Jamestown’s Woes: Results of a Faulty Owner’s Manual?

In the year 1607, Captain Christopher Newport hopped off of the Discovery, propped a hand on his hip, struck a jaunty pose, and wondered to himself, “Ok, now what?”  Well, maybe that’s not exactly what happened.  But luckily for him, the Virginia Company of London had given him a trusty old letter, their version of an owner’s manual for starting a brand spanking-new colony!  The Jamestown settlement in Virginia was not the first English colony in Americas- previously, the English had lost an entire colony at Roanoke.  Their undistinguished track record for starting colonies may indicate that the English were not the best people to write instructions on the founding of one.   The letter from the Virginia Company was their best shot, and the colonists followed it faithfully.  Early years in Jamestown were fraught with many a catastrophe; could those problems have been the result of errors in the Virginia Company’s letter?  Many of the difficulties of the early Jamestown settlement can be attributed to faults in the Virginia Company of London’s instructions, which were due to lack of knowledge of the environment, and from the English mindset of superiority that lead to conflicts and deaths that may have been avoided.

The contents of the Virginia Company’s letter were presumably based on knowledge of previous failed colonization efforts, as well as knowledge of the successful Spanish and French colonies.  We certainly know the European colonies were in contact with one another; the Jamestown colonists were told to construct a lookout point close to the ocean to watch for Spanish ships (Virginia Company of London 2), and Spanish spy Don Alonso de Velasco wrote a letter in 1610 chronicling colonist’s actions during the Starving Time (Herman 59).  But despite prior experience and accumulated information, the Virginia Company could not have prepared the colonists for the Virginia climate.

The first faults the of the Virginia company’s plan were in the choices of colonists and the divisions of their labor, as they were not aware how much work was needed to sustain the colonists food supply.  John Smith describes 54 of 128 of the original Jamestown colonists as gentlemen and council members (Smith 43), who would not have expected to nor knew how to farm.  Smith does not list any of the colonists as farmers, describing many of them as carpenters and other laborers.  And the Virginia Company instructions allow for only 30 colonists to be growing food- the others were to be divided among groups for mining, lookout shifts, construction, and exploration (Virginia Company of London 2).  These groups started the colonists off on a bad foot, since thirty inexperienced men in an unfamiliar land could not grow enough food to feed over a hundred other people and provide for winter.  In addition, the English did not know that English crops such as barley would not take to Virginian soil, or that the sturgeon would be gone with the end of summer, so they had to find new sources of food.  This lack of provisions quickly caught up with them in the starving time of the winter of 1609-10, when the dead outnumbered the living about ten to one (Horowitz 342).

One of the main reasons for this misjudgment in food production was the Company’s fault in believing the colonists could obtain large quantities of food from the Indians.  This might have been possible, were it not for extreme environmental conditions indicated by the cross section of a bald cypress tree below. The narrow and compressed areas in the rings show that between 1606 and 1612 one of the worst droughts in 800 years took place (Dunbar 17).

Source: David W. Stahle, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

This drought meant that the Indians had barely enough food to feed themselves, let alone the colonists, leaving the Englishmen ill-prepared once supplies ran out.  After Christopher Newport left, which the Virginia Company had asked him to do soon after the establishment of Jamestown, they were “[one hundred and foure persons] verie bare and scantie of victualls, furthermore in warres and in danger of the Savages” (Percy 1689).  Contributing to the food troubles, soon after Newport left the colonists had issues with their leaders.  Initially, Jamestown became an “all male divorce court,” where the first two council presidents were overthrown for misconduct and council members were under suspicion for hoarding food (Horowitz 330).

