The Thomas Jefferson Papers

Virginia Records Timeline: 1553-1743



Queen Elizabeth I dies. James I succeeds her.


James I makes peace with Spain.


Christopher Newport makes an exploratory voyage along the North American coast. The English are especially anxious to find a northern route or passage to the South Sea (Pacific Ocean) and the Spice Islands beyond as an alternative to the Spanish-dominated southern route. The size of the North American continent is not yet known and explorers hope to find a water route through it.


King James of England charters the Virginia Company of London and appoints a royal council to oversee its ventures and the colony. Among the charter applicants is Richard Hakluyt, author of the three-volume Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques . . . . (1598-1600). Other applicants are Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers. Company adventurers (investors) include merchants from the west and former soldiers who had fought as mercenaries on the side of the Dutch against the Spanish. The Virginia Company hopes to find a water passage to the South Sea (Pacific Ocean) by exploring tributary rivers and plans to establish a colony in Virginia. Its "brother" company, the Plymouth Company, headed by Sir John Popham, sends an expedition northward to present-day Maine. Instructions Given....

December 20. The first expedition of the Virginia Company, consisting of the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and a small ship, Discovery, all commanded by Christopher Newport, sails from England. Newport, an experienced privateer, has been active in the West Indies since the 1590s. He carries sealed directions from the Company, not to be opened until after the expedition's arrival in Virginia. One-half of the 120 passengers are "gentlemen": a gentleman is not a member of the nobility, but he is generally distinguished from those who practice a trade or profession.

Among the passengers is John Smith (1580-1631), who spends part of the voyage imprisoned for challenging Newport's command.



May 14. Newport and his passengers arrive at Powhatan River, which they rename the James River. One hundred and five men form the first settlement on an island (today, a peninsula) in the James River, initially called "James Fort," then "James Towne" and "James Citie." The site offers a harbor that is deep enough for the colonists' ships and secluded from the view of any Spanish ships that might be offshore. However, it is also swampy, infested with mosquitoes, and lacks sufficient fresh water sources. After eight months there will be only thirty-eight people left alive.

Upon arrival, Newport opens the sealed instructions from the Virginia Company of London. They specify a thirteen-man council, among whose members are John Smith; Newport (who returns to England); John Ratcliffe; George Kendall, a cousin of Sir Edwin Sandys; Edward Maria Wingfield; Anthony Gosnold; Richard Hunt, a minister; John Marten and Sir Richard Marten, both related to Julius Caesar, England's Master of the Rolls. This Council elects a president, Edward Maria Wingfield. Among the passengers are carpenters, a blacksmith, a mason, a tailor, a barber, and two surgeons. The instructions and two incomplete lists of the expeditions' passengers survive in John Smith's Works. Virginia Records Selected Bibliography | Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance Administered to the Colonists

May. A week after landing, Captain Christopher Newport leads a small contingent of men on an exploratory journey up the James River for the first time, in the course of which they meet Powhatan Indians and a tribal leader, Opechancanough. The Powhatans are a confederation of tribes occupying a region from present-day coastal North Carolina to present-day Richmond. Jamestown is in the midst of the territory of the Paspahegh, whose leader or "weroance" is Wowinchopunck. Other nearby tribes are the Kecoughtans at the mouth of the James River, and the Quiyoughcohanocks, Weanocs, Appomattocs, and Chiskiacks, further inland. All these tribes of Virginia's tidewater region are Algonquians.

May 26. Hostilities between the colonists and Indian tribes result in the death of approximately two hundred Indians and several colonists.

June 8. James Fort is attacked by the Paspaheghs, supported by recruits from other tribes. Despite hostilities such as these, Powhatan tribes supply the colonists with food at times of dire need during the next several decades of Jamestown's existence.

July 29. The Susan Constant and Godspeed, which departed Jamestown on June 22, arrive in London. The ships bring mineral samples, which turn out to be base metals rather than gold.

August 17. The Virginia Company meets in London to consider Christopher Newport's report and this first expedition to Virginia. At this time, the Spanish ambassador to England, Don Pedro de Zúñiga, writes Philip III of Spain about the new colony, Jamestown, and the danger of further English incursions in the New World.

August 28. At Jamestown, George Kendall is accused of sowing discord among the colonists, is imprisoned and eventually executed.

September. Wingfield is deposed as president of the governing Council of Jamestown and replaced by John Ratcliff. Food supplies dwindle.

