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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Learning From Jamestown

The violent catastrophe of the Virginia colonists is the best founding parable of American history…

Like most humans of my generation, I first encountered the early history of Virginia through the Disney movie Pocahontas. I was a dumb white kid with no knowledge of the underlying historical or political context, and I loved that movie, because it was about living in the forest with a bunch of animal friends, and because the girl got to rescue the guy for a change, all things which were highly appealing to me as a child. Pocahontas spent her time running through misty glades and swan-diving off cliffs into pristine lakes, which seemed like a cool way to live. So you can imagine my excitement when, a few years later, my family relocated from New Hampshire to the exact location where Pocahontas supposedly took place: the bit of eastern Virginia that’s marketed to tourists as the “Historic Triangle,” Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Jamestown.*

But my high hopes for the Virginian outdoors were shortly dashed, because it turns out that there are no fucking cliffs in Jamestown. There is not anything resembling a waterfall in the slightest. These were all Hollywood lies. Jamestown is a goddamn swamp. The land all around is flat and boggy and teeming with mosquitoes. Sometimes, in the early morning, the strong breath of the marsh settles in a kind of a golden haze over the street, and everything smells like salt and old fish.

Every few months, it felt like, my class went on a field trip to a reconstructed version of the Jamestown settlement, and watched some guy in knee-breeches make a candle, and we would then be assigned to build a popsicle-stick model of the colonists’ triangular fort. At one point, a film crew showed up to make a live-action Jamestown movie with Colin Farrell, and some random people from my school ended up in the background as extras. And then, when I was in high school, the Queen of England came on a visit to mark the 300th year since Jamestown’s founding, and stayed in the fancy Williamsburg Hotel where my brother happened to be working for the summer. (I, meanwhile, was stuck manning the till at a toy store that sold tricorn hats and replica muskets and other Revolutionary War paraphernalia, which the Queen did not visit, probably galled by these reminders of our glorious victory over the lobsterbacks.)

The story of Jamestown was so over-taught in Virginia schools, and so over-exposed in our local tourist industry, that I came to find it tedious. But since leaving Virginia, it’s actually been rather startling to me to realize how little place Jamestown has in our national mythology. Most people think that Plymouth Rock was the first permanent English settlement in North America! But Plymouth Rock was founded a good 13 years after Jamestown. Why do we have a whole holiday founded around Plymouth Rock, and none at all around Jamestown? Not to get overly sectarian about this, but the Pilgrims fucking sucked. So rigorous was their modesty that they covered the midriffs of their hats with belt buckles! They objected to Catholicism on the grounds that it was too much fun! In 1659, they straight-up BANNED CHRISTMAS and levied a fine of five shillings against anyone who tried to celebrate! (Where is Fox News’ segment on this bold early salvo in the War On Christmas?) The Pilgrims are, apart from anything else, not the right mascots for a national holiday founded on conspicuous gluttony and the playing of ritual games.

I would like to propose that the story of Jamestown is a far more characteristically American story, and a far better basis for a national feast day, than the story of Plymouth Rock. After all, the architects of Jamestown were men of business. They were risk-takers. They were disrupters. They weren’t the type of men to handle a spade, but their fingers were sensitive to the pulse of the market. They felt for that pulse unceasingly, even through unpromisingly necrotic tissue. In difficult times, they were not too proud to eat their boots. In desperate times, they were not too proud to eat each other. In the end, after several false starts, their colony encountered no problems that a cash crop and an unlimited supply of forced labor could not fix. The men of Jamestown believed in free enterprise! Surely they deserve annual offerings of undercooked turkey.

