Jamestown was the first successful English colony in the modern United States and set the conflicted tone for the future: a place which mixed idealism about democracy and freedom with slavery and conflict with Indians.
English colonists had tried and failed to set up home here before, most infamously at Roanoke, but in April 1607 finally gained a foothold which defeated starvation and drought in its first few months to become permanent.
It was named after King James I, the English king, and the first settlers came in three ships on a four month voyage which started in 1606.
They were welcomed by the Indians with dancing and tobacco, but by the end of 1607, as many as two-thirds of the English were dead thanks to attacks by Indians who had become hostile, and the fact the colonists arrived too late to plant crops – and anyway, too many were gentlemen who lacked practical skills.
Virginia past: A painting suggesting how Jamestown was in the early 1600s when it was the first successful English settlement
The Indians locally were led by Powhatan, and his daughter Pocahontas was to become a key part of history, when Smith was captured late in 1607 by one of her father’s relatives.
Smith was later to relate to Queen Anne that she intervened to stop his brains being beaten out and ‘hazarded the beating of her own brains to save mine,’ securing his release and safe return to Jamestown.
In 1608, England sent supplies, gold, and more importantly skilled laborers and slowly, the colony started to thrive.
But then came the the ‘Starving Time’ of 1609 and 1610 – with scientific evidence now showing evidence of cannibalism among the settlers.
Also in 1609, colonists captured Pocahontas and held her for a year; she learned English and converted to Christianity.
By June 1610 there were just 60 survivors and ships were ready to take them to safety in Bermuda when another fleet arrived with supplies and men.
Among them were John Rolfe, who brought with him tobacco seeds from Trinidad which he started to farm upstream of Jamestown.
He became prosperous and wealthy and in 1614 married Pocahontas, the first recorded marriage between colonists and Indians, and they had a son the following year.
Eight years known as the Peace of Pocahontas followed – but not for the couple, who traveled to England in 1616; when they planned to return in March 1617 they got as far as Gravesend, Kent,just outside London, where Pocahontas died. John and their son returned to Virginia and thrived; they still have descendants in the United States.
By 1619, the colony was prospering, and ideals of democracy and religious freedom were being proclaimed – leading to the General Assembly being founded in July 1619.
The assembly was formed after the colonies introduced private property rights – which included the right to own slaves – and established that English common law was the law of the land.
Contested history: A woodcut showing the kidnapping of Pocahontas, the Indian princess who went on to marry John Smith in Jamestown before being taken to England and dying
The assembly, in the House of Burgesses, was ‘to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia’ and provide ‘just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting,’ but only free men of English descent had the vote.
The colonists by then included Poles – who went to court and also went on the continent’s first strike to secure equal voting rights – and indentured English servants, who could not vote.
But a new group of people also arrived – and not out of choice.
In the Carribean, English pirates seized captive Africans being taken to slavery in the Spanish colonies and brought around 20 of them to Jamestown – where they suffered the same fate of enslavement.
By 1622 the Indians led by Powhatan decided to try to eliminate the colony, ending the peace, and although Jamestown survived, its outposts did not.
Then in 1624, it became a direct royal possession, and continued to grow, now the official capital of the colony of Virginia.
It survived Indian wars and in 1644, imposed a peace treaty on defeated Indians which put them on a reservation, the first in the continent.
By 1676, Virginia was highly successful – but riven by class strife, leading to Bacon’s Rebellion, as poorer men from the western frontier, indentured white servants and African slaves rose up under the leadership of colonist Nathaniel Bacon against the aristocratic masters, burning Jamestown to the ground.
They also tried to remove all Native Americans from Virginia; the rebellion faltered when Bacon died but in the aftermath slavery became along more clearly racial lines.
The end for Jamestown as the capital came when the statehouse accidentally burned to the ground in 1698, prompting a temporary move to WIlliamsburg, which became permanent the next year.
By the mid-1700s it was largely deserted, and although the 200th and 250th anniversaries of its founding were marked, it was mostly in ruins.
The land was farmed extensively until 1893, when its new owners donated 22 acres, including its then ruined church tower, to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.
That set off the area on a path which means that today more than 1,500 acres form a National Park with a live history museum and preserved remains of the settlement.