October 8. Christopher Newport sails from England to Jamestown with two supply ships and approximately one hundred additional colonists.

Early December. John Smith leads a party in search of Indians willing to trade or supply the colony with food, especially corn. Indian warriors capture Smith and his men on the Chickahominy River and take him to Werowocomoco on the York River, where the confederation's leader, Powhatan, receives him. According to Smith, he and his party are eventually released because Powhatan's daughter Pocohontas (Matoaka) intercedes with her father to save Smith's life. She would have been ten or twelve at the time.



January 2. John Smith arrives back at Jamestown to find most of the colony boarding the ship Discovery and abandoning the colony to return to England. Fortunately, before they can leave one of Newport's supply ships, the John and Francis, arrives. Newport brings one hundred new settlers.

January 7. A fire destroys many buildings within the Jamestown fort, among them the colony's first church. Most of the colony's provisions are destroyed, including those recently brought in the John and Francis. The other supply ship, Phoenix, is lost. Powhatan provides food for the colony. The Phoenix eventually arrives on April 20. Both supply ships also bring more colonists.

February. John Smith, Christopher Newport, Thomas Savage, and others sail up the York River to meet with Powhatan. They exchange hostages. Thomas Savage remains behind to live with the Powhatans, while an Indian, Namontack, returns with the English to live at Jamestown.

April 10. Newport sails for England on the John and Francis.

April 20. The lost supply ship, the Phoenix, commanded by Francis Nelson, arrives at Jamestown with forty more settlers and supplies.

June 2. The Phoenix sails back to England with a load of cedarwood.

August. The third expedition to Jamestown sails from England. Commanded again by Christopher Newport, the expedition brings an additional seventy colonists to Virginia.

September. The Council elects John Smith as president. He writes a letter to the Company treasurer in London providing an account of the colony's progress. Smith defends the colony against the Company's criticism that the Jamestown Council has not kept London informed--"we feed You but with ifs & ands, hopes, & some few proofes; as if we would keepe the mystery of the Businesse to our selues"--and that he, Smith, has encouraged rather than eliminated disputes and divisions among the colonists. Regarding the latter, Smith argues, "vnless you would haue me run away and leaue the Country, I cannot prevent them," and says that his greater concern is to "make many stay what would els fly any whether." The letter reaches London early in 1609.

October. Newport arrives in Jamestown with the Company's second expedition of supplies and more colonists. Among the colonists are two women, one the wife of Thomas Forest, and the other, her maid, Anne Buras. Dutch and Polish artisans who will establish a glassworks, and artisans experienced in the production of pitch, tar, and other naval stores have also arrived.



Winter to mid-May. The Colony experiences its first extreme food crisis, called "the starving time." Reports circulating in London include incidents of cannibalism. The Virginia Company publicly denies the story.

July. The Mary and John, a ship unconnected to the Virginia Company, arrives at Jamestown. It is the first ship to use Jamestown as a port.

July. The Sea Venture, and accompanying ships, another supply expedition, are destroyed in a hurricane in the West Indies. Survivors find refuge on Bermuda island. The Sea Venture carries new leaders for Jamestown, among whom are Sir Thomas Gates, who had served with the Dutch against Spain, Sir George Somers, and William Strachey. Strachey's account of the storm and the survivors' experiences on Bermuda has long been thought to have inspired Shakespeare's play The Tempest, although some scholars disagree.

May 23. The King recharters the Virginia Company of London, transferring governance and control of the colony from the Crown to the Company itself. The Company replaces the original colonial executive body, the Council, with the office of governor. Later the Council will re-emerge as an upper house of the legislature. The Company has approximately 650 members; twenty are from the nobility and one hundred are knights.

September. John Ratcliffe is killed by the Powhatan Indians after attempting to bargain with them for food supplies at the Pamunkey River.

November. Anne Buras, one of the first two women to arrive in Jamestown, marries John Layden in the first wedding at Jamestown.


Charter for the Virginia Company of London, 1606

enlarge image icon Charter for the Virginia Company of London, 1606., Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. 

Virginia map

descriptive record icon Virginia, discovered and described by Captayn John Smith, 1606; graven by William Hole. (1624) Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. 

Twenty-three-year old Virginia Algonquian man

enlarge image icon Twenty-three-year old Virginia Algonquian man, half-length portrait, wearing necklace and head ornaments, and with facial markings, facing slightly left.