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Trouble with ‘The Naturals’ at the Jamestown Colony

Military History

Trouble with ‘The Naturals’ at the Jamestown Colony

On April 26, 1607, three small ships arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake to establish Jamestown Colony, the first permanent English New World settlement.

On April 26, 1607, three small ships arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake to establish Jamestown Colony, the first permanent English New World settlement.

by Eric Niderost

The Jamestown Colony project was financed by the Virginia Company of London, a group of well-to-do merchants and nobles who expected to see a healthy return on their investments. Virginia was surely a terrestrial paradise, a storehouse of unlimited wealth just waiting to be exploited. There were stands of timber and other natural resources. But most of all, company stockholders hoped the colonists would find precious metals such as gold. Over a century of European exploration had not dimmed hopes that America was really the gateway to Asia. The expedition was to try and find a route to the “South Sea” (Pacific Ocean) and a path to the riches of China and India.

Unforseen Dangers

Company officials were not unmindful of the dangers involved in such an enterprise. Spain considered North America its private domain, to be jealously guarded against outside European encroachment. England and Spain had been bitter rivals for decades; in fact, an open war had broken out in 1588 that had only ended in 1604. Company instructions were precise; the colonists were to build a fort at least a hundred miles inland to avoid the possibility of a Spanish surprise attack.

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There was also the problem of the American Indians, called “the naturals” in company documents. The colonists were strictly enjoined not to “offend the naturals”; this was not just advice, but the cornerstone of company policy. The site chosen for the colony was to have no native inhabitants, thus to avoid unnecessary friction. This was a commercial venture, and war is costly in blood and treasure. Quite apart from any other considerations, there was also a vague—and it turned out, largely vain—hope that the local Indians might be converted to Christianity and become Anglicans.

Trouble in Paradise

The first landfall was named “Cape Henry” by the weary travelers, and soon after a landing party was organized to go ashore. After four months of cramped conditions on board, there was no lack of volunteers for the mission. Captains Christopher Newport and Gabriel Archer led about 30 men ashore; the English “ravished” at the sight of bubbling streams and towering trees.

But there was soon trouble in this paradise. After a day of exploring, stretching their legs, and generally enjoying themselves, the English decided to go back to the ships at nightfall. But before they could leave, Indians creeping up “on all fours, from the hills like bears” suddenly attacked. The natives peppered the newcomers with arrows, wounding Captain Archer in the hand and injuring a sailor named Matthew Morton “very dangerously.” The attack was blunted by a scattering of musket shot, the Indians covering their retreat with a defiant chorus of shouts.

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