The Jamestown Experiment

After months crossing the Atlantic and then weeks exploring the Virginia coast, English settlers anchored at Jamestown on this day in 1607. When the 104 colonists disembarked the next day, they established what would be the first permanent New World settlement.

The colonists were a mixed group of English patriots, Protestant proselytizers, and adventure capitalists. If most of them arrived in America “with pure hearts and empty heads, expecting to find riches, welcoming natives, and an easy life” (Love and Hate in Jamestown, David Price), their colony’s rough start and prolonged struggles might have been predicted. But ultimate success might also have been predicted, given that many of the new arrivals belonged to a new generation of “gentlemen adventurers” — free-spirited, profit-seeking men with little tolerance for “the authoritarian model of absolute leadership and the communitarian methods of living”:

The solution to the troubles at Jamestown were rooted in the entrepreneurial spirit that would shape and define the American character. Private property, individual initiative, personal incentives to seek profit, and the freedom to pursue one’s own happiness — these are the traits that helped the colony survive and built a nation. (The Jamestown Experiment, Tony Williams)

But circumstance would also play a crucial role in the colony’s survival, most famously when the legendary intervention of Pocahontas saved John Smith. Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith’s The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown describes a different sort of intervention, one that occurred off the Bermuda coast in 1609. Sailing as part of a supply mission to the beleaguered Jamestown colony, the Sea Venture had run aground in a violent hurricane. Miraculously, all those aboard saved themselves and survived for months on Bermuda before eventually building new ships and making it to Jamestown, to widespread amazement:

The story of the safe deliverance of the shipwrecked Sea Venture swept through London in the fall of 1610 with the force of providential truth. For the passengers and crew to have survived the horrific hurricane in the western Atlantic and ten months on an uninhabited “isle of devils,” and then to safely arrive in Jamestown to help save the colony after its “starving times” winter — such a journey could only be explained by divine providence.

The well-publicized story of the Sea Venture not only “paved the way for England’s continual commitment to a transatlantic empire” but inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at