England’s First North American Colony

English settlers trading with Indians.
Replica of the ship Susan Constant, one of the ships that took English settlers to North America in 1607.
English settlers disembarking in North America.
Corn — a staple food for the Native Americans around Jamestown.
Copper — a trading good which the English traded for food.

In Europe during the 1500s, it was well-known that Spain had become very rich from plundering its newly-acquired American colonies for gold and silver. As a consequence, many European countries, including England, soon began searching for their own treasures around the world.

By the early 1600s, with the search for riches being underway, England had founded her own permanent settlements overseas, which she intended to use as bases for exploration, exploitation and trade. The very first of these settlements was a town called Jamestown, founded in 1607 in the present-day state of Virginia in the United States.

Tough times in Jamestown

Jamestown was founded by about a hundred Englishmen with high expectations about what the new continent could bring. However, the initial period in Jamestown was very tough, and it was not certain at all that the settlers would survive. Among other problems, the colonists could not find or grow sufficient food to safely stay alive.

Trading copper for food

Due to the difficulty to get by on their own, from early on, the English settlers in Jamestown relied on trading food with the local Indians. In exchange for the food, the Englishmen gave the Native Americans copper, which they had brought with them from Europe. With copper having a similar status among many Indian tribes as gold had among Europeans, this was a mutually beneficial exchange.

Within months of the trade partnership being formed, unfortunately for both parties, a severe drought greatly reduced the Indians’ harvests. As a result, staple foods such as corn and beans became hard to come by, and the Indians now had to stop trading food with the English in order to be able to feed themselves.

Partners become enemies

Being unable to trade food with the natives of the new continent, and now also rapidly dying from starvation and disease in the relentless drought, the English soon resorted to stealing the Indians’ food. This, quite naturally, created conflicts, during which the colonists sometimes burned down Indian villages and the Indians attacked the colonists’ camp. The violence led to the Native Americans relocating further away from Jamestown, but both sides, from now on, had to be on constant guard.