The Story of Jamestown, Capitalist Utopia

The English settlement at Jamestown was founded in 1607, between the James and York Rivers. This wasn’t the first time that Europeans had tried to settle the region: A few years earlier, a small group of colonists who had tried to settle further south in Roanoke, North Carolina, had up and vanished into thin air. And in fact, in 1570, the Spanish had made an abortive attempt to set up a mission very near to the site where Jamestown was later planted. A group of Spanish Jesuits were led there by a native guide, who had been lured or abducted from the area as a child by a Spanish trader. This Indian, named “Don Luis” by the Spanish, professed himself a devout Catholic and had spent more than a decade begging for the chance to return home to convert his kinsmen to the faith. Upon leading the Jesuits to Virginia, however, Don Luis quickly dropped his pretense of piety and returned to his people, leaving the Jesuits to fend for themselves. When the missionaries, plagued by hunger and afraid to be alone in a strange land, came to look for Don Luis at his village, Don Luis and his kinsmen chopped them all up with their own axes. This story is disturbing, and poignant, because it’s easy to imagine the feelings of everyone involved: for “Don Luis,” long years of alienation, anger, and heartache, buried for survival’s sake beneath a veneer of ingratiation; for the Jesuits, missionary zeal giving way to terror and impotence, as they realized how very far they were from home—a realization no doubt familiar to Don Luis, who had endured the same as a child in Spain—and how ill-prepared they were to cope with the strange realities of a new land.

When the English came to Virginia nearly 40 years later, there was some vague lip-service paid to religion, but for the most part, everyone was pretty open about the fact that they were there to get rich quick. The enterprise was organized by the Virginia Company, a London-based joint-stock company that was empowered by royal charter to more or less self-govern its colonial settlements without needing to answer to anyone but its shareholders. Jamestown historian James Horn writes that, among the first batch of settlers, “between a third and a half were described as gentlemen,” a small handful were craftsmen, and the rest were seamen and laborers.

Notably, agricultural know-how was not prioritized as an important skill among the settlers, most of whom had come to seek gold and scout for a sea route to India, and likely did not anticipate staying in the New World for more than a year or two. The settlers chose a site for their encampment that, conveniently, wasn’t being used by the local Paspahegh tribe—because the site was garbage. Half the island was rendered uninhabitable by marshland, and there were no freshwater springs, meaning that water had to be drawn from wells that were easily polluted by the saline and brackish water of the nearby Chesapeake Bay. The wetlands thrummed with mosquitoes, and the mosquitoes were all fat with unfamiliar blood.

Illustration by Benjamin “Skutch” McGehee

Sending a bunch of feckless rich kids and some leathery sailors to an uncharted bog on the other side of the planet went about as well as you’d expect. James Horn’s book A Land As God Made It, describing the founding of Jamestown, is filled ad nauseam with ominously-titled chapters like “A worlde of miseries,” “Extremitie and Miserie,” and “A Plantacon of Sorrowes.” Within the first months of the colony’s existence, wrote settler George Percy, “our men were destroyed with cruell diseases as Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers, and by warres, … but for the most part they died of meere [famine].” It turned out that not having any plan for how to produce their own food had been a poor strategic move. Seeing how badly things were already going, the ruling council on the ground in Jamestown contemplated arranging for the gentry to return to England, leaving the lower-born colonists to their fates, while investors abroad toyed with cutting their losses and letting the whole colony die off.

A core mass of settlers at Jamestown managed to keep their bodies alive with the help of provisioning ships that travelled periodically from England to relieve their distress, but even so, conditions were miserable. In the cutthroat world of colonial enterprise, there was little solidarity. The crews of the supply ships would stay docked in the harbor, eat much of the food that was intended for the colonists, and then, having artificially increased scarcity, would jack up the price of the remaining food. During the winter of 1608, the colonists somehow managed to accidentally burn down most of their fort, leaving them at the mercy of the elements. Physically weakened, unable to successfully cultivate the land themselves, finding that fresh water was scarce and hunting poor, and with their energies constantly diverted away from settlement-building and towards gold-prospecting, the colony struggled and was often forced to rely on trading with the Indians to survive.