At the beginning of the letter the Company gives directions for choosing a settlement site.  It was to be within 100 miles from the mouth of a river with a deep harbor, clearable land, and fresh water (Virginia Company of London 1).   The colonists chose an area they thought was eighty miles upriver, which in reality was about 57 (Virginia Council 1).  Initially the Jamestown location seemed to ideally fit their requirements.  The depths of the James River, shown below, have risen about 3 feet (Dunbar 18) since the time of the Jamestown colony.  Keeping this adjustment in mind, it can be seen that boats could easily moor directly outside the fort at a depth between 50-57 feet.  The largest of the colonial ships, the Susan Constant, would have easily berthed there with a draft of 11’9” (Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation 2).  Jamestown colony was well suited to receive English ships and also far enough inland for protection against other European vessels.  This focus on being defendable from the sea is another example of a gap in the English knowledge- they did not realize the Spanish were not close by, waiting to launch an attack.

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Coast Survey, Chart 12248

The colonists were additionally instructed “Neither must You plant in a low and moist place, because it will prove unhealthful” (Virginia Company of London 4).  Thus far in Tidewater Virginia, I can say everything appears to be low and moist.  But the spot the colonists chose happened to be one bordered by a swamp, and as Gabriel Archer described it, “[the] land lieth low… and is [of] sandy ground” (Dunbar 18).  The colonists thought the defensive benefits of the surrounding swamp and river outweighed the low elevation, which later proved fatal.  With the beginning of summer, river levels and discharge fell dramatically, and the stagnant swamp and standing pools of water surrounding the fort became ideal for contamination by fecal material, salt, sediments, and diseases from Salmonella typhosa and Endoamoeba histolytica (Earle 102).  “Our drinke [was] cold water taken out of the river, which was at a floud very salt, at low tide full of slime and filth, which was the destruction of many of our men” (Percy 21-22).  Earlier the colonists had sailed past Cape Henry and Cape Charles, shown below, as well as Norfolk, Suffolk, Hampton, and Newport News (viginiaplaces), all areas with fresh water readily available in summer.  The colonists John Smith moved to the mouth of the James River in the summer of 1609 nearly all survived, as opposed to the dozens who died back at the Fort (Earle 108).   However, the governor who came to lead in 1617 moved the colonists back into the saltwater zone, and mortality rates soon rose again.  Argall’s actions reflected the British belief that their methods were superior, and that he, as an English nobleman, knew more about what was best for the colonies than a rougher, lower class man who had perhaps been tainted by his life close to the natives.

Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service Wetlands Mapper

Had the colonists been less focused on strategy and attacks from the sea, they might have picked a higher and better location.  The colonists and the Virginia Company prized defense first, which the Company stressed at the beginning of their letter instead of finding food and water, demonstrating another error in the English choosing of the colony’s location.  This defense-mindedness was further a facet of the English mindset, which also had at its core a sense of superiority that meant they did not learn from the natives as they should have.  Had they done so, attempted to live with the natives from the start, the future of the colony may have progressed quite differently.  The colonists and Newport were set down a faulty path; nearly half the men sent were gentleman, very few were dedicated to growing food, and the colonists, already being ill-equipped to deal with their environment, were further set back by poisoning from the river, as well as a drought.  These environmental stresses were inevitable, no matter what occurred their English methods would lead to many deaths.  But if they had opened their fort to the natives and adopted their farming methods, food shortages would be a much lesser issue, and there would have been less challenge of the authority figures.  The aforementioned drought meant initially the Indians would not have been able to feed the colonists at first, but if the colonists had persisted in trade methods instead of taking by force, a far better relationship could have been built.  Peacefulness among the colonists in turn would mean that their leaders would not have imposed such Draconian rules dictating that everything be tightly controlled.  Loosened control would have meant that people could have moved in and out of the fort without permission, and traded without permission, furthering the relations with the Powhatan.  Increased contact could have even lead to more marriages such as that of Pocahontas and Rolfe, since a small part of the colonists’ mission was to convert natives to Christianity. Inevitably, tensions would have arose as the English claimed more and more land, but closer ties could have made the natives seem less like inferiors to the English, and more treaties would have been signed with the Powhatan.

