The Virginia colony had John Smith, Pocahontas, slavery, famine, battles and a great Indian chief. So how come Plymouth Rock gets all the press? An in-depth look at the place where our nation began to take shape They thought they were lost. The Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery had sailed from London on Dec. 20, 1606, carrying 144 passengers and crew, bound for Virginia. Howling winds pinned them to the coast of England for six weeks. After crossing the Atlantic by a southerly route and reprovisioning in the West Indies, they headed north, expecting landfall in the third week of April 1607. Instead they found a tempest. For four days they sounded, seeking offshore shallows in vain. Then, at 4 a.m. on April 26, they saw land. The three ships sailed into Chesapeake Bay and found, in the words of one voyager, "fair meadows and goodly tall trees, with such fresh waters running through the woods, as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof." They picked an island in a river for a fortified outpost and named it after their king, James.
May is Jamestown's 400th birthday, and Queen Elizabeth II, James I's great-great-great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great-granddaughter, will be present to celebrate the occasion. But it's worth remembering that Jamestown was a giant gamble. The trials were severe, the errors numerous, the losses colossal, the gains, eventually, great. Life in Jamestown was a three-way tug-of-war between daily survival, the settlers' own preconceptions and the need to adapt to a new world. Jamestown did not invent America, but in its will to survive, its quest for democracy, its exploitation of both Indians and slaves, it created the template for so many of the struggles--and achievements--that have made us who we are. It contained in embryo the same contradictions that still resonate in America today--the tension between freedom and authority, between public purpose and private initiative, between our hopes and our fears.
Jamestown spawned four centuries of myths. The wreck of a reinforcement expedition in Bermuda inspired Shakespeare's magic play, The Tempest (1611), complete with Caliban, a savage aboriginal; a passage in one of John Smith's many promotional tracts inspired a verse in Peggy Lee's song Fever (1958)--"Captain Smith and Pocahontas had a very mad affair." In reality, Jamestown was a hardheaded business proposition. The 104 English settlers who stayed when the ships went home--gentlemen, soldiers, privateers, artisans, laborers, boys (no women yet)--were late entrants in the New World sweepstakes. Spain had conquered Mexico by 1521, Peru by 1534. The mines disgorged silver, and by the end of the 16th century, Mexico City and Lima had universities, printing presses and tens of thousands of inhabitants. The Portuguese were harvesting dyewood in Brazil, and the French were trading for furs in Canada. Even the somewhat overlooked Chesapeake had seen European passersby: the Native Americans were not unused to strangers with pale skins and sailing ships.
But anyone's venture is special to him. And the England of James I and his predecessor, Elizabeth I, suffered from overpopulation and poverty. Pushing people into other lands could solve both problems and even have a side benefit. As the Rev. Richard Hakluyt, England's premier geographer, put it, "Valiant youths rusting [from] lack of employment" would flourish in America and produce goods and crops that would enrich their homeland. The notion was so prevalent that it inspired a blowhard character in the 1605 play Eastward Ho! to declare that all Virginia colonists had chamber pots of "pure gold."
That would have surprised the Jamestown settlers, who faced an array of challenges, all of them together crushing. It was a project of the London Co., a group of merchants with a royal patent: Imagine that Congress gave Wal-Mart and General Electric permission to colonize Mars. But of necessity, the day-to-day decisions were made in Jamestown, and its leaders were always fighting. Leaders who were incompetent or unpopular--sometimes the most competent were the least popular--were deposed on the spot. The typical 17th century account of Jamestown argues that everything would have gone well if everyone besides the author had not done wrong. Smith, for instance, described his fellow colonists as "ten times more fit to spoil a commonwealth than ... to begin one."
Many things did go wrong. The most pressing problem was sustenance. The first year, the settlers drank from the James River, succumbing to typhoid, dysentery and salt poisoning. Once they had dug a well they were able to drink safely, but what would they eat? Gardening and farming were fiendishly difficult. Studies of tree rings show that the Chesapeake was baked by drought during the first seven years of the colony. This meant they were dependent on bartering or seizing supplies from local Indians, whose own stores were depleted. The settlers who died of disease or starvation had to be replaced by new settlers from England, who arrived once or twice a year (their ranks increasingly included women).
The London Co. expected a return on its outlay, but it was slow in coming. It's not that the settlers weren't capable of working hard. One month after they landed, they realized they needed a log palisade to protect them from Indian arrows. As archaeologist William M. Kelso points out (in Jamestown: The Buried Truth), in 19 days and in a June swelter they cut and split more than 600 trees weighing 400 to 800 lbs. each and set them in a triangular trench three football fields long and 2 1/2 ft. deep. In 2004 New Line Cinema built a replica of the fort for its film The New World and did it in about the same amount of time--with power tools.
But forts cannot be exported. The Rev. Hakluyt had imagined that the colonies "would yield unto us all the commodities of Europe, Africa and Asia." Perhaps the settlers would discover gold. All they found were a few semiprecious stones--garnets, amethysts, quartz crystals. Perhaps they could manufacture glass. One resupply ship brought eight German and Polish craftsmen. Most of them ran off to live with the Indians.