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.

The History Of Commemorating Jamestown

Jamestown was first settled in 1607 — and it’s come a long way since then. Whereas only 108 men first arrived to colonize the land around the James River, today there are over 15,000 people who live there. It is a wonderfully preserved part of American history, now over four centuries old. And because it’s that old, there have already been a number of commemorations.

The 200th anniversary occurred in 1807, when there was a festival with 3,000 attendees called the Grand National Jubilee. It opened on May 13. There was a procession leading the way to the old church and its graveyard, where there was a prayer service. Many of the attendees would then dance and dine at the Travis Mansion. The College of William and Mary was up and running at this point, and many students delivered speeches to mark the occasion.

The 300th anniversary in 1907 was marked by the erection of the 103-foot tall Jamestown Tercentenary Monument on Jamestown Island. There was a general feeling of concern related to the oncoming festivities because the American population was now much larger and the Jamestown area was actually smaller — some areas having been eroded and swallowed by the James River. Therefore, the Jamestown Exposition was held in 1907 but in Norfolk County. President Theodore Roosevelt attended.

Mistakes were not repeated as 2007 (the 400th anniversary) was noted to be just around the corner. New accommodations and facilities were planned and constructed in anticipation of the festivities in order to have them on location at Jamestown. The Jamestown 2007 Commission planned and executed a whopping 18 months of state, national, and even international events, beginning in 2006. 

Queen Elizabeth II visited, as did Prince Philip, in early May when the anniversary was finally commemorated. The royal family had also paid the honor of a visit in 1957 during the 350th anniversary celebration.

What Happened When An Ancient Planter Was Old Or Disabled?

The New World probably wasn’t as you imagine it. What the ancient planters discovered would have been much more refined than expected. What does that mean? There were massive herds of grass-eating animals that would have put our lawn mowers to shame. There would have been empty fields and game paths that would have made the Jamestown area somewhat navigable — especially since the area was already inhabited by Native Americans. Both the animals and the natives would present a certain level of danger.

Then there were simple accidents when things were built. There was a lack of food which could lead to malnutrition and mental and physical consequences. There was winter, which brought frostbite or hypothermia. All of these obstacles could lead to disability.

The ancient planters didn’t have access to esteemed Los Angeles disability lawyers or social security benefits. They didn’t have personal injury lawyers to hold everyone else accountable. This was the bush. For the most part, only a few men would write the laws and decide what to do when an unexpected event occurred. But aging and injury were two very foreseeable circumstances. What did their laws say should be done? 

After only one year of settling Jamestown, the colonists were already feeling like garbage. They were lethargic, malnourished, and missed home. The morale situation led John Smith to suggest a new rule: “He that will not worke shall not eate (except by sicknesse he be disabled).”

This is the reason we have any evidence at all that they would take care of the sick or disabled. But then again, the settlement at large produced very little. The Jamestown settlers would have to rely on their Native American “friends” for food. They didn’t know how to live off this new land. Hunting only provided so much, and they didn’t know what could be foraged for until the Native Americans taught them. It took them many years to establish a good crop — and even then, much of it was tobacco and used to further trade interests.

Jamestown would have been like any other 17th century society as far as retirement was concerned (i.e. there wasn’t one). You worked until you were too old or too frail to work anymore — and then you relied on your children for support. You probably died young from disease or accidents. 

The “good news” is this: even though many Jamestown settlers would certainly have been disabled through the daily grind — i.e. accidents or warfare — most would die from their injuries. Medicine in 1607 might have allowed someone who suffered an amputation to survive, but it certainly isn’t advanced enough to provide for everyone. Most people who were seriously injured simply succumbed to their injuries. 

But for those who lost loved ones (i.e. everyone), there was a better support group than most of us would enjoy today. Everyone knew everyone, because the community was smaller and tighter-knit. They used church, for example, to grow their bonds.

The Legacy And Preservation Of Jamestown

One can go visit Jamestown to explore the lasting legacy of the first English settlement in the New World — and what a legacy it is. The storied past of the Jamestown settlers might not be remembered at all, were it not for the exploits of many historians who, over the years, have taken great pains to preserve and protect its place in history books. The first real test came during the American Civil War. 

Jamestown was quickly occupied by Confederate troops early in the war in 1861. The goal was to keep the James River (they were very creative people back in the 1600s) blockaded so that Union ships could not use it to transport supplies or reach Richmond. At the height of its power, the occupation managed to garrison about 1,200 men. It was the site of battery tests when Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones joined Confederate William Allen, whose force first occupied the town. 

Thankfully, there was never any fighting in or around Jamestown. The Confederate forces hastily abandoned Jamestown once it was clear that their position would quickly be overrun if they stayed. And it became clear after battles at Yorktown and Williamsburg turned into failures for the Confederate side. 

