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.