But the colonists were way out of their depth with the Indians, who numbered about 30 tribes and were organized into a sophisticated tributary federation. The Indians were fully aware that the colonists were dangerous (Wahunsonacock, the paramount chief of the federation and dad of the real-life Pocahontas, told the settlers early on that “your coming is not for trade, but to invade my people and possess my country”) but also knew that the colonists were, at the moment, weak and easily exploitable. Wahunsonacock would put embargos on food trade with the colonists in order to starve them into selling weapons to the Indians. Relations vacillated along the entire spectrum of cautious friendliness and violent attrition. The ruling council at Jamestown was constantly haunted by the prospect that the settlers (who clearly knew their leaders were incompetent) would all defect to the Indians. Four Germans among the earlier settlers had quickly got sick of the English and joined up with a local tribe, and used their inside knowledge of the settlement to help their new friends launch raids on the colonists. John Smith wrote of his fears that the greater mass of the colonists hoped to escape the colony and “live idly among the Savages.”

One particularly illuminating episode occurred in 1609, when an English ship carrying supplies and a new governor was wrecked en route to Jamestown on the uninhabited Bermudas. The marooned crew discovered that the islands contained a bounty of delicious fruits and near-tame animals. Unsurprisingly, many of the men soon decided that easy living in a tropical paradise was extremely pleasant, and began to wonder if trying to make it to Virginia was really worth the effort. Several people were caught trying to sabotage the building of a longboat intended to reach Jamestown. One of the conspirators, Stephen Hopkins (who “had much knowledge in the Scriptures, and could reason well therein”), proceeded to “allege substantial arguments, both civil and divine… that it was no breach of honesty, conscience, nor religion to decline from the obedience of the governor, or refuse to go any further led by his authority (except it so pleased themselves) since the authority ceased when the wreck was committed, and with it, they were all freed from the government of any man.” Another man named Henry Paine, who was caught attempting to steal weapons and supplies in support of this anarchist uprising, put the same thing a bit more bluntly. “With a settled and bitter violence, and in such irreverent terms” that the fastidious chronicler “should offend the modest ear too much to express it in [Paine’s] own phrase,” Paine opined that “the governor had no authority of that quality… and therefore let the governor (said he) kiss, etc.” (Hopkins managed to escape execution, but Paine, for his use of ghastly swears, was summarily shot.)

In the end, the naysayers were suppressed, and the survivors of the wreck managed to sail on to Virginia. If they had expected conditions in Virginia to be anything like the Bermudan idyll they had just left behind, however, they were in for a rude awakening. Several months earlier, a drought had resulted in a widespread shortage of food, among the Indians as well as the settlers, and the settlers’ desperate attempts to steal provisions from the Indians were not appreciated: the Indians responded by putting the colony under siege, killing anyone who tried to leave (and sometimes stuffing the mouths of the corpses with bread, as a gruesome fuck-you-very-much). As famine had settled in, the Jamestown colonists had begun eating their horses; then dogs, cats, rats, mice, and snakes; then their own boot leather. Then, at last, the settlers had resorted to cannibalism. Colonists dug up recently-buried corpses for food, and, in at least a few cases, murdered and ate other colonists. (This was recorded in some near-contemporary chronicles, and then confirmed with archaeological evidence.) By the time the tardy delegation from the Virginia Company got onto the scene, a colony of 500 settlers had dwindled to just 60. All the others, with the exception of those few who had joined the Indians, were dead.

Emaciated settlers, seeing the new arrivals, cried out, “We are starved, we are starved” and begged for food. But the new governor, who had anticipated finding a thriving colony rather than a charnel house, had not brought enough food to feed the starving colonists, and had to wait for the next supply ship to relieve their distress. One man came out in the street “Blaspheameinge exclameinge and cryeinge owtt that there was noe god… Alledgeinge that if there were A god he wolde nott suffer his creatures whom he had made and framed to indure those miseries.” He later fled into the woods and was killed by Indians.

