Providential Figures in the Success of Jamestown

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Captain John Smith trying to get more food for the settlers. Credit: NPS Image

On Christian Heritage Day, StoneBridge students travel back through time to the formative years of our nation’s founding. This year, we will remember the lives and individuals of the colony at Jamestown, Virginia, which were used by God to bring the Gospel to our shores, and to be the example of representative government in our world. The following are key players in the success of the Jamestown settlement.

Captain Christopher Newport
commanded the fleet of three ships – the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and the small ship, Discovery – that led the expedition of the Virginia Company of London. In June 1607, Newport left Jamestown to sail back to England for fresh supplies. Newport sailed to and from England three more times to resupply the colony between 1607 and 1608, and numerous subsequent voyages through 1612 until he was appointed one of the six masters of the Royal Navy and began to work for the East India Trading Company.

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Captain John Smith, based on an engraving done in 1616. Credit: NPS image/Public Domain

Captain John Smith is credited for much of the Jamestown Settlement’s success and survival during its first years. Smith was charged with mutiny and was imprisoned on the fleet of three ships that set sail for Virginia in December 1606, but was released when it was discovered he was to be appointed to the governing council by The Virginia Company. His religious feelings were evident in his writings, as he “saw the hand of God at work in his life, and he believed it had intervened to save the colonies.”1

Smith’s strong leadership helped the settlers fortify their fort, secure food, and improve agricultural practices, but he also made enemies within the settlement. He was badly injured during a mysterious gunpowder explosion while sleeping on a ship one evening. He returned to England to recover and never went back to America. In 1631, Smith died in England at age 51.

While exploring the Chickahominy River region in December 1607, Smith was captured by Chief Powhatan’s men, but was rescued by Pocahontas, Chief Powhatan’s daughter. Smith credited Pocahontas with saving his life, though accounts of the rescue – even by Smith himself – have varied. Smith’s ever-evolving relationship with Powhatan’s tribe led to several years of peace with the Virginia tribe.

Wahunsenacawh, commonly known as Chief Powhatan, was the supreme ruler of the indigenous tribes stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to the Piedmont of Virginia. He was known as the “chief of chiefs” yet his authority varied from one area to another. He “ruled by threat of force but also by marriage alliances and persuasion.”2

Chief Powhatan ordered his tribes to siege Jamestown in 1609, leading to the first Anglo-Powhatan War and a time of starvation and suffering for the colonists. Relations with the colonists improved when his daughter Pocahontas married John Rolfe, one of the English settlers, in 1614. Powhatan blessed this marriage, which led to somewhat peaceful relations between the settlers and his tribes.

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Artists depiction of Pocahontas saving Capt. John Smith. (Ten American Girls from History 1917/Public domain.)

Pocahontas, favored daughter of Chief Powhatan, first appeared to the new colonists when Captain John Smith was kidnapped by the Powhatan tribe. Accounts of her “rescue” of Smith have varied, but what is known is that she often took food to the starving colonists and also warned them of an impending attack by her father’s tribe.

In 1613, the English colonists kidnapped Pocahontas. While in captivity, Pocahontas lived in the settlement of Henricus under the care of Rev. Alexander Whitaker where she learned about Christianity, English culture, and how to speak English. Pocahontas converted to Christianity, was baptized, and given the Christian name “Rebecca,” perhaps “a symbolic gesture to the Rebecca of the Book of Genesis who, as the mother of Jacob and Esau, was the mother of two nations.”3 She became a symbol of Indian religious conversion, one of the stated goals of The Virginia Company.

During her captivity, she met tobacco grower John Rolfe and the two married in 1614, leading to a period of peace and prosperity for the new colonists. She gave birth to a son, Thomas Rolfe, in 1615. Rolfe and Pocahontas traveled to England in 1616, where she was presented as a princess to the English people. After boarding a ship to return to Virginia in 1617, Pocahontas became ill and turned back to England where she died in March of that year. Members of many prominent Virginia families trace their roots to Thomas Rolfe.

Alexander Whitaker, an English Anglican theologian, first settled in Virginia in 1611. He is best known for the conversion of Pocahontas to Christianity and as “The Apostle to Virginia.” Whitaker often wrote lengthy studies about the opportunities the English had to advance the Word of God to the Powhatan people.

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Alexander Whitaker portrayed (left) in The baptism of Pocohontas. John Gadsby Chapman (Photograph courtesy Architect of the Capitol).

In a sermon titled Good Newes from Virginia (1613) that was sent back to England to gain support for the new settlement, Whitaker wrote of the natives: “They have reasonable souls and intellectual faculties as well as we. We all have Adam for a common parent. Yea, by nature the condition of us both is all one: the servants of sin and slaves of the devil.4 By his words, it is clear he felt a spiritual kinship to the native people; he wanted peace and to help the Powhatan people.

Whitaker undertook the educational and spiritual guidance of Pocahontas when she was brought to Jamestown. He instructed her in Christianity, helped improve her English language through Bible reading, and baptized her with a new Christian name.

Whitaker died in 1616 while crossing the James River.

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The Reverend Robert Hunt gives thanks with other English settlers at Cape Henry, Virginia in April 1607. Credit: NPS image

Clergyman of the Church of England, the Reverend Robert Hunt served as the first Anglican minister of Jamestown, arriving with the first group of settlers. As part of England’s religious settlement, Reverend Hunt was tasked with overseeing the spiritual needs of the colonists and converting the natives to Christianity. He led a prayer of thanksgiving on April 29, 1607 when the settlers planted a cross at Cape Henry (now Virginia Beach).

As the colonists settled in Jamestown, Hunt led regular prayer and religious services for everyone, even before a chapel was built. Hunt was considered a peacemaker between the sometimes quarreling colonists and was described by Captain Smith as “our honest, religious and courageous divine.”

Reverend Hunt died between January and April 1608 and was the first person to be interred in the newly constructed church’s chancel.


1The Reverend Robert Hunt: The First Chaplain at Jamestown. National Parks Service, 2021.

2 Chief Powhatan. Historic Jamestowne, 2021.

3 Pocahontas., 2021.

4 Pocahontas’ English Teachers: Sir Thomas Dale and Reverend Alexander Whitaker of the Commonwealth of Henryco. Henricus, 2021.

Additional Sources:

John Smith. Historic Jamestowne, 2021.

Life of John Smith. National Parks Service, 2021.