How Did Jamestown Residents Settle Non-Criminal Disputes?

There were only 104 people at the first English settlement on the continent of North America — and you might not have realized that they were all men. You heard right. There were no women to balance out the testosterone, and you know what that means: there were disputes, fights, and major problems that needed to be settled without a truly legal means of doing what needed to be done.

Think about it. These men, most of whom were young, couldn’t just pick up a blunt object to commit murder (they all knew each other), or head to a lawyer’s office to sue for damages. On the plus side, there was no need to venture to the nearest Orlando divorce attorney — because there were no marriages. There was one particularly difficult season known as the “Starving Time.” During this period, Jamestown settlers may have resorted to eating the dead. Perhaps they started with the ones they didn’t like too much.

What kind of issues were there? There were Native Americans close to the settlement, and trade between the two groups was difficult. Clean water, unfamiliar environment, little food, and harsh winters only added to the stress endured by Jamestown settlers. Another thing you might not know is that many of these people were very wealthy — and that means they weren’t used to doing things for themselves. Farming? No thanks. They didn’t even have the skills for it.

History wrote, “Modern-day samples taken from some of the wells used by Jamestown colonists have revealed high levels of salt and varying degrees of arsenic and fecal contamination — a foul, and potentially lethal, cocktail.”

How they settled non-criminal disputes shouldn’t surprise anyone who can contemplate for even a minute how a group of all men would respond to these issues: with temper tantrums. There was a history of refusal to work, insubordination, etc., and English authority often had to step in.

When people started to die in the colony, a man named John Smith took over and imposed martial law (which sounds silly considering how few people there were). Smith had those who refused to do their jobs summarily executed. The only thing that truly saved the colony from mutiny was a land incentive system in which people were provided with free land so long as they promised to tend crops on it. 

That helped the colony find a cash crop: tobacco. Not really a big surprise that this was the most profitable crop, especially when you reconsider the stress they were under. Smoking and chewing were two ways to temporarily relieve pent of stress — which was important since there were no women around for nearly a year. Had tobacco not been grown there, England probably would have given up on the colony. And truth be told, all those who lived there probably would have died much sooner than they did.