A Brief History Of Bad Decisions In Early Jamestown

We’ve already discussed what injury and disability procedures may have looked like in early Jamestown when the settlers arrived in 1607. John Smith was the man in charge when power was handed to him in 1608 — but only one year later, he returned home to England following an accident involving a gunpowder explosion. It was a dangerous world these people had found! And an unforgiving one. In Smith’s case, he had the option to go home. But not everyone had that option. Most had to stay, facing the consequences head on.

Disability was uncommon in the Jamestown settlement only because a serious accident would usually result in death. This wasn’t really so surprising when you look at who these men were and why they were there to begin with. The settlers weren’t like others who would follow them hoping to escape religious persecution. No, these were 108 men who were hoping to strike it rich or make a productive home for themselves. Most were upper class men who didn’t want to work. 

Reading in between the lines? That means they were book smart, but didn’t necessarily have the real-world skills they would have needed to thrive. That’s why so many died.

Jamestown was built near a swamp, which was one of the first bad moves the settlers made. This left them with little sanitary drinking water, which they used for cooking and washing as well. And what happens when you drink or expose yourself to bad water? Illness and disease become even more common. Many settlers came down with dysentery or typhus. These problems only amplified during the first winter, when many died — not only because of disease, but of starvation.

Because these were people with book smarts, they mistakenly believed they would find a way to live off the land almost as soon as they found it — which is why they had barely more food than what was needed for the voyage. There are even rumors that the colonists may have resorted to cannibalism in order to survive the winter (but take those with a grain of salt). It took a while for settlers to build a relationship with the Native Americans (and even then it was a rocky road), so they couldn’t trade for enough food to keep fed.

Believe it or not, summer was another problem that rarely gets mentioned. They were from England, where temperature extremes were much more mild. They may not have been prepared for the freezing temperatures of winter, but not were they for the overbearing heat of summer. More died from dehydration (again, bad water) or from heat stroke.

Two-thirds of the settlers by the time the next batch were delivered. We’re sure the men were happy to finally receive some women. But instead of moving to find a better location, they stayed, built, and made yet more bad decisions. Soon, conflict with the Native Americans would escalate into full blown war. But that’s a topic for another day.