The Effect of Leadership On Early Virginia Society

When what would become the first settlers of the United States embarked on their treacherous journey across the Atlantic, they began an adventure that would change history in ways they could not conceive. The settlement at Jamestown was originally intended to be an extension of England that would bring in an economic profit, mainly through the finding of gold. However, the settlers at Jamestown were in for heartbreak: the land’s riches fell short of the expectations of the Virginia Company, and instead of thriving, the settlement teetered on the edge of failure. With starvation and disease killing nearly two-thirds of the population, the settlement appeared to be doomed, even in the eyes of its optimistic leaders. Time and time again, the early colony failed to retain leadership that could effectively govern a diverse group of settlers, as well as organize their labors in a strange and unfamiliar land. The absence of strong and reliable leaders in early Virginia was a significant and often overlooked disadvantage that would result in starvation, the failure of settlers to work efficiently, and, eventually, in rebellion.

The winter of 1609-1610 – known popularly as the Starving Time – marks one of the most significant crises of the early Jamestown settlement. Food shortages were said to be so severe that in order to remedy starvation, some settlers turned to cannibalism. Although it is not clear to what extent cannibalism occurred in Jamestown, its mere mention emphasizes the extent of starvation within the colony. The emergence of cannibalism, or perhaps the fear that English investors would discover the degree of peril in Jamestown, caused colonial leaders to act in fear. Leaders of Jamestown “began to enact new laws about food production and consumption” (Herrmann, 58) in response to the widespread starvation, most of which were ineffective. However, the most common

The skull of Jane, a woman who was cannibalized in Jamestown

response of leaders during the Starving Time was to use their accounts to “advance or defend their personal image and reputation.”(Herrmann, 64) John Smith, for example, used the occurrences at Jamestown to portray how the settlement was struggling without him; instead of offering solutions to the troubles the settlers were enduring, Smith used the struggles to inflate his own self-image. Percy exploited The Starving Time in desperation to make himself appear as though he were a sufficient leader during the time he was president of the colony. Leaders of Jamestown tended to put their personal goals above the goals and aspirations of the colony. This resulted in a population that failed to put enormous effort into the community due to the lack of support from their leaders.

Settlers in Virginia varied in comparison to their New England contemporaries, mainly due to the highly individualistic attitude of those who settled in Virginia. Southern colonists were motivated by the prospect of material gain (T.H. Breen, 71), mainly in terms of land and profit. The desire for material gain created a general suspiciousness of not only other settlers who could possibly create a profit greater than yours, but also of the government. T.H. Breen describes Virginian settlers as seeing mutiny and anarchy “more attractive than obeying someone else’s orders.” The leaders of Jamestown spent more time seeking glory than ensuring that Jamestown was successful. This highly individualistic mindset did more harm than good. The settler’s inability to trust each other was a method to prevent any interference in their desperate pursuit of profit, but proved to be counterproductive as the colony struggled due to a lack of a community effort.  The failure to effectively organize and the settler’s blatant lack of desire to organize significantly slowed production at the settlement.

Social unrest and tensions between the leaders of society and those of lower ranks continued into the late 17th century, namely with the infamous Bacon’s Rebellion. Nathaniel Bacon emerged as a strong leader and a symbol of hope for the “giddy multitude” – something they had debatably never had. When given a powerful leader, the discontented were finally able to organize and banded together in efforts to dismantle what they regarded as the unfair practices of the elitist class. Under a strong leader, the discontented were able to have a voice that was heard among the

Arthur Allen’s home which was stormed by Nathaniel Bacon during Bacon’s Rebellion

highest ranks of Virginian society. Through organization and cooperation, settlers were able to accomplish what they had not been able to when they were disbanded.  Bacon’s Rebellion, although violent and less of a movement among the people than a power struggle between two, was able to exemplify the results of when citizens were able to come together as  a community and work together towards a common goal. The quality of Bacon’s authority, however, has often been questioned, and is described by T.H. Breen as arousing “public fears and frustrations to achieve his own private ends.” (99)

Perhaps the most famous leader of the early settlement is Captain John Smith, who also proved to be a key figure in the survival of the colony. Smith was “the one man capable to mobilizing the beleaguered colony” (Jamestown: The Captain and the Naturals, 24). He was creative and direct when dealing with the Natives, and was able to intimidate them with his European advanced weaponry in a way that commanded respect without causing actual conflict. John Smith also had the intuition to breed hogs as a food source. Despite his arrogance and perceived superiority over others, Smith was able to organize the Jamestown settlement, create a food supply as well as a military force, and teach the settlers the importance of using the knowledge of Indians to their advantage (Jamestown: The Captain and The Naturals, 26). John Smith ruled with an iron fist and under his leadership Jamestown was able to reach the highest level of success that the town had seen.

The struggles that early Virginian settlements endured were many, and resulted in the deaths of thousands of settlers. Their tragic deaths are credited to a multitude of factors such as starvation, disease, and poor relations with Native Americans. The settlers thrived when under the control of a strong leader, while they struggled when dictated by weak leaders who cared more for their own welfare than the welfare of the settlement. Under the care of Smith, Jamestown witnessed the least amount of deaths it had ever seen and the  giddy multitude who regarded Nathaniel Bacon as their leader were able to join together to express their disdain towards the upper class of Virginian society. The failure of the Jamestown settlement should be placed less on the incompetence of those who occupied it, and more on the lack of a leader that would be able to effectively govern its people.

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