Pain and suffering is part of life. We’re all just trying to survive — and sooner or later we all fail. Some will make it to old age, while some won’t. In 1607 Jamestown, pain and suffering were even more severe. Death was common. What they went through trying to obtain a slice of the New World would be nothing short of traumatic for everyone there. The number of accidents and missteps were extraordinary. Perhaps even more extraordinary is the fact that — after all was said and done — they managed to obtain what they were looking for.
You might see plenty of car accidents Southern California if you lived in that region. Traffic makes it nearly guaranteed. But what if you lived in 1607 Jamestown? What type of accidents would you see?
We know a lot based on what John Smith wrote down. Take one letter’s opening: “Kinde Sir, commendations remembered, etc. You shall understand that after many crosses in the downes by tempests, wee arrived safely upon the Southwest part of the great Canaries: within foure or five daies after, we set saile for Dominica, the 26. Of Aprill: the first land we made, wee fell with Cape Henry, the verie mouth of the Bay of Chissiapiacke, which at that present we little expected, having by a cruell storme bene put to the Northward…”
Let’s set aside for a moment the trauma done to our own readers by early seventeenth century grammar and spelling, which was a long way from being standardized. Even in the first paragraph we can infer that many mistakes were made during travel. The new settlers had trouble navigating due to storms, which they could not predict as well as the Native Americans could.
The letter continues: “anchoring in this Bay twentie or thirtie went a shore with the Captain, and in comming aboard, they were assalted with certaine Indians, which charged them within Pistoll shot: whereupon Captaine Archer and Mathew Morton were shot: whereupon Captaine Newport seconding them, made a shot at them, which the Indians little respected, but having spent their arrowes retyred without harme.”
Conflict with Native Americans was inevitable, but the extent to which it happened may not have been. These settlers had a largely different mindset relating to the land and its use than the Native Americans did, and they also had little respect for the people, who they most saw as savages. In fact, it could largely said that the biggest accident Jamestown residents made was their inability to fully integrate with Native American communities, which could have helped them survive.
That’s not to say that they didn’t sometimes get along. Native Americans were critical in helping the settlers survive the first winters. But the constant conflict, instances of disease, slavery, and death ensured that there would be “accidents” for a long time coming. And there were. Settlers couldn’t find enough food and drank sea water when they were already dehydrated. Truth be told, it’s a wonder they survived at all.
The modern Jamestown accident: