Rethinking Jamestown

America’s first permanent colonists have long been considered lazy and incompetent. But new evidence suggests that it was a prolonged drought—not indolence—that almost did them in

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In another room, Straube opens a drawer and pulls out a pitted piece of iron—round, with a point protruding from its center. It is a buckler, she explains, a shield used in handto- hand combat. It was found in a trench surrounding the fort’s east bulwark. By 1607, she says, bucklers were considered largely obsolete as tools of war in Europe—which would seem to fit the traditional view that the Jamestown expedition was provisioned with castoff weapons and equipment. “But we believe these were deliberately chosen,” Straube says, “because the settlers knew they were more likely to face guerrilla-type combat against Indian axes and arrows than a conventional war against Spanish firearms. So the buckler would have come in handy.”

In the cellar of what had been a mud-walled building that extends outward from the eastern palisade wall, archaeologists have found pottery shards, broken dishes and tobacco pipes, food remains, musket balls, buttons and coins. The cellar had been filled with trash, probably in 1610 during a massive cleanup of the site ordered by the newly appointed governor, Lord de la Warre, who arrived at Jamestown just in time to prevent the starving colonists from abandoning the settlement and returning to England. Establishing the date helps show that the cellar’s contents, which included the glassmaking and distilling equipment on display at the APVA headquarters, dated to the colony’s critical first years. It is from such early artifacts that Kelso and Straube are revising the colony’s history.

Sifting through cellars and trenches in and around the fort, Kelso and his team recently uncovered a surprisingly large quantity of Indian pottery, arrowheads and other items. These suggest that the colonists had extensive dealings with the Natives. In one cellar, an Indian cooking pot containing pieces of turtle shell was found next to a large glass bead that the English used in trade with the Indians. “Here we believe we have evidence of an Indian woman, inside the fort, cooking for an English gentleman,” Straube says. While such arrangements may have been rare, Kelso adds, the find strongly implies that Natives occasionally were present inside the fort for peaceful purposes and may even have cohabited with the Englishmen before English women arrived in significant numbers in 1620.

What is known from Virginia Company papers is that the colonists were instructed to cultivate a close relationship with the Indians. Both documentary and archaeological records confirm that English copper and glass goods were exchanged for Indian corn and other foods, initially at least. But the relationship didn’t last long, and the consequences for both the English and the Indians proved deadly.

As grim as the first year was at Jamestown, the darkest days for the colonists were yet to come. In 1608, the set tlement was resupplied twice with new recruits and fresh provisions from London. But when nearly 400 new immigrants arrived aboard seven English supply ships in August 1609, they found the colonists struggling to survive. In September, the former president of the colony, John Ratcliffe, led a group of 50 men up the PamunkeyRiver to meet with Wahunsunacock—better known as Chief Powhatan, the powerful leader of the Powhatan Indians—to bargain for food. The colonists were ambushed, Ratcliffe was taken prisoner and tortured to death, and only 16 of his men made it back to the fort alive (and empty handed).

That fall and winter in Jamestown would be remembered as “the starving time.” Out of food, the colonists grew sick and weak. Few had the strength to venture from their mudand- timber barracks to hunt, fish or forage for edible plants or potable water. Those who did risked being picked off by Indians waiting outside the fort for nature to take its course. Desperate, the survivors ate their dogs and horses, then rats and other vermin, and eventually the corpses of their comrades. By spring, only 60 colonists were still alive, down from 500 the previous fall.

The starving time is represented by debris found in a barracks cellar—the bones of a horse bearing butchery marks, and the skeletal remains of a black rat, a dog and a cat. To the west of the fort, a potters’ field of hastily dug graves—some as early as 1610—contained 72 settlers, some of the bodies piled haphazardly on top of others in 63 separate burials.

In the conventional view of Jamestown, the horror of the starving time dramatizes the fatal flaws in the planning and conduct of the settlement. Why, after three growing seasons, were the men of Jamestown still unable or unwilling to sustain themselves? History’s judgment, once again, has been to blame “gentlemen” colonists who were more interested in pursuing profits than in tilling the soil. While the Virginia “woods rustled with game and the river flopped with fish,” according to The American Pageant, a 1956 history textbook, the “soft-handed English gentlemen . . . wasted valuable time seeking gold when they should have been hoeing corn.” They were “spurred to their frantic search” by greedy company directors in London who “threatened to abandon the colonists if they did not strike it rich.”

But Kelso and Straube are convinced the fate of the colony was beyond the control of either the settlers or their London backers. According to a landmark 1998 climate study, Jamestown was founded at the height of a previously undocumented drought—the worst seven-year dry spell in nearly 800 years. The conclusion was based on a tree-ring analysis of cypress trees in the region showing that their growth was severely stunted between 1606 and 1612. The study’s authors say a major drought would have dried up fresh-water supplies and devastated corn crops on which both the colonists and the Indians depended. It also would have aggravated relations with the Powhatans, who found themselves competing with the English for a dwindling food supply. In fact, the period coincides perfectly with bloody battles between the Indians and the English. Relations improved when the drought subsided.

The drought theory makes new sense of written comments by Smith and others, often overlooked by historians. In 1608, for example, Smith records an unsuccessful attempt to trade goods for corn with the Indians. “(Their corne being that year bad) they complained extreamly of their owne wants,” Smith wrote. On another occasion, an Indian leader appealed to him “to pray to my God for raine, for their Gods would not send any.” Historians have long assumed that the Powhatans were trying to mislead the colonists in order to conserve their own food supplies. But now, says archaeologist Dennis Blanton, a co-author of the tree-ring study, “for the first time it becomes clear that Indian reports of food shortages were not deceptive strategies but probably true appraisals of the strain placed on them from feeding two populations in the midst of drought.”


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