Trials of the New World

When the English settlers came to the New World in 1607, riches were among the first things on their mind. However, gold was not what they found; instead they found starvation, conflict with the Indians, and sickness. From the Old World perspective of less intensive labor and wealth that came from the Indians, the colonist were more prepared for attacks from the Spanish and plentiful food from the Natives and the land. However, historians must acknowledge that the basic tool kit was more sophisticated than our predecessors may have perceived.

The story of the Jamestown settlers begins before the ships even leave the docks. In fact, it begins almost 400 years before with the Natives of the land, the Powhatan Indians. Werowocomo, the political center of the Powhatan tribe which consisted of more than 15,000 natives. (Richter, 70). The capital was laid out in a fashion that reminds archeologist of a hammerhead shark, with two parallel lines that went through the center into the two nearby creeks. The Powhatan were important to the English settler’s society in many different ways. They taught them how to live off the land and traded them valuable goods that helped the colony, but also hindered it, this happened because it proved to the English that gold did not exists in the colony that they founded.

The founding of Jamestown had humble origins, and what would eventually become the first permanent English colony in North America fit entirely within three modest ships. Only 104 colonists made the initial journey, and these were mostly soldiers and very few skilled men. The trans-Atlantic crossing was no small undertaking, and it was here that many of the settlers experienced their first taste

This is where the passengers would have slept on the travel over to the New WorldTaken by Paige Hildebrand

This is where the passengers would have slept on the travel over to the New World
Taken by Paige Hildebrand

of hardship. For example, the midsized-Godspeed only had a crew of thirteen and carried 39 passengers that lived with the cargo, often sleeping on it in cramped conditions.

Among the 104 Englishmen was John Smith who, according to his own account, was a con man, an escape artist, and an accomplished killer. As historian Tony Horowitz has put it, these qualities prepared Smith to save Jamestown, but set him up to be a self-made apostle of the 18th century dream (Horwitz, 326). In one poignant example from his memoir, Smith tells of his capture and escape from the Powhatan Indians. According to his relations of events, Smith was separated from his men after which he was attacked by a native force lead by Opechancanough, the Pamunkey weroance. In a sequence of events rife with symbolism, Smith was taken through a complicated journey through what is now Virginia. At the end of Smith’s journey he was taken in the heart of the Powhatan Empire, Werowocomo, and was adopted by the chief into the Algonquian tribe, The Powhatan (Gallivan, 85-94).

Even though the English thought they were well prepared, the supplies that they brought with them were not well adapted to the environment of the New World. This caused a series of trials to occur and the first one the settlers encountered was hunger. In September of 1607 and only four months after the English arrived, supplies were already running low. Facing the possibility of starvation, the settlers felt all but defenseless. Governor Percy wrote in his journal about the first of several interventions that rescued Jamestown, “to send those people who were our mortall enemies to releeve us with victuals, as Bread, Corne, Fish, and Flesh in great plenty, which was the setting up of our feeble men; otherwise wee had all perished.” (Horwitz, 330).

Throughout time Jamestown had many periods of desperate hunger, however, the Native Americans were not always allies. There were multiple times throughout Jamestown history that Powhatan’s daughter Matoka, more commonly known as Pocahontas, was forced to intervene. One such time was when Pocahontas came to the fort and warned the English for traps being laid by the Powhatan and saved

A statue of Pocahontas inside the Jamestown fort. Taken by Paige Hildebrand

A statue of Pocahontas inside the Jamestown fort. Taken by Paige Hildebrand

everyone inside (Horwitz, 337).

Jamestown had also endured sickness in the summer and fall months. In May of 1609, Smith dispersed a portion of the colony into the surrounding areas. The payment for their leaving the Jamestown fort was approximately an ounce of copper a day. Out of the 100 colonists that resided in Jamestown, half of them were dead five months later. However at Nansemond and further down the river at the fall line, few settlers sickened, but none died (Earle, 108).

After Smith had been injured in a gunpowder explosion and returned to England to recover came another trial in the winter of 1609. The Starving Time was one of the worst times in Jamestown’s short but, powerful history. When a hurricane stranded a small portion of a fleet of ships on its own, supplies on the ships that made it to Jamestown were spoiled and another approximant number of 200 people departed from the ships, with almost 30 women. With little supplies and many mouths to feed there was no surprise that the settlers quickly ate through the meat that the farm animals supplied, along with the horses, dogs, rats, snakes, and other vermin inside the fort (Earle, 108), because the settlers were not allowed to step outside the walls of the fort.

Along with the hunger of that dreadful winter came the Indian’s attacks, forcing the colonists to rely on food sources inside the fort rather than hunting or scavenging for food. Out of the 220 colonists that remained after John Smith left for London, fifteen were killed by Native Americans (Earle, 109). The winter of 1609-1610 was the hardest ones that the colonist ever endured, with the lack of new supplies and the ability to exit the fort to gather fresh ones was cut off from them, the settlers were starving by the spring of 1610.

Eyewitness accounts of this period have conclusively agreed that cannibalism happened at some point between October of 1609 and May of 1610. Historians have five witness accounts for the Starving Time: those from Percy, Smith, the Earl of Northumberland (the brother of Percy), the Virginia Assembly, and Strachey. Four out of these five say that cannibalism happened, where as only one announces, the Virginia Company, says that there was no cannibalism happening at Jamestown, but without anything proving this other than writings

A recreation of Jane's skull, the young woman who had been eaten during the Starving Time. Taken by Paige Hildebrand

A recreation of Jane’s skull, the young woman who had been eaten during the Starving Time. Taken by Paige Hildebrand

from these five people, it proved impossible to discover whether or not cannibalism happened (Herrmann, 51). In 2012 archeologists with the Jamestown Rediscovery project discovered a human skull in a cellar with fragments of other animal bones. The inspection of the skull indicated that cannibalism had indeed happened in Jamestown.

In 1614 something important occurred in Jamestown. Pocahontas, then known as Rebecca, married John Rolfe. After this union the colony began to prosper, West Indian tobacco was introduced, Indian attacks became less frequent, and peace spread throughout the settlement. However, this peace did not last for very long, in 1617 Pocahontas died of a mysterious malady, ending the peace (Horwitz, 345-347).

After tobacco had taken over the English market in Virginia more people were wishing to start a life in the New World. They started coming over as indentured servants. The average demographic of the indentured servant was uneducated, young white male, 18-25 years old, and from Southern England. Although the indentured servants were mostly male, there were female servants also.

By the 1670’s people who had come over as indentured servants a decade or two before were stuck and left in poverty after taxes. This added to the Indian attacks on the borders where people often received their land caused an uprising lead by Nathaniel Bacon (Tarter, 108). This revolution was the first revolution that the colony had ever seen. During the revolt, farmers led by Bacon went and burned Jamestown, the colonies capital.

Since 1607 people from England have been coming the New World looking for wealth, power, and glory. The trials that men and women, of all races, had endured proved that humans are survivors. The first 70 years of the colony proved to have an enriched history that set the stage for many more years to come.


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