. Historic Jamestown is the archeological site on Jamestown Island. Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum that recreates the original James Fort, a Powhatan Native American town. It has replicas of the original settlers’ ships: the “Susan Constant,” “Godspeed,” and “Discovery.” In addition, Indigenous Arts Day is also celebrated that day in Jamestown Settlement. Music, dance, and traditional and contemporary Native American art are shown and are available for purchase.
History of Jamestown Day
In 1606, English colonists set sail to establish a colony in the New World. The fleet consisted of the ships Susan Constant, Discovery, and Godspeed. There were no women on the first ships. They made landfall on April 26, 1607, at a place they named Cape Henry. The men had a small skirmish with natives in the area. On May 17, Captain E.M. Wingfield decided on an uninhabited piece of land on a large peninsula as the location for a fortified settlement. Since it had a channel to the James River, they named this settlement “Jamestown.”
Things were very tough there. Many of the first settlers were gentlemen, unaccustomed to manual labor or farming, and they found the going difficult. The site was plagued by mosquitoes which gave them malaria. There was very little wild game on the peninsula, and they were all hunted out. The water was undrinkable. The land was too poor for farming, and the local tribes continuously attacked them. It was Captain John Smith’s leadership that kept them going. In December 1607, while gathering food, Smith’s men were killed by the Powhatan tribe, but he escaped by tying their guide to himself as a shield. The accounts he gave of his relationship with “Pocahontas” were disputed as he only spoke of it 17 years after the so-called incidents. She did bring food and aid to the settlement and procured the release of captured Indians. Smith’s leadership led to artisans and workers from different nations being sent to the new colony.
In 1609, Smith suffered a serious injury in an explosion and was sent back to England. Without him, a harsh winter followed. The colony fell into what is known as Starving Time. When help finally arrived, only 60 out of 500 settlers remained in Jamestown. Jamestown seemed doomed, but things changed drastically in 1814 when John Rolfe started exporting new tobacco seeds he had brought from Bermuda. It was a success in London, and the demand grew exponentially. Rolfe, now wealthy, married Pocahontas. She had been abducted by the colonists and had converted to Christianity. Her name was changed to Rebecca. This brought several years of peace between the English and the Powhatan. Tobacco became popular all over Europe, and by 1619, Jamestown was booming. The first representative assembly in America, the General Assembly, convened that year in the Jamestown Church, “to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia” which would provide “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.”
Jamestown Day timeline
Captain Wingfield, elected president of the colonists’ governing council, decides on this uninhabited land as the location for England’s first permanent colony.
While gathering food, Smith is ambushed and his men killed, but he escapes.
With a particularly harsh winter, famine sets in and only 60 survivors remain by the time help arrives.
The General Assembly comes together in Jamestown and plan to establish a single uniform government for the entire Colony of Virginia.
This finally changes things for the better for Jamestown and Rolfe.
Jamestown Day FAQs
Was there gold in Jamestown Virginia?
The settlers never found gold, so they needed to find another way to support the colony. This ended up being tobacco.
How did Jamestown end?
In 1676, Jamestown was deliberately burned during Bacon’s Rebellion, though it was quickly rebuilt. In 1699, the colonial capital was moved to what is known today as Williamsburg, Virginia.
Who was the first baby born in Jamestown?
The first English woman to marry in the New World was Anne Burras, an ancient planter, and her daughter, Virginia Laydon, was the first child of English colonists to be born in the Jamestown Colony.
How to Observe Jamestown Day
Enjoy Jamestown Settlement museum galleries
On Jamestown Day, there will be a variety of immersive gallery exhibits, with 500+ artifacts, short films, and interactive displays. These tell the history of the Virginia Company and examine the relationship between English colonists and the Powhatan natives. Traditional and contemporary Native American art is also displayed in the courtyard.
Adjacent to Jamestown Settlement, here you can visit historic buildings, ruins, and monuments. Visit the Voorhees Archaearium, located over the excavated remains of the last Statehouse in Jamestown. This is a museum with excavated artifacts and exhibits about Jamestown.
Visit Jamestown online
If you are unable to visit Jamestown itself, make use of Jamestown Online. That way you and your family will be part of the history from the comfort of your homes.
5 Facts About Jamestown That Will Surprise You
Originally founded for monetary reasons
King James I of England granted the Virginia Company a charter to settle the Virginia Colony, send gold back home to England, and try to find another route to Asia.
Home to first African slaves in America
They arrived in August 1619 and became indentured servants, like many poor Englishmen that exchanged years of work for passage to America.
Bodies were buried in unmarked graves
This was a demand by the Virginia Company to conceal the colony’s decline in manpower.
Mail-order brides helped populate Jamestown
Women didn’t want to join men in Jamestown because they heard terrible things about the state of the colony, so many incentives were advertised to lure them.
Jamestown's charter was revoked in 1624
This was due to the high mortality rate because of disease, mismanagement, and Native American raids.
Why Jamestown Day is Important
It’s a chance to reflect on relationships
The world has changed a lot since these first encounters, but a lot of prejudice and exploitation still exist. It is important to acknowledge this and move into relationships of mutual respect.
The United States of America is born
It was the first successful English colony, spreading the culture across the continent. The creation of the elected Jamestown House of Burgesses in 1619 was also an early step toward the American system of representative government.
It’s a day to educate differently
There are many child-friendly activities in Jamestown to commemorate this day. It’s a day that symbolizes both the good and bad of our past. Families need to teach their children and help them understand.
Jamestown Day dates