Jamestown Was Successful?

Callie Folke

Jamestown is not what I expected. It was much more brutal and inhumane than I ever imagined it would be. I suppose this is because the last time my school taught anything about American History was in 7th grade, except we didn’t even talk about Jamestown at all. So really, the last time I was taught anything about Jamestown was 5th grade, and all we really learned was that Jamestown was supposedly the first successful colony. Up until about 3rd grade, I always accepted the Disney version of Pocahontas’s story as more or less what occurred. When I found out that wasn’t the case, and that she was actually really young when she met Smith, I accepted that, and moved on. I entered this program with the preconceived notion that Jamestown had trouble at first, but prospered into a fantastic place to live after a while. So, when I found out that this was not the case, I was surprised and a little shocked as well. Because of the contrast between what I thought was true and what actually happened, I do not think that Jamestown could be called successful. In fact, I think it was an absolute disaster that could have been avoided.

To begin, the colonists picked an awful spot to settle. The area that was to be called Jamestown was marshy, wet, and disgusting. However, this would have been bearable had it been used for its original purpose, which was a military base to defend against the Spanish. But then the English decided to colonize that area, and as soon as they did, it became apparent that Jamestown was not a very good choice of location. “The swampy Jamestown peninsula lacked springs or brooks, leaving the men to drink from the river, which was not only brackish but ‘at a low tide full of slime and filth’ (Horwitz 329).” This caused terrible diseases such as typhoid and dysentery. Many men died from this, and those who survived became seasoned to the environment, “but they were not particularly immune to future epidemics of typhoid, dysentery, or salt poisoning (Earle 104).” These were not one-time occurrences. There were frequent epidemics of these diseases because the river water was always contaminated. In addition to being a swampy mess, Jamestown was also in the middle of Powhatan’s empire. Powhatan was one of the most powerful Native American leaders at the time, and from their perspective, the colonists were invading them. This explains part of the beginning hostilities between the Natives and the English. The whole process of “seasoning” and the frequent diseases, as well as Native American attacks, could have been avoided if the colonists packed up and chose a different location once they realized that their current location was not a suitable place to live.


Facial reconstruction of ‘Jane,’ the young woman from Jamestown who was cannibalized.
Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-22362831


Crosses at Jamestown representing some of the bodies found there.

Another reason Jamestown cannot be called a successful colony is the death rate. So many people died of diseases, attacks from Native Americans, and a few even died from cannibalism during the Starving Time. “By September 1607, just four months after the colony’s founding, most of the original settlers were dead (Horwitz 330).” The only reason the colony survived was the fact that the Native Americans appeared with food to share with them, which was an extremely kind gesture, considering that at that point in time, the relationship between the Natives and the English was not good. Things got progressively better once John Smith became the leader. Although his tactics were harsh, he was able to set up a system of trade and he made an effort to communicate with the Natives. “During his one year tenure as leader, almost no English died, an unprecedented success (Horwitz 337).” Once John Smith was forced to return to England, the whole system he set up collapsed and the Starving Time began. The new leader, George Percy, was not effective and caused the colony to revert back to the conditions before John Smith’s leadership, which is why the colony failed. Food ran out from failure to store it properly, and the colonists attacked and murdered the Native Americans. This infuriated the Natives so much that they killed all the hogs that Smith bred, thus leaving the English with no reserved food supply. “When rations ran out, colonists ate horses, dogs, cats, rats, and mice. They ate shoes, cooked starch from their collars into ‘a gluey porridge,’ and devoured excrement. When nothing else remained, they ate one another (Horwitz 339).” Many people deny the cannibalism aspect of the story, but recent findings at Jamestown prove that it happened. To reiterate, people ate each other there and yet schoolchildren are still taught that this colony endured and that it was successful and it overcame the odds. It didn’t overcome any odds, and all of its potential was wasted because of the English egos.

The final reason Jamestown cannot be considered successful is the destruction of the relationship with the Native Americans. At first, of course, the two groups were skeptical of each other, but after John Smith took over Jamestown they were able to have a friendly trading system with each other. However, after a year, John Smith had an “accident” with gunpowder and had to return to England. This led to a chain of unsuccessful leaders because the English did not like John Smith, even though his methods and ideas made complete sense. They were afraid of trying something new and too proud to admit that the “savages” actually had the right idea. As stated before, because of terrible leadership, the colonists reverted back to their old ways, which were not successful. They started attacking and robbing the Natives, thus severing the friendly trade system they had, and setting a precedent for acceptable behavior for future generations. By 1622, both groups were filled with hostilities for each other. “…the Indians of the region launched a coordinated attack on the scattered, poorly defended white settlements, and before the colonists could react, 347 of them had been killed (Breen 351).” And the war between the Natives and the settlers continues for several hundred more years. Had the colonists stuck with infrastructure John Smith set up, events like the Trail of Tears might have been avoided because both parties would be able to peacefully coexist. Not to mention that Jamestown would have actually been successful.

I do believe that the failure of Jamestown could have been avoided. There were foolish decisions made, and the fate of Jamestown and the entire country would have turned out completely different had the right and obvious choice been made in several different situations surrounding this colony. Not just on the John Smith issue, but on everything. Almost every time there was a decision to be made, the wrong option was chosen until Jamestown completely declined. We as students are taught that Jamestown was successful because it endured and was carried through even the worst of times, but closer examination proved to me that this is not the case at all because, simply put, it barely held on.

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