I am happily back teaching American history as part of ‘The Dawning of America’ module on the History with English FdA programme at University Centre South Devon; after a fallow year without a cohort, it is great to return to the history of a nation as paradoxical and intriguing as the United States of America. This module covers the span of three centuries of history; as its tagline notes, from Plymouth Rock in 1620 to the Philippines in 1898 (meaning the impact of the Spanish-American War of that year). However, 1620 is not the actual start date of the module: we look at the growth of imperialist ideas in the Elizabethan state in the 1500s and the first successful colony prior to Plymouth… Jamestown.

I have previously written about Jamestown on this blog, in the form of a post from March 2019 focusing on the Bacon Rebellion of 1676. As the colony forms such a large part of the American story it seems odd that I have not expanded on it in more detail, and in many ways I have committed the same pattern as many other historians, for Jamestown is continually put in the shade by its more noble, clean, and committed “brother” colony Plymouth. This is especially so over the past year in which the four hundred year anniversary of Plymouth’s founding was commemorated, and this simply continues an old theme of greater prominence no doubt due to Plymouth having a more grand history with persecuted pilgrims, families, and the initiation of Thanksgiving.

By comparison, Jamestown is more sordid: it was set up to make profit, started the institution of slavery, and contained – in its year years – mostly men. However, Jamestown is incredibly important because it set a pattern that subsequent colonies followed throughout the remainder of the 17th century. I thought I would expand on Jamestown’s significance in a later post (particularly in what I have distilled down to the “Three Ps” of success). The focus of this post is on the early problems of Jamestown colony, which serve to highlight just how precarious the settlement was in suffering the same fate as Roanoke (from the 1580s).

The Virginia Company sent across the first boats to established the colony in late 1606, with the New World reached in 1607. Up to this point the English had explored areas of the eastern coast of the modern day United States – notably so with the likes of Sir Walter Raleigh – and had gone much further afield, especially in the form of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe in the 1570s. However, the English had not yet established a permanent colony and lagged far behind the vast and successful Spanish Empire in the Americas. Jamestown was selected due to its geographical distance from the Spanish possessions, and it was hoped that a profit could be turned for the Company.

But the first five years of the colony were terrible ones. This can be outlined in several key factors. Firstly, the location of the peninsula itself may have made strategic sense, but it brought many problems: poor drinking water and lacklustre potential to grow crops. Archaeologists have since studied the area and have suggested that founding a colony on the site at that time (between 1606-12) was a terrible choice due to the soil suffering the worst drought in seven centuries. It was little wonder that the nearby natives – in the form of the Powhatan Confederacy – had discounted the location (not that the colonists were to know this).

A second key problem was a lack of real planning as to what was required to survive in the New World. Historians have noted that the early colonists lacked in agricultural skills, and this confirms Middleton’s point as to how a shift was needed in the English mentality to move from those who went to the New World as ‘dreamers and gamblers’ who sought a quick profit. This also links to the third problem: a lack of clear leadership. One of the early governors (Edward Wingfield) was imprisoned due to hiding food, another governor (John Ratcliffe) was killed by natives, whilst John Smith returned to England having helped the colony survive in its first couple of years.

A fourth problem was the English relationship with the natives. At first, relations seemed to have been pleasant, however, this was based on a clear misunderstanding between the two groups: the Powhatan in the region saw the English as a traders, not as colonisers; whereas the English saw the natives as a people to exploit. Soon enough the two groups were attacking one another, and from 1610 governor De La Warr utilised a scorched earth policy to bring the natives to heel (I will explore these early Anglo-Powhatan wars in another post).

All of these problems had serious consequences: the death of colonists throughout combat, or the fleeing of colonists who sought a better life with the natives. The “Starving Time” of 1609-1610 came about due to a lack of supplies (the third supply ship was delayed), which meant that the colonists were forced to eat rats and snakes, and with some evidence of cannibalism. John Smith, an early leader of the colony later wrote a history of Jamestown; in it he recounts the impact of the “Starving Time”.

Now we all found the losse of Captaine Smith, yea his greatest maligners could now curse his losse: as for corne provision and contribution from the Salvages, we had nothing but mortall wounds, with clubs and arrowes; as for our Hogs, Hens, Goats, Sheepe, Horse, or what lived, our commanders, officers and Salvages daily consumed them, some small proportions sometimes we tasted, till all was devoured; then swords, armes, pieces, or any thing, wee traded with the Salvages, whose cruell fingers were so oft imbrewed in our blouds, that what by their crueltie, our Governours indiscretion, and the losse of our ships, of five hundred within six moneths after Captaine Smiths departure [October 1609 — March 1610], there remained not past sixtie men, women and children, most miserable and poore creatures; and those were preserved for the most part, by roots, herbes, acornes, walnuts, berries, now and then a little fish: they that had startch in these extremities, made no small use of it; yea even the very skinnes of our horses.

Nay, so great was our famine, that a Salvage we slew and buried, the poorer sort tooke him up againe and eat him; and so did divers one another boyled and stewed with roots and herbs: And one amongst the rest did kill his wife, powdered [i.e., salted] her, and had eaten part of her before it was knowne; for which hee was executed, as hee well deserved: now whether shee was better roasted, boyled or carbonado’d [i.e., grilled], I know now; but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of.

This was that time, which still to this day [1624] we called the starving time; it were too vile to say, and scarce to be beleeved, what we endured: but the occasion was our owne, for want of providence industrie and government, and not the barrennesse and defect of the Countrie, as is generally supposed; for till then in three yeeres, for the numbers were landed us, we had never from England provision sufficient for six moneths, though it seemed by the bils of loading sufficient was sent us, such a glutton is the Sea, and such good fellowes the Mariners; we as little tasted of the great proportion sent us, as they of our want and miseries, yet nothwithstanding they ever overswayed and ruled the businesse, though we endured all that is said, and cheifly lived on what this good Countrie naturally afforded. Yet had wee beene even in Paradice it selfe with these Governours, it would not have beene much better withe us; yet there was amongst us, who had they had the government as Captaine Smith appointed, but that they could not maintaine it, would surely have kept us from those extremities of miseries. This in ten daies more, would have supplanted us all with death.

Despite not being in the colony during this period, Smith sums up the difficult situation that the English faced. However, as we all know, Jamestown did not suffer the same fate as Roanoke; the supply ships continued to come which steadied the settlement in the decade ahead. Perhaps on reflection we could deem the success of the survival of Jamestown as a matter of luck; yes, there were clear efforts made to sustain it, but during the first three-four years it seemed as if the settlement could have collapsed at any time. All of this supports Middleton’s assertion that setting up a successful colony during this period is similar to putting a man on the moon in the twentieth century.