Relentless: Jamestown’s Unforgiving Environment

In 1607,representatives of a joint-stock company known as the Virginia Company landed on a heavily forested peninsula jutting out into a brackish, swampy estuary. Here they would build a settlement named Jamestown, a reference to King James I.  The settlers, composed primarily of idle gentlemen and skilled commoners, faced innumerable hardships and spectacular challenges that are almost unthinkable today. Many of these ordeals can be attributed to the surprisingly harsh environmental conditions of Virginia, which was far from the bountiful paradise the British had imagined. While many scholars blame poor leadership for the starvation and rampant disease at Jamestown, evidence strongly points to that unforgiving environment as the primary cause of the colony’s early failures.

One of the most significant of the unforeseen environmental hazards at Jamestown were the tidal patterns. Settlers naturally appropriated the James River as both a waste depository and water source, expecting the current to keep any filth from accumulating. As the settlers soon discovered, during the summer water discharge from upstream formed “Pools of standing water….[creating] a wetland environment ideal for the retention of Salmonella typhosa  and Endamoeba histolytica.” Additionally, the stagnant water would continue to trap sediment and fecal matter throughout the summer, resulting in a morbidly contaminated estuary- and a water source entirely unsafe for drinking (Earle 102). This unique and evidently disastrous situation was the result of Jamestown’s unfortunate (and accidental) location in the oligohaline, the most deadly of the three salinity zones (Earle 105). Water is continually flushed from the freshwater zone, and contaminants are more widely dispersed at the mouth of the estuary, so it was the rotten luck of the Jamestown settlers to have chosen the positively dreadful oligohaline (Earle 104). The colonists were constantly drinking the deadly river water swarming with bacteria and residual feces and becoming quite ill from it; essentially “the trapped pathogens of typhoid and dysentery, thus floated back and forth past Jamestown with the summer tide” (Earle 103). By October of 1608, 144 of the 244 settlers (roughly 60 percent) had perished, thanks to this constant commutation of bacteria and disease throughout the oligohaline. Luckily, the astute John Smith took notice and encouraged the settlers to disperse to upland freshwater locales during the summer, just as the Natives did.  Smith’s migration initiative reduced the fatality rate to sub 20 percent, a truly commendable accomplishment. His incomparable leadership during such crises led to the settlement’s eventual and hard-earned success against the environment, especially the remorseless lethality of the oligohaline zone.

the oligohaline zone, once infamous for its putrid filthiness

the oligohaline zone, once infamous for its putrid filthiness
http://www.radford.edu/jtso/GeologyofVirginia/Weathering/GeologyOfVAWeathering5-5b.html

An additional environmental impact on Jamestown was the diverse landscape surrounding the settlement. Situated along the north bank of the estuarine James River, Jamestown is nigh to the Chesapeake Bay and thus the Atlantic Ocean on an easily navigable portion of the river. The ruin of Jamestown affords a commanding view of the James River for roughly ten miles as it wends its way eastward; the settlers would have spied incoming Spanish galleons long before they arrived due to the fort’s strategic position as well as its location so far upriver. Contrary to the assertions of their critics, Jamestown’s leaders chose a supremely optimal location for all intents and purposes- to build an accessible trading outpost of the Virginia Company in the New World. However, Jamestown’s deceptively ‘prime’ location conceals many underlying environmental problems. The Jamestown peninsula is surrounded by wetlands, breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other potentially lethal insects, leading to malaria epidemics that plagued the settlers. Jamestown is far from any source of freshwater, an obvious necessity for survival. The high salinity of the nearby James River gave many colonists salt poisoning and was another detrimental consequence of life in the oligohaline zone (Earle 104). As a riverside fortress and base camp for trade, Jamestown’s location was unmatched; however, as a settlement, it lacked the fundamentals for it to truly succeed in all respects.

brackish marsh near Jamestown that fostered disease-bearing insects

brackish marsh near Jamestown that fostered disease-bearing insects
http://www.johnwise.com/2009/05/page/2/

Perhaps Jamestown’s defining environmental struggle was the dwindling food supply and resulting periods of starvation.  In winter, local Native American tribes would migrate to upland areas where deer and other game were more abundant, while the settlers at Jamestown struggled to subsist during the vicious winter of 1609 (Earle 107). The lack of nutrients forced the colonists to “devoure….[the] Hoggs, Dogges and horses” of the colony, and access to solely brackish water continued to sicken them (E

Jamestown's prime location on a peninsula

Jamestown’s prime location on a peninsula
http://mrwilliamsburg.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/jamestownaerial1.jpg

arle 109). Archaeologists at the site of Jamestown have found evidence of an extended drought that likely withered the few crops the settlers planted themselves.  During summer, spring, and fall, the colonists of Jamestown optimistically expected the Powhatan to grant them food rations in exchange for trinkets, and the chilly winters (and frequent conflicts) inhibited them from obtaining sufficient crops and game. While the Native Americans too settled in riverine villages, “a winter dispersal to the uplands” was a way of avoiding the desolate and scarce riverside (Gallivan 87). The infamous starving time of desperation is unfortunately well-remembered; however, it is emblematic of Jamestown’s unforgiving environment. The settlement of Jamestown is so revered as the birthplace of American society, including its competitive, enduring spirit and rugged individualism. Of course the struggle for mere existence at Jamestown figures prominently in the collective American psyche as settlers vied for survival in an unfamiliar land. The disease caused by the lethal oligohaline tidal patterns, the harsh, less than bountiful landscape surrounding Jamestown, and the weather that resulted in mass starvation all contributed to the terrible environmental conditions of Jamestown. While these oppressive factors impeded the settlement’s initial success, they posed a relatively minor threat to the persistence and determination of the first North American society.

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