How Dangerous Was The Threat Of Fire In The New World?

Settlers hoping to colonize the New World had a long road ahead of them — from beginning to end, it was a difficult life. Many would not make it through the first years of the Jamestown settlement. Most of us already envision the obstacles to obtaining food or building shelter, especially during the long winter months. But how many of us think about the issues that were relevant only to the time period? 

Residents of 1607 Jamestown had to use the resources that were available, and that meant everything was built from trees they cut down themselves. It also meant that the threat of fire was a constant reality.

Fire was a bigger deal in 1607 than it is today, because there were no fire hydrants that could be tapped to extinguish a blaze. In fact, no one was trained with how to deal with such a threat in the first place. In 1607 the best you had was a group of your fellow residents helping you put out the fire one bucket of water at a time. Because this was the best they could do, most fires completely demolished the buildings where they began.

This was a particularly big problem when the building in question was the fort that helped keep everyone safe.

In 1608 the fort at Jamestown was almost completely lost due to fire. Worse than that, it was winter when the blaze broke out. This left them almost completely defenseless. Thankfully, Native Americans in the area supplied them with food and clothing to help them through the winter — but only in exchange for some of their friends and family members who had been captured by the Jamestown colonists, who they had previously raided. The Native Americans were interested in the new weapons.

The fort would have to be rebuilt or salvaged quickly, because relations with these Native Americans would become more tense over the next few years — especially during the “Starving Time” from 1609 into 1610. It seemed almost every winter brought a new catastrophe, which makes it a wonder that any of the colonists managed to survive long enough to strengthen the community as much as they did.

During the same time period, the Native American chief, Powhatan, moved their capital further inland to better avoid contact. Perhaps this was one of the first examples of European settlers pushing Native Americans from their home territory, even though realistically the Native Americans could have wiped out the colonists if they wanted.