Sunday, December 16, 2018

Jamestown Struggles to Survive in 1614-1619

Last month I shared how even the gentlemen farmers in Jamestown in the 1600s had to learn to work if they intended to eat. But one crop wasn’t exactly for nourishment.

By 1614, John Rolfe’s experimentation of growing tobacco paid off when a variety of West Indian tobacco flourished in Virginia. Even those who’d spent their earlier years searching for gold started “rooting” in the ground to grow the weed, going so far as to plant tobacco in the streets of Jamestown. In those early years, tobacco was almost worth its weight in silver and was sometimes even used as currency.

From the beginning, the settlers were hired employees of the Virginia Company. They lived in company towns, bought supplies from the company store, and cultivated company ground with company supplied tools. But things began to change when Governor Dale allowed each settler three acres to grow his own crops. He also reduced the work load exacted by the company to one month a year provided the settler paid a tax of two and a half barrels of corn annually.

But even those concessions to the future of the settler’s lives didn’t negate the fact that the wilderness area of Virginia had acquired a reputation of a misery and death back in England. Few Englishmen of any means were willing to risk their lives in the “inferno” that was Jamestown since the settlers were dying faster than they could be replaced.

Governor Dale proposed to the Virginia Company that they replenish the colony by emptying the jails of England. The governor said that the felons wouldn’t be any worse than the “abandoned wretches” already in Jamestown. King James I gave his consent and gave the company permission to select 100 of the likeliest-looking convicts to send to the New World. Whether these convicts had any say in the matter is left to speculation, but it is likely they had no choice in the matter. In 1615, the king issued a proclamation ordering the transportation of the felons to Virginia. Those convicted of rape, murder, burglary or witchcraft were ineligible for transportation.

Orphaned street children were also rounded up off the streets of London to serve as apprentices in the colony. Understandably, many of the children refused to go and had to be forced to board the ship. While a new life in a new land might seem to be a good move for these street children, it’s no wonder that they were terribly frightened to cross the vast ocean on the flimsy promise of a better life.

Regardless of how they felt about the matter, inevitably the felons and the street kids were shipped to Virginia. But what the colony needed more than a horde of lonely felons and street-smart kids was … women.

Join me next month on the 16th to see how Governor Dale, the Virginia Company, and King James resolved this perplexing problem.

CBA Bestselling author PAM HILLMAN was born and raised on a dairy farm in Mississippi and spent her teenage years perched on the seat of a tractor raking hay. In those days, her daddy couldn't afford two cab tractors with air conditioning and a radio, so Pam drove an Allis Chalmers 110. Even when her daddy asked her if she wanted to bale hay, she told him she didn't mind raking. Raking hay doesn't take much thought so Pam spent her time working on her tan and making up stories in her head. Now, that's the kind of life every girl should dream of.


  1. Thanks for this post. I don't think that this part of colonizing the United States has been highlighted as you are doing. We think of America as the land of promise and tend to forget that there were many hardships and sacrifices made on the way to that. Merry Christmas!