Salvaging the colony was contingent on bringing in new bodies, and getting those bodies to survive long enough to put in some amount of useful labor. The Virginia Company’s leaders also began to think that recruiting military veterans, accustomed to fighting the wild Irish, would be the right way to put the Indians in their place. But despite their best efforts, they simply couldn’t seem to recruit settlers who were truly prepared to give their all for the Company. The people who did come—according to their leaders’ reports—were uninterested in work and spent most of their time bowling in the street. Colonial governors believed that the settlers were deliberately slacking off in a bid to hasten the failure of the colony, on the theory that if the Virginia Company investors pulled out, the colonists would be allowed to sail back to England. The settlers themselves, however, spoke of a repressive governing regime that meted out punishments with a heavy hand. During the early years of the colony, according to one 1624 pamphlet:

we averr that the Colony for the most parte remayned in great want and misery under most severe and Crewell laws sent over in printe… and as mercylessly executed, often times without tryall or Judgment. The allowance in those tymes for a man was only eight ounces of meale and half a pinte of pease for a daye, the one and the other mouldy, rotten, full of Cobwebs and Maggotts loathsome to man and not fit for beasts, which forced many to flee for reliefe to the Savage Enemy, who being taken again [i.e. recaptured by the colonial government] were putt to sundry deaths as by hanginge, shooting and breakinge uppon the wheele. And others were forced by famine to filch for their bellies, of whom one for steelinge of 2 or 3 pints of oatemeale had a bodkinge thrust through his tounge and was tyed with a chaine to a tree untill he starved. If a man through his sicknes had not been able to worke, he had noe allowance at all, and soe consequently perished. Many through these extremities, being weery of life, digged holes in the earth and there hidd themselves till they famished.

Not only was living with the Indians regarded as a better bet than sticking with the colony: even digging a hole and dying in it was preferable. And indeed, the Virginia bog continued to devour settlers at a rapid pace. When John Rolfe arrived in Jamestown in 1616, he found 205 officers and laborers, 81 farmers, and 65 women and children: 351 settlers in total, out of the 1,500 settlers that had been sent to England since 1609.

The Virginia Company’s investors, meanwhile, were disappointed by the settlers’ failure to discover gold, silver, or other mineral wealth in Virginia, and began to seek other means of making the colony profitable. They were reluctant at first to invest in tobacco, because His Majesty King James had self-published an entire pamphlet about how much he hated smoking (“lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs”),and because the strains native to Virginia were bitter to the English palate. But after John Rolfe managed to successfully transplant a pleasanter Caribbean variety to Virginian soil, tobacco became a profitable cash crop, and the Company realized that this was their best shot at a good return in the short term.

While this shift to tobacco production was advantageous to investors, however, life did not improve substantially for most settlers, who still suffered from disease and overwork. As tobacco production increased, savvy businesspeople soon realized that trade in servants and laborers could itself be a very profitable enterprise. With the African slave trade still in its early stages, the destitute of England were considered a suitably disposable labor pool. Between 1617 and 1623, hundreds of homeless boys and girls were forcibly transported from London to Jamestown to serve as laborers, an effort which was characterized as a charitable mission: “for redeeming so many poore soules from mysery and ruyne and puttinge them in a Condicon of useful Service to the State.”

During the early years of the tobacco boom, about 95 percent of the incoming settlers were indentured laborers, which was a lucrative business for traders: Desperate people were enticed by stories of abundant food and fertile land. However, because of malnutrition and disease, nearly 3/4 of these servants died, most of them within just six months of arriving. The Company could barely send laborers fast enough to keep pace with this terrifying mortality rate, packing them by the hundreds into overcrowded ships where passengers were profoundly vulnerable to communicable diseases. Pro-Jamestown propaganda during the period contained darkly humorous Q&A exchanges, such as this one from 1623, in which the “divers Planters that have long lived in Virginia” dispelled unsavory rumors of mass worker die-offs in winter:

The new people that are yearly sent over which arrive here for the most part very Unseasonably in Winter, finde neither Guest house Inne, nor any the like place to shroud themselves in at their arrivall… soe that many of them by want hereof are not onely seen dyinge under hedges and in the woods but beinge deadly by some of them for many dayes Unregarded and Unburied.

Answere. To the first they Answere that the winter is the most healthfull time and season for arrivall of new Commoners. True itt is that as yett theris no Guesthouse… for any dyinge in the fields (through this defecte) and lyinge unburied, wee are altogether ignorant, yett that many dy suddenly by the hand of God, wee often see itt to fall out even in this flourishinge and plentