Challenges that Virginians Encountered during the Early 1600s

Assignment Instructions – Serving Time in Virginia

“Serving Time in Virginia” is a chapter from the book After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection by James Davidson and Mark Lytle. The purpose of these two historians was to read through Captain John Smith’s accounts of life in Virginia and test the accuracy of his book A Generall Historie of Virginia, published in 1624. As they discovered, John Smith’s accounts of conditions in Jamestown, the success of tobacco, and interactions with Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan were less than reliable–to put it mildly.

  • Explain the challenges that Virginians encountered during the early 1600s.
  • How did people in Virginia attempt to remedy their social and economic problems?
  • In your opinion, how effective were they?
  • After reading “Serving Time in Virginia,” what are your new thoughts about the people who chose—or, in the case of slaves, were forced—to make a life in the colony?
  • Have your opinions of Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, or indentured servants and slaves changed?

Sample Answer


The state of Virginia was formed in 1600s in India when British settlers under the Virginia Company settled in India with intention of growing and exporting tobacco to Europe. A group of settlers lead by John Smith settled in Jamestown near Chesapeake Bay. Their adventure started when Smith started exploring the Indian land in search for food. He was captured while doing so by Indian loyal party, who took him to Powhatan the Chesapeak region principle chief for execution. He was however allegedly saved by Powhatan daughter Pocahontas in a situation that is perceived as a romantic situation or allies forming rituals, that Smith was not familiarized with. This ritual permitted Smith and other settlers to settle in the region. This paper discusses the challenges that settlers experienced in Virginia and their effort to fight them.

The Challenges Encountered by Virginians in the Early 1600s

Virginians encountered a number of challenges after settling in Jamestown. One of the greatest problems was rivalry from the natives, particularly some Powhatan’s tribal groups who resisted paying tribute to Smith, despite being the most powerful individual in the region (Davison and Lytle5). In 1622 about 347 colonies were murderedin an Indian attack (p. 11). Virginians were focused on growing tobacco, neglecting the need to integrate their tobacco farming with farming food crops (p. 74). They therefore experienced instances of hunger and lack of enough to eat, and nutritious food to cater for their diet needs. Most of the immigrants were also not highly prepared for the transition and hence they arrived with no food or with just little to eat, subjecting to hunger and nutritional diseases (p. 11).

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There was also shortage of housing and hence most immigrants were left on cold immediately after the arrival, making it hard for new immigrant to survive harsh weather conditions. The also suffered harsh weather condition that included winter which killed almost all animals living in their region and they had to find other means of survival in terms of food (p. 8).Virginians also experienced diseases outbreak especially hygiene related diseases.  A huge number of them are believed to have diet of contamination causing typhoid fever and others were said to die of malaria. This mostly claimed newcomers, making it hard for the estates to have enough labor to do farming. The death rate is said to have been between 70 and 80% (p. 11).

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Market competition was another major challenge experienced by Virginians. Virginians tobacco was considered to be inferior in the marketing and hence it was sold at low cost of 3 shillings and 1 shilling a pound during price fluctuation period in 1620s. This was considerably different from West Indies Spanish tobacco which was sold 18 shillings per pound on the market of English (p. 14). This made it hard for the company to make any profit for almost its entire time in tobacco farming business.

Ways Virginia People Tried to Remedy Their Social and Economic Problems

Virginia people employed various tactics to handle their problems. One of the strategies employed to handle the problem was establishment of various laws to govern the Virginia people. There was definition of self-sufficient rule that demanded that colonists focus on growing their own food. In this case, each tobacco grower was required to set aside two acres of land to plant corns. There were letters written to the colony governors located in London, begging them to construct temporal guest houses to host newcomers and save them from harsh weather, mosquitos and other challenges.

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In reply, the governor requested the company to consider sending enough provision with their recruits. This means that people were trying to plead for a better situation and improvement of their life in Virginia (p. 11). Virginia also allowed private investors with hope of saving the situation by employing servants. The laws of the colony were changed from the martial law to the creation of the assembly with law making power. The laws were supposed to consider the colony situation and focus on bettering their situation (p. 10). Land privatization where some investors were given own land assisted in increasing production and treatment of servants working in these lands. Settlers also tried to purchase food from the natives. They tried to establish a good relation with them, despite incidences of rivalry where they would be able to gather enough to eat and survive on.

Effectiveness of Ways Employed to Remedy Virginians Social and Economic Problems

The strategies employed to remedy Virginians social and economic problems were not very effective. For instance, as seen above, the housing issue was never resolved. On the contrary there was a blame game where the governor tried to show the company that it was not providing enough while the company tried to show the governor that it was not capable of providing for the needs of its workers or servants (p. 11).

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Planting of corns assisted in providing considerable amount of food to settlers and hence it was considerably effective inn fighting food shortage. The introduction of investors and private land ownership is described to have acted as a salvation to the Virginia people (p.10). This arrangement was beneficial to all and hence it was considered successful. So we can say that the level of effectiveness depended on particular problem and the approach given. While some worked effectively, other failed in making any change.

My Thought about People Who Chose or Forced to Make a Life in the Colony

The people who were forced to make life in the colony suffered a great deal. In my opinion the colony was not concerned about their life and their livelihood. They failed even to establish structures that would house them before they could settle down. The land in Virginia was swampy and hence with a lot of mosquitos and possibility of waterborne disease. Even after knowing this, the colony did not consider making any arrangement to ease their life. The servants were forced to sign a contract of four to seven years. Meaning the company could not take them back before this time. Their wages were considerably low to afford trip back. This forced them to remain there despite the urge to go back home. There were no medical care given to them and hence they had to die in masses. They also suffered from food shortage which added to their agony. These people suffered a great deal following ill treatment and denial of human rights. No one cared whether they lived or died. The company seems to have heard enough to transport more slaves and servants than taking care of the existing one. The new comers would also face the same fate. This was considerably cruel and unethical.

My Current Opinion of Captain John Smith, Pocahantas, or Indentured Servants and Salves

In my opinion, the Pocahantas chief was selfish and greedy. He easily gave in to allowing strangers to exploit Indians land and even to plant a crop which was negatively perceived in the area just for making allies and receiving some presents. Pocahantas were also smart, they managed to easily borrow foreigners’ skills to grow tobacco and benefit economically from it. Captain John Smith was also cruel to some extent. To fulfill his company’s desire to make profits, he carried a huge number of people in terms of servants, but without single idea of how he will ensure their survival in the area. It is like he did not do a feasibility study and even after shipping a considerable number of servants, he did not seems to improve their living condition. He was therefore a selfish leader who only cared about profit despite of the cost. In my opinion, servants were helpless individuals whose main desire was to better their lives, however, they were conned into believing that their life would change by working in the colony, only to experience more problems in a situation that it was impossible to quit. Thus they had to persevere all through. Despite servants coming there voluntarily, they suffered almost the same fate as slaves, only that if one survives, their suffering could have been short term compared to that of the slaves. Servants and slaves in my opinion are individuals who experienced much suffering in this situation


Virginia provided an awful experience to the colony and all servants who embarked on a journey to explore the land. The journey to the land was full of challenges especially hurricanes in the sea which cut-short the journey and life of some servants. Those who made it there experienced housing shortages, harsh weather conditions, hostility of natives, food shortage, diseases eruption and spreading and loss of their loved ones among other challenges. The colony tobacco growing mission also failed after facing the challenges of low workforce out of high mortality rates of servants, and market competition among other issues. The situation only got better with the reduction of monopoly to permit private investors into working with the company. Despite staying in the land for a while, the colony mother country suffered more losses than benefits, frustrating their initial vision.

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