The Germans of the Jamestown colony arrived on the vessel Mary and Margaret a full 12 years before the landing of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. In this group of newcomers were five glassblowers and three carpenters. Also among the immigrants were several Polish makers of pitch and tar, soap ash and potash and several Dutch immigrants.
The skills of these men were important to the new colony. The glassblowers immediately went to work producing glass, making glass manufacture one of the first American economic enterprises. The German carpenters built a good number of houses and buildings in the new settlement, even building a house for Powhatan the Indian chief.
A German doctor made his way to the new colony in 1608, in search of healing plants. His name was Johannes Fleischer the Younger from Breslau, Silesia. Having a Ph.D., he was likely the most educated man of the colony.
The new immigrants faced the same hardships as their English counterparts. Food was in short supply and they feel prey to sickness. The winter of 1609-1610 was extremely difficult on the Jamestown colony as they fell prey to starvation and malnutrition. Reports indicate that some members even resorted to cannibalism. Four out of five colonists died within a few years of their arrival.
The 1620 Virginia Company records recorded that four German sawmill wrights came to Jamestown in service to the Colony. The settlements had spread beyond Jamestown up and down the James river. The millwrights skills were vastly needed to meet the increasing demand for building materials of the colonists. However the millwrights, too, succumbed to the hardships of the new county, not surviving to see their work come to fruition.
German mineral miners were also brought to the new colony by the Virginia Company. The company had hopes of finding riches in the new land in the form of gold, silver, and precious minerals. While there was little gold or silver to be found, the miners did begin the process of iron production in 1622. However, in 1622 an Indian massacre squelched the beginnings of this industry and twenty-five to thirty-three percent of the population of the Colony was killed.
Many early German immigrants switched their occupations upon coming to America. Among the reasons for this were the fact that a large number of Germans were farmers. However, cash reserves were often used up on the passage to American, and with no money to buy land on which to farm they turned to occupations such as shoe making to secure funds for daily living expenses and to buy land.
While the Germans were too small in number to make a major impact during the initial years of the fledgling colony, their influence grew. More German immigrants followed. They may proudly claim their place in American history among the founders of our great country.