Instead of adopting native ways, they focused on an unreal European threat and their feelings of English superiority, and roughly ¾ of the twenty thousand immigrants sent to early Jamestown died (Horowitz, 329).  If the colonists’ instructions were improved to place priority on survival, a less defensible and higher location, native trade, could more have survived? Possibly, but the English did not know of the dangers of the location they chose, nor how their instructions would really serve the colonists of the New World.  When studying Jamestown, some make the mistake of blaming the individual colonists for its failures, calling them “idle, lazy, and factious” (Earle 103).  The colonists did their best, having come expecting a land of plenty where they could get rich quick, instead of a situation where “There were never Englishmen left in a forreigne Countrey in such miserie as wee were in this new discovered Virginia” (Percy 1690).  Even with improved instruction, the environment would still have posed major difficulties.  But the English failure to adapt to it with a new location and trade shows the flaw in the men who founded our nation- their chief motivation of individual gain.  Our nation was founded by men who wanted money, not men who desired to form a colony for everyone to thrive equally.  We can see this through how they made their instructions worse, because the instructions were meant to be guidelines for the colonists to build on with their knowledge of the land.  Instead, each new governor who arrived felt that he knew better than the last, and took away the advances the colonists made from native influences.

The importance of Jamestown is obvious, as in our country it is one of the first history lessons young children receive, and the legacy of Jamestown is preserved through Thanksgiving tradition.  It is important because we consider its story to be the story to be the story of the founding of America.  Our childhood lessons teach us that the colonists arrived in a land of plenty, and although they had a difficult winter, their camaraderie and trading with the natives lead them to thrive in the New World.  This is far from the truth, and leaves out the founding of Jamestown as an economic venture, one full of hardship and violence.  The founding of our nations by individualists lead to the tobacco plantations that began in the 1620’s, eventually leading to high class divisions in later America.  Class divisions and the early on sense of superiority over the natives and later Africans lead to the racial conflicts of the civil war, suffrage movement, trail of tears, Bacon’s rebellion, and many other conflicts that shaped our original nation as one for only the few and privileged.  And by remembering its founding at Jamestown as a happy little colony, we gloss over these conflicts, forgetting a large part of our history, painting ourselves a happier picture so we can feel better about our ancestors and therefore ourselves today.  But these conflicts and the truth of Jamestown, a colony that began with a faulty set of instructions that lead to many deaths, as well as a superior mindset that kept them from working with the natives and learning from their mistakes, and existed in a dangerous environment instead of a land of plenty, are things we should not forget, because they are the true legacy of the founding of our nation.

Works Cited

Websites Used

Dunbar, Brian. “Exploration: Then and Now — Settlement Lesson.” NASA. NASA, 16 July 2009. Web. 17 July 2014.

“Jamestown – Why There?” Virginiaplaces.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 July 2014.

“The Jamestown Settlement Ships.” Williamsburg, VA: Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, 2010.  www.historyisfun.org. 14 Apr. 2010. Web. 17 July 2014.

Stahle, David W., Dr. “Unearthing Secret America.” Scientific American Frontiers. PBS, n.d. Web. 17 July 2014.

Primary Sources Used- found via encyclopediavirginia.org

Smith, John. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (London: Edward   Blackmore, 1632), 43-44.

Percy, George. “Observations gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia,” in Hakluytus Posthumus, or  Purchas His Pilgrimes, compiled by Samuel Purchas (London: H. Fetherston, 1625) 21-22, 1689-1690.

Virginia Company of London. “Instructions from the Virginia Company of London to the First Settlers.” Letter to Colonists. Nov. 1606. MS. England, London.

The Virginia Council. “Letter from the Council in Virginia to the Virginia Company of London.” Letter to Virginia Company of London. 22 June 1607. MS. Jamestown, n.p.

Readings Cited Directly

“Environment, Disease, and Mortality” by Carville V. Earle

Chapter 12: Jamestown, from A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horowitz

“The ‘tragical historie’: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown” by Rachel B. Hermann

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