20/20 Hindsight: The Early Failures of Jamestown

Jamestown was indisputably a success in the end. While it did not provide immediate returns to it’s investors, and administration changed, in the end it provided a hugely profitable source of revenue and the standard of living developed into one of the higher ones in the 18th century. However, in it’s early years, it was just as much an abject failure. The initial of failure of the Jamestown colony was the result of an unpreparedness and unwillingness on the part of the colonists to adapt to the their new social, political, and environmental surroundings.
The choice of location for Jamestown was a poor one for a colony, but an intelligent one when presented with the information (however exaggerated) that the colonists had access to. Located on a swampy peninsula, many of the colonists, as well as the stockholders and government back in London, expected an imminent attack on the colony by the Spanish colonists hundreds of miles south in Florida. Therefore, the fort’s construction was cutting-edge English military technology, built on a swampy peninsula which would allow them to broadside an incoming Spanish fleet with cannons. Unfortunately, a lack of information about the Eastern seaboard of North America led to this unnecessary precaution. Furthermore, the marshy, cramped peninsula meant that food was hard to obtain. But the mindset of a military base persisted. After Gov. John Smith departed from the colony, “George Percy, the new leader of the colony, also failed to store grain, let fishing nets rot, and so angered the Indians that they killed the hundreds of hogs Smith had bred as a reserve supply of food. (Horwitz, 23). This apparent lack of concern for the food supply was a social mindset which failed to be accounted for in the initial founding period. Another social problem faced by the colonists was, ironically, themselves. All of the colonists were men, and great majority were ex-soldiers returning from the wars in the Netherlands. Not only did this create the problem of relying on immigrants as the sole source of population (as intermarriage with the Native Americans was against colony policy), but, according the Tony Horwitz, “Almost from the moment of its founding, Jamestown became an all-male divorce court, rife with deceit betrayal, and petty accusations. The council’s first president was overthrown amid charges that he denied another man “a spoonful of beer” and “a penny-whittle” (a cheap knife)”. This wild west-style, tenuous form of law and order spawned itself directly from the rowdy army camps from which most of the colonists had spent most or all of their adult lives. Needless to say, this functioned as an obstacle to social progress, and the resulting squabbling, infighting, and inability to work effectively together as a unit created food shortages, intrigue, distrust, and corruption, which are unacceptable in a colony of only a few hundred persons, and creates serious hazards to survival.
Political plagues and obstinate officials also emerged as further threats and obstacles to a successful and profitable colony. As Englishmen in a new world, discovering new things in a place radically different from everything they knew before, the Jamestown colonists clung to the customs which reminded them of home, and therefore were less open-minded than was demanded of them when interacting with the Powhatan tribespeople. Some degree of cooperation was essential in the early years of the colony, as the Jamestown settlers repeated had to rely on trade with the Powhatans for food, and peace, as the colonists were often in no position to fight the powerful empire. However, the Jamestown colonists, with a few exceptions, made little effort to learn the customs of the Powhatans, which led to hurt feelings and tension. For example, Daniel K. Richter tells us that “[the emissary to England from the Powhatans] complained to Smith after and audience with James I that inexplicably included none of the gufts that any chief worthy of the name should have bestowed to display his power and largesse (Richter, 9). Furthermore, it is discovered that “when he returned to [the Powhatan domain] after Pocahontas’ death, Powhatan’s agent had little good to say about the English” (Richter, 9), implying that the English were perceived as extremely rude, which led to tensions and hostility to rise between the two civilizations once more. Another of the many displays of political idiocy in early Jamestown was the militant policy taken towards the local Indians from the get-go. The Jamestown settlers alternated between contemptuous and fearful opinions on the Powhatans, which manifested itself as a violent and militant policy towards the Indians, who responded in the way they would deal with any rebellious tribes, with retaliation. Colonists repeatedly attacked Indian tribes under Powhatan’s protection for various reasons. Horwitz once again recounts an incident John Smith recounted when “‘The Indians, thinking us near famished’…offered ‘only a small handful of beans or wheat for a hatchet or a piece of copper.’ To avoid seeming desperate-which he was-Smith scorned the offer and anchored nearby. The next day he ‘let fly his muskets and ran his boat ashore,’ then marched on the village. Natives quickly offered venison and corn, at a favorable rate of exchange.” This cowboy diplomacy was fundamentally unsustainable, and it wasn’t long until a continuous state of skirmishing and retaliation settled in. Both refusing to learn customs and carrying out hostile actions against the Indians was ultimately short-sighted and to the detriment of the colony. Had they been more willing to cooperate and learn the ways of their new neighbors, the disasters such as an Indian siege which was in large part responsible for the Starving Time of 1609-10. But this inability or unwillingness to adapt instead led to tragedy and death.
Finally, the Jamestown colonists came woefully unprepared for the environmental challenges which would confront them in the New World, namely an inability to find a clean source of water, and the refusal of the governors to allow the colonists to occupy a space large enough to accommodate as many settlers as were occupying the settlement and to grow crops to feed them. In the early days of the colony, the summers were deadly to the colonists, as the river stopped flowing, and the people began to drink from water contaminated with faeces and amoebas which would instigate “Burning Fever” (typhoid), and “Bluidy Flixes” (dysentery). Under John Smith’s tenure of governorship, the typical one-third mortality rate was reduced by almost half through spreading the colonists away from the contaminated area, learning from the Indians. However, when he was sent back to England with an injury, he was replaced by Samuel Argall, who was “not one to learn from his mistakes… the realignment of settlement (from the freshwater areas towards the deadly, contaminated salt and brackish water areas) begun by Argall and continued under the Sandys administration was was one of the principal causes of death until 1624.” (Earle, 52). Up to nearly half (45.8%) of the colonists in one areas died after the resettlement. This ignorance and unwillingness to break social norms led to a huge pitfall for the growth of the colony, and would have made the colony much more profitable and habitable much earlier had this realignment not taken place and access to clean water had remained constant. The other environmental factor which caused Jamestown to stagnate for the first two decades of its existence was the inability of the fort to hold as many people as were immigrating in, and the inability to provide food for them. Especially when constricted by Powhatan warriors on all sides, due to antagonizing on the part of the English, the fort itself and even the surrounding, completely marshy area could not have been able to provide food to 500 people under any circumstances, and the refusal of the governors to allow people out of the fort without permission under the Gates and Dale administration, combined with the unreliable nature of the supply ships from England led to chronic food shortages for a notable portion of the colony’s existence. The stubbornness on the part of the governors against adapting to the environment to ensure survival was to the detriment of the colony and resulted in staggering mortality rates and can be considered one of the great failures of the colony.
As is noted, not all of this was the fault of the Jamestown settlers themselves. There is no way they could ensure the timely arrival of supply ships. However, they were given opportunities to compensate and largely ignored them or refused them due to stubbornness. Combined with the failures which they could have controlled, the Jamestown colony’s early failures and the unfortunate outcome severely retarded colonial Virginia’s growth for almost a quarter century, with their social, political, and environmental unpreparedness playing the largest role.

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