That’s not to say there wasn’t any damage to the historic town. Jamestown became a haven for runaway slaves. Not surprisingly, they took to damaging or destroying icons of slavery, such as the old Ambler (plantation) house. 

Following the war, the town was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Edward Barney, who eventually donated over 22 acres of land to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. This helped pave the way to keep many of the artifacts from being destroyed or the buildings from being demolished. Mother nature has since done her share of damage (the river eroded the island’s shore over the years), but this donation is a big part of the reason we still have much of Jamestown’s history intact.

Accidents In Early Jamestown

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:

Was Captain George Kendall Truly A Mutineer?

We recently spoke about the rocky road embarked upon by the first settlers of Jamestown in 1607. Not only did the settlers — the first of whom were all male — have to deal with harsh winters, sickness, and starvation, but they also had to deal with threats amongst themselves. Captain George Kendall was blamed for a mutiny in the early days of the settlement, but he was ultimately put to death by firing squad.

Historians wonder if this was the full story, though.

Captain John Smith had laid extraordinary praise at the man’s feet before his death. Smith said that Kendall was diligent, a gentleman, but one against whom “hainous matter” had been proved. Interesting how a mutineer can be such a gentleman! 

In 1996, the remains of an assumed early 17th-century settler were unearthed near the Jamestown fort. Historians believed they had found Kendall.

Bly Straube, curator of the Jamestown Rediscovery team, said, “It would be absolutely wonderful if we could tie these remains to a real, live person. But it’s going to take a lot more work.”

The detectives responsible for identifying the body quickly discovered how violent his death had been. There were several wounds made by musket balls, which would have been fatal. The diggers also believed that amongst the artifacts found with the body inside a coffin was a pin for a blindfold — maybe.

It should be mentioned, of course, that the historical details surrounding the supposed mutiny are nonexistent. We really have no idea what happened. 

But some believe his execution occurred after he was found to be a Catholic spy. Historian Philip L. Barbour said, “There is no clear-cut evidence. Captain George Kendall: Mutineer or Intelligencer.”

The team hopes to, in the future, gain more DNA evidence to prove that the body is Kendall. The investigation into whether or not Kendall was a spy or mutineer remains ongoing.

How Far Into Virginia Did Jamestown Settlers Explore?

The original Jamestown settlers were all men and boys — and they didn’t bring much with them. Only the basics like food and water. For everything else, they had to search when they arrived in what would eventually be named Virginia. It wasn’t an easy task. Every additional step into the great wilderness of the New World meant increased risk from natural obstacles, hunger, dehydration, and Native Americans. And certainly, they could only explore during the warmer months of the year.

Actually, much of the exploring occurred before the men and boys actually landed their ships in Jamestown. They spent a week or two trying to find the right spot. Jamestown might have been their best shot to set up and long lasting settlement — but that doesn’t mean it was ideal. Far from it, in fact. The location was somewhat shielded by natural barriers, but water sources were far from adequate and created problems for the new settlement.

The settlers might have had better luck farther south and more inland. Jamestown is located along the Atlantic Coast, due southeast of Richmond, which is about midway between Maryland and North Carolina. The first winters would devastate the new colony.

Additional shipments of goods were scheduled over the next few years, and they might have benefitted from continuing to explore along the coast. They had problems of their own, however, and many ships were lost along the way. This was especially true in 1609, when the flagship Sea Venture led six other ships and two pinnacles as part of the Third Supply. They were enveloped in hurricane winds, lost a few ships, and were forced to land along the reefs of Bermuda lest the entire fleet be destroyed.

Interestingly, these new settlers probably had it easiest — because the original Jamestown settlement was enduring the Starving Time, during which two-thirds of the population perished from starvation, disease, and freezing temperatures.

But because of the misfortunes of the Third Supply, they were able to explore farther south (although Bermuda was already mapped at the time). These settlers arrived in Jamestown in late spring, 1610. Another fleet arrived barely more than a month later, replenishing the settlement’s supplies — and people.

North Virginia was more difficult to explore during this time, both because of Native Americans and settlers from other European countries. The Native Americans posed less of a problem because so many were wiped out by the diseases and illnesses brought by the Europeans. But fighting between settlements was also to be avoided at all costs, because the population was already so small. 

Eventually, it was the economy that drove further exploration into the New World. The main staple, tobacco, was so desired in the New World that trade allowed the settlers to expand supply lines well beyond what was initially available. This mostly occurred decades after the ancient planters first arrived — but they did eventually succeed in making the most of their adventure into the New World.

Did Early Jamestown Settlements Struggle With Addiction?

Most of us realize that the first settlers of historic Jamestown were forced to endure an endless list of hardships before they really got their footing. These included lack of water and food, famine, conflict with Native Americans, sickness, and long winters. Together, these factors contributed to many of the settlers perishing very early on — and considering the first group was comprised only just over 100 men, that was a big problem.

