The first Germans to land in Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in Virginia, arrived aboard the vessel Mary and Margaret about 1 October 1608. These Germans were glassmakers and carpenters. In 1620, German mineral specialists and saw-millwrights followed, to work and settle in the Virginia Colony. These pioneers and skilled craftsmen were the forerunners of the many millions of Germans who settled in America and became the single largest national group to populate the United States.
Various tradesmen constituted the labor force of the Jamestown colony, including blacksmiths, bricklayers and even jewelers and perfumers. However, the most prominent skilled laborers mentioned in the history of Jamestown are the Dutch, German and Polish glassmakers and carpenters (Grizzard and Smith, 226). The first group of these men arrived in the colony around October of 1608 as a small portion of Captain Newport’s crew aboard the ship the Mary and Margaret. Out of a total number of about 70 passengers, only 8 of them were Dutch, German or Polish workers. Known for their glassmaking abilities and craftsmanship, Captain Newport acquired these men from Prussia and Poland before setting sail for Jamestown (Wust, 3).
Upon arriving in the colony, the craftsmen got to work constructing various buildings and fabricating glass and other commodities for the colony. It is important to note that when the Germans arrived, they had to build everything they needed from scratch in order to blow the glass, including the ovens that were used (Graasl, ).
Because of their impressive skills at their trade, Captain John Smith assigned them a task to build a house for Chief Powhatan. The chief requested a home that would be similar in architectural style as the German homes commonly seen in the colony. Captain Smith however, had different motives. Smith was making an effort to build a better bond and relationship with the natives because the winter months were fast approaching and food was becoming scarce for the colonists. He proposed that the Germans and Dutch could build the house for the chief and in return, they could trade precious commodities such as corn. Unfortunately for Smith, his plan backfired and the German workers traded their loyalties with the colonists for sanctuary with the natives. The Germans preferred to be allied with Powhatan’s people and they stole weapons from the colonists to give to the natives in return for their alliance (Grizzard and Smith, 226).
Grassl, Gary C. First Germans at Jamestown. Washington D.C. : German Heritage Society of Greater Washington, 1997.
Grizzard, Jr. Frank E. and D. Boyd Smith. Jamestown Colony: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2007.
Schuricht, Herrmann. History of the German Element in Virginia. Baltimore: Theo. Kroh & Sons, 1898.
Wust, Klaus. The Virginia Germans. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1969.
Historical Marker “First Germans at Jamestown WT-2,” courtesy of Lindsey Smith, 2012.
“Jamestown Glassblower at Work,” National Park Service, www.nps.gov (accessed April 29, 2012).
“Map Showing a Glassblowing Building,” Glassmaking at Jamestown, www.artslice.blogspot.com (accessed May 2, 2012).