Economic Migration: Jamestown, Virginia

In May of 1607, three British ships landed on the shores of Virginia. On board the Discovery, the Godspeed and the Susan Constant were men, boys and crew members who hoped to better their fortunes in the New World. The ships were loaded with all the supplies they thought might be needed in establishing a colony. The settlers had high hopes as they set out, spurred on by visions of the “mountains of gold” that the Spanish had found. Little did they know what hardships they were set to face.

Obverse and Reverse of the Seal of the Virgini...
Obverse and Reverse of the Seal of the Virginia Company (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While other settlements across America had been largely spurred by other (primarily religious) factors, the colony of Jamestown was established entirely for economic purposes. The economic climate of 16th and 17th century England was undergoing great changes. Many farmers had lost their rented lands and had moved to the cities looking for work. Jobs were few and far between, however, and many of these migrants were forced to beg or steal to survive.

A number of enterprising folks began looking for a solution to the problem, and migration to the New World seemed like a viable and practical option. Establishing new colonies abroad was risky and expensive; however, in many ways it seemed the risks were outweighed by the political and economic benefits.

Early in the 17th century, a group of merchants approached King James as the joint-stock Virginia Company of London. In 1606, they were granted the right to establish colonies in Virginia. Rather than the crown footing the bill for the venture, wealthy men put up the money to buy the ships and supplies needed for the voyage and initial settlement.  A large number of Englishmen became stockholders in the venture, and held high hopes that they would see great returns on their investments in the form of gold and other goods like tar, pitch, oil, and citrus fruits.

Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, comme...
Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, commemorated on the Virginia State Quarter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first 104 settlers arrived in Virginia in 1607. A third of these settlers were “gentlemen” who had been recruited by the financers of the expedition. Many were military men who had fought the Spanish or in the Irish wars. Aside from these came a number of skilled craftsmen, bricklayers and carpenters, a blacksmith, a mason, a minister, a barber, and two surgeons, along with other unskilled workers and common seamen.

Upon arrival, Captain Christopher Newport, commander of the largest ship, opened the sealed orders from the Virginia Company and declared the names of those who had been appointed to run the colony. Edward Maria Wingfield was named president of the colony, and the settlers began the arduous task of establishing themselves in the new land.

Others soon arrived; however, life in the colony was more difficult than expected. Soon the colonists were starving, and over eighty percent of the immigrants died within a year. The Virginia Company was still hoping for a return on their investment, so they put out propaganda to entice more Britons to join the new colony. Another 3,750 were sent off to the supposed land “of milk and honey” in the hope of finding profit.

Unfortunately, the Virginia Company saw very little profit for many years. The settlers struggled to find a profitable product that could be exported. Their search for gold was fruitless, lumber was too expensive to ship, and other small ventures saw little success. The settlers established a fur trade with the Indians; however, even this was not financially lucrative until many years later.

It wasn’t until John Rolfe began to experiment with tobacco that Virginia finally began to turn a profit. Once they had learned to grow and cure the leaves, the colonists gave up all other products to meet the rising demand for tobacco in England. The economy in Virginia was revived as this great cash crop finally brought financial success.


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