Another issue was the lack of economy. They needed a profitable commodity to trade amongst themselves and with the natives, and it took them a few years before they found one: tobacco. Once settlers were incentivized to grow (they had been given “free” land that belonged to the Natives). But tobacco is addictive. What makes addiction more likely? Factors like adverse living, depression, etc. And we know the Jamestown settlers had that in spades.

So was there any evidence to suggest they struggled with addiction?

Oddly enough, it’s rarely discussed. Oddly enough, King James didn’t have much respect for tobacco or smokers — he is documented as having believed it was a revolting habit — but he allowed settlers to grow and sell it anyway. After all, the New World was ripe for the taking. But in order to take it, settlers had to first survive long enough to build a beachhead that future travelers could use to get their own footing. 

In the years following, settlers arrived by the boatload. Most were indentured servants who were forced to work off a debt. Survival was the least of their problems! Almost all of these settlers grew tobacco to work off their debt and make a living. It’s almost inconceivable to make the case that none of these poor, depressed folk smoked. They almost certainly took their fair share of the crop that kept them alive and, eventually, helped them prosper.

Which Settlements Followed Jamestown Into The 17th Century?

The average American fifth grader would probably know that Jamestown was the first major attempt at settlement of the New World by the English, who were becoming quite good at empire building. But how many of them would know the order of operations thereafter? There were dozens of settlements, some smaller, some larger, that came after Jamestown. Many of these early settlements failed, while others thrived.

Technically, Christopher Columbus and his men began a settlement where they landed in 1493, after their second voyage across the sea. They named it Isabella. It was consistently on the verge of destruction until he moved to a new town near present-day Santo Domingo.

The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in December 1620. Not exactly the best time — or place — to arrive in the New World, but they made do. Without the help of the Native Americans, these settles almost certainly would have starved to death during the harsh New England winter.

We most often think about those settlements established by the English, but the French were colonizing as well. New France was permanently established in 1616 Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia) after Jesuit missionaries arrived in 1611. Believe it or not, but the American focus on English colonies makes little sense considering how meticulous the Jesuits were in documenting every single detail of the New World experience. Much of what we know about the English colonies is thanks to Jesuit efforts.

New England was founded by 1630. John Winthrop propelled this colony forward by authoring a famous pamphlet with arguments why it should be founded despite the strong objections of English authority back home. One of those reasons was because the Native American presence in Massachusetts was extremely small — thanks to the spread of illness and disease brought by the English.

New Netherland was established by the Dutch Republic with a large amount of territory in 1614, some of which included present-day Cape Cod. The colony included a number of settlements — which would find conflict not only with nearby Native Americans, but also with the settlers of other colonies established by the Swedish South Company. They pushed into New Netherland from the south, while the New England Confederation pushed in from the north. Even so, the colony swelled for the next fifty odd years.

The vast majority of these settlements were built and organized similar to Jamestown: indentured servants were brought over from the Motherland, and then forced to work for a period of years to pay off what they owed. There was no credit card debt relief for these poor souls. They worked in the fields until the books were balanced properly. Eventually, slaves would be brought over as well — which meant indentured servitude occurred less and less. This was great for business owners, but not so great for everyone else.

By the way, these colonies and settlements were hardly the first. The Norse began to colonize North America as early as the tenth century — although they probably didn’t make it much farther than Newfoundland and Greenland.

How Were Officials Elected In Early Jamestown?

Considering there were barely more than 100 settlers (all men and boys) who arrived in Jamestown, it stands to reason that there may have been infighting. That’s what happens when you put dozens of alpha males ready for adventure and a new life in one confined area with all the stress in the world: bad water, little food, horrendous winters, and Native Americans with whom you refuse to get along. So how did they elect their officials?

Don’t be silly, they didn’t elect anyone — because their was still a king back in England and he was still in control.

The town was actually named after King James I, who himself established a council of seven men who would carry out directives. Command was given to Captain Christopher Newport. Interestingly, the leadership was a mystery until they actually arrived in Jamestown — meaning their were already big problems by the time they got there, especially because everyone wanted to know exactly who would be ordering them around. But the king had it his way, and a box with seven names inside remained sealed until they landed. 

This was great news for Captain John Smith, who was to be hanged for mutiny. When the settlers saw his name on the list of seven, he was granted a reprieve by Newport. 

Within the first two years of settlement, though, investors and settlers alike grew antsy about the current direction of the colony. A new charter was requested and approved, and a sole governor was appointed: Sir Thomas West. His second, Thomas Gates, established a code of laws by 1610, which were continually expanded upon by successors (because there really are never enough laws, if we’ve learned anything from American legislators).

Over the next decade, governors and councilors would routinely change because of harsh winters and internal political strife. But that’s what having a king is all about!