Jamestown: A Nearly Failed Experiment

After Spanish efforts to colonize South America, Great Britain felt that in order to maintain it’s presence as a world power it had to follow suit with a colony of their own in the new world. The result was the colony of Jamestown in 1607. The colonists coming to this new place believed that easy times would await them. Instead, disease, hostile natives, and starvation loomed in their midst. While still ultimately a better outcome then previous British attempts, the Jamestown settlers could have prevented most of this, but there mistakes led them down a path of self-destruction.

What were these mistakes? Firstly, when constructing Jamestown,   they decided to place their new outpost in a marshy area on the James River. This posed many problems though.  The dirty, brackish water surrounding them was far from sanitary, even by the standards of the time. Being forced to drink caused a great number of them to become very sick. Diseases like Typhoid and Dysentery took large percentages of the population. While the people of the time had little understanding of diseases, even they were aware that the ingestion of filthy, brackish water could lead to health problems. While settling there had seemed like a good idea as it provided a good defense against the Spanish, they ultimately never came making the strategic placement of the fort worthless.

While there was the initial problem of where they settled, there was also the problem of what the English settlers expected to be able to do there. Most believed that they would make it big by finding and harvesting gold. This seemed to be common sense to them: after all, the Spanish had acquired many riches by invading the various civilizations that lived in South America. Others believed they might find the fabled pacific northwest passage, a way to directly reach Asia without having to sail around South America. This quickly proved to be not the case. Gold was soon found to be of extremely short supply, and there was no pacific northwest passage. The only way to make a profit on Jamestown would be to make use of the natural resources already there, namely large fields of arable land. However, early Jamestown was largely populated by would be aristocrats who were interested in a get rich quick scenario. (Why Did Jamestown Struggle to Survive? http://www.shmoop.com/jamestown/economy.html) This problem was recognized by some of their leaders. John Smith wrote to London “I intreat you, send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, gardiners, fisher men, blacksmiths, masons and diggers up of trees… then a thousand of such as we have.” (Horwitz, 338) Still, it would be a long time before men such as those Smith asked for would arrive. In the mean time, most of the colony starved due to the lack of farming.


John Smith was one of the few colonial leaders to call for a change in the types of people who made their ways to Jamestown

These problems were made all the worse by a immediately hostile population. No sooner had the English stuck land that the native Powhatan tribe badly wounded two of their men in the middle of the night. (328 Jamestown Settlement) Afterwards, the Natives continued to slaughter the incoming English at every possible opportunity. By September 1607, most of the original settlers were long dead. (330 Jamestown Settlement) Then out of nowhere the previously hostile Natives began bringing them food. No one can know exactly what caused their change of heart, but it would appear to be that the Powhatans no longer saw the Englishmen as any kind of significant threat. The English also had many materials, such a copper, that were hard to come by for the Natives, making them useful. This was a turning point for the settlers, after which they could start to rebuild. New leader John Smith emphasized a peace through strength approach, where the English attempted to intimidate the Natives but avoid a direct confrontation. However, as soon as Smith left Jamestown the new leaders began burning down villages of the Natives and looting tombs of their dead kings. (338 Jamestown Settlement) Rather predictably, the English soon found themselves besieged and in the exact same desperate situations they were when they first got there, with only 60 colonists left out of 500.(339 Jamestown Settlement)


A English created painting of what Chief Powhatan looked like

The decision to attack the native Powhatan tribe was a suicidal one. Although the English technically had more advanced weaponry, they were made for fighting in long open fields against other firearms. The bulky armor they had proved little protection against an arrow, and firearms were not much better then a bow in such heavily forested areas. This is in addition to the fact that they were horribly outnumbered and lacking in supplies of food. By opening up war the colonists in Jamestown lost their number one trading partner when they desperately needed food, and likely made it near impossible to hunt local animals for nourishment as well. The raids on the Powhatan villages did nothing but make the colonists feel better for a short time, followed by unimaginable suffering.

Jamestown was nearly a much of a failure as the lost colony of Roanake. While they did eventually manage to establish the colony, it was only at the cost of the majority the colony’s inhabitants. Location, expectations, and hostile Natives all played a vital role in ensuring their continued hardship. If they had learned to overcome only one of these problems, the new Virginians could have learned to flourish much faster than they did. Instead, they ended up in one of the most bundled colonization attempts ever.



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