Why did the settlers go to Jamestown?

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The primary motivations of most of the Jamestown settlers were economic. For over a century, Spain had been reaping massive fortunes in the New World. By the beginning of the 17th Century, the English were eager to do the same. With the founding of the Virginia Company of London in...

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The primary motivations of most of the Jamestown settlers were economic. For over a century, Spain had been reaping massive fortunes in the New World. By the beginning of the 17th Century, the English were eager to do the same. With the founding of the Virginia Company of London in 1606, the venture had the financial backing to make a settlement possible. Investors and settlers alike hoped to use the new colony to gather natural resources, grow cash crops, and open new markets for trade.

At this time, England was enduring a devastating economic depression. Poverty was sweeping through the nation. It was becoming clear to many that relying on the old economic structures would be insufficient. With the collapse of the wool market, much of England's economic basis had crumbled. Furthermore, the enclosure movement meant that non-landowners lost access to public lands which they had relied on for generations. However, new lands ripe for the taking were available in the New World. Tales of unlimited riches lying in wait across the ocean were an inspiration to many.

The location of Jamestown was chosen because it was hoped that the relatively warm climate would make it suitable for growing crops throughout much of the year. Furthermore, it was located at a good place for larger ships to anchor and offered a defensive position. Unfortunately, the original settlers did not take into account issues like reliable access to clean drinking water and swampy conditions that allowed disease-carrying mosquitos to thrive.

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The Jamestown Colony was established by the Virginia Company of London, which was granted a charter to establish colonies in Virginia by James I in 1606. The charter gave various reasons for establishing these colonies, several of which were religious and political. The colonists were to convert the Virginia natives to Protestant Christianity and prevent them from being converted to Catholicism by the Spanish. They were also to prevent the spread of Spanish influence in the Americas more generally.

The Virginia Company, however, was a private stock-holding company, and its primary motive was always profit. The Virginia colonists, unlike their counterparts in Massachusetts, were not particularly religious, and most were hoping to exploit the economic opportunities offered by a virgin continent. These included mining and logging, as well as the search for a Northwest passage to Asia. Later, indentured servants, slaves and convicts were sent to Virginia, but those who came of their own free will were still primarily motivated by the opportunity to make money.

The motives of the early settlers for going to Virginia were, therefore, quite straightforwardly pecuniary. Their reasons for settling in Jamestown itself, however, have often been questioned. The town is in the midst of a pestilential swamp, where the water is stagnant and brackish. The colonists may have made a mistake about the water supply, since they arrived in April, when the melting snow from the mountains provided them with streams of drinking water which soon dried up. However, the abundance of other natural resources, including mineral wealth, and the fact that the land was unoccupied and easily defended, with a natural harbor, may have influenced them in selecting the site.

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Most settlers originally went to Jamestown because they wanted to get rich.  Some others came to work for the people who went there to get rich.  In general, people came to Jamestown for economic reasons.

The bulk of the original settlers of Jamestown were gentlemen.  They were on an adventure to a new land where they hoped to get rich.  They believed that they would be able to find gold or to get rich in other ways that did not involve doing their own work.  Along with them came a number of poorer people who were meant to work for them.  These were laborers and, eventually, indentured servants.  These people came to Virginia because they were forced to (as convicts) or because they felt that they could have a better chance to get ahead economically in the New World even if they were servants and laborers.  As time went by, more laborers and farmers came to Jamestown.  This was particularly true after Virginia started to produce tobacco for export.  What all of these people have in common is that they came for economic reasons.  The elites wanted to become truly wealthy and the poor wanted a better chance  to get ahead.

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The earlier answers to this question focus on explaining why the Jamestown settlers went to the New World, but not upon the other implied question of why the settlers went to Jamestown specifically. As other have noted, this voyage, the first with the intent of creating a permanent English settlement in the New World, was funded by the Virginia Company and had financial, rather than religious, motivations—the travelers on this voyage hoped to become wealthy from the natural resources of the area, and served as prospectors for the Virginia Company. The site of Jamestown itself was chosen based on detailed instructions provided by the Virginia Company of London, who were in competition with the Plymouth Company of London to found profitable colonies in the new world. The Virginia Company had been assigned a charter to settle in a particular area of the coast. Within this area, it stipulated to its seafarers that the land they chose should be highly defensible against potential Spanish attacks; should allow for a cove with water deep enough for the ship to remain moored there; should be inland, but surrounded by water; and should not be occupied by Native tribes. Jamestown was selected because the sailors believed it to fit all these criteria, although, as they would later learn, it was not really the case that the area was not inhabited by Native Americans. In fact, the Powhatan tribe lived nearby and provided a great deal of help to the English settlers in the early years. 

The Jamestown settlement took several decades to be truly called "successful," as its inhabitants endured a long famine at first. However, it went on to succeed for a century before its inhabitants moved on to Williamsburg, making it certainly a vast improvement on the previous English attempt at settling at Roanoke where the colonists disappeared without trace. 

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In contrast to the Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay colonies, which would begin more than a decade later as places of religious refuge for Dissenting (Puritan) English people, Jamestown was started as a financial venture by the Virginia Company of London. The company hoped to find silver and gold in the area, and they also hoped, by establishing a permanent colony, to be able to exploit the natural resources of the area and sell back finished goods to the colonists.

The original settlers came for economic reasons, hoping to earn good financial rewards from such a risky adventure. The first 104 settlers (one died on the voyage) were all male and many came from upper-class backgrounds, so they were unused to labor. Establishing a colony in a region filled with Native Americans as well as other obstacles proved much more difficult than expected, and many of the early settlers died of hunger and disease. 

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The original settlers went to Jamestown for different reasons, though the primary mission of the settlement was to provide a source of wealth (hopefully gold and silver) and to establish an English foothold against potential Spanish expansion in the New World. The family of one of the original colonists, the genteel James Forrest, seem to have intended to supervise the search for gold, and saw the expedition as an opportunity to get rich. His wife Margaret accompanied him, perhaps at his behest. Her servant, Anne Burras, had no choice but to accompany her mistress. In the first decades of the settlement, many laborers arrived as indentured servants, selling their labor over a three or seven year period in return for property at the end of their indenture, or contract. Others came as soldiers, who, depending on their rank, also served as laborers or leaders in the colony. John Smith, a career military adventurer, was an example of the latter. The colony also received many convict laborers, who often worked under longer terms than indentured servants. As tobacco emerged as a viable export crop after 1610, the colony became a source for many ambitious young men of the "middling sort" in England who hoped to gain wealth through the cultivation of the crop. Later voyages also brought skilled craftsmen from England, Germany, and Poland, who because of their high desirability in the colony either received short indentures or had their voyages subsidized by the Virginia Company. Later in the seventeenth century, large quantities of African laborers would enter the colony against their will (i.e. as slaves) but their numbers were not significant in the early years of the settlement.

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