How and Why the Jamestown Settlers [Messed] UP

Jamestown, the first permanent colony in the United States, was settled by predominantly gentlemen and skilled craftsmen sent by the Virginia Company in England. The seemingly harmless decision of sending gentry and skilled workers to the unexplored land in Virginia was actually an incredible mistake, in that the settlers of Jamestown were horribly unprepared and suffered due to a lack of awareness of their environment and how to interact with it and its natives.

One of the first major problems was the water. The colonists had been drinking water from the river, “which was at a floud verie salt, at low tide full of slime and filth, which was the destruction of many of our men.” (Farle 102). The picture below shows water of the river near Jamestown, and as can be clearly seen it is full of impurities so much so that it is almost hard to tell that it is even water at all. The water would not be especially bad during the spring, when the river was not evaporating much but had sufficient runoff. However, the quality of the water would go down significantly as summer began. “Even more deadly was the summer contamination of the river water with salt, sediment, and fecal material.” (Farle 112.) Colonists were reported to have died in great numbers due to salt poisoning which has been attributed to the water in the river.


(I took this photo)

Another major killer of the Jamestown settlers was the amount of sickness that spread around the settlers, particularly the typhoid fever and dysentery epidemics in 1607. “One decisive factor underlying these repeated epidemics is the limited immunity conferred by the diseases themselves.” (Farle 103.) The epidemics can still then be traced, historians have stated, to the Chesapeake estuaries which spread the pathogens with the salt water to the colony. This would’ve been especially harsh in the summer, and since the epidemics would have conferred less immunity in harsher conditions, the epidemics would’ve had a higher chance of revisiting the afflicted.

What likely saved the Jamestown colonists from complete decimation was assistance from the Native Americans near Jamestown. It is suspected that the Natives thought that the colonists were not a problem, and had “kept watch over fifty dying men who seemed utterly clueless, since they drank foul water and couldn’t feed themselves.” (Jamestown 331.) The Indians helped the colonists by bringing food to them, and then thereafter trading with them for goods such as copper. Part of this relationship was based on force, as the Native Americans traded food at a ridiculously low rate, although after a demonstration of the colonists’ firepower they became much more reasonable.

The English observers at the time would blame various things on the struggling of the colony, although “…observers at the time concluded that the causes of starvation boiled down to laziness, selfishness, and poor governance.” (Hermann 64.) In actuality, however, the colonists came bringing their own trades with them to the New World. However, the problem was that some of the colonists’ trades were not going to be relevant in the new world. Goldsmiths would be idle due to a lack of gold in Virginia. The colonists also had been ill prepared for the significantly warmer weather, as the earlier construction of the house belonging to the Allen family having a lower ceiling originally (Bacon’s Castle Virginia Preservation.) If anything, the colonists had not been lazy at all, but had prepared for the wrong circumstances (although they can hardly be blamed for this.) The colonists also happened to arrive in time to experience a very severe drought that even hit the Native Americans hard. This led to what is known to this day as the Starving Time.

As a precursor to the Starving Time, relations with the Native Americans had gone severely downhill. The Native Americans were now not trading with the colonists, and were shooting arrows at any colonist to leave the Jamestown walls. Additionally, what was supposed to be a delivery of supplies in one ship and some 300 more colonists in another two were caught in a hurricane. The supply ship was destroyed, and the two ships containing colonists were stranded in Bermuda, but were able to still get to Jamestown. However, there were now 300 more colonists to feed and not enough supplies even for the colonists already there. This meant that the colonists were forced in some instances to resort to eating dogs, horses, almost anything that moved. The photo below shows the jawbone of  a dog found at the Jamestown site. The crude marks showing the attempted breaking of the bone can still be seen.


(I took this photo also)

This also meant that in complete desperation, some accounts refer to the colonists resorted to cannibalism. One story was told of a man with a pregnant wife who “murdered his wyfe Ripped the Childe out of her woambe and threwe itt into the River and after Chopped the Mother in pieces and sallted her for his foode.” (Herrmann 54.) This shows just how horrible the times treated these people. The colonists were going to move to colonies up north, when they spotted a supply ship that sent them back to Jamestown to keep staying there. However, the colonists thereafter moved away from Jamestown. This likely saved them from repeatedly suffering the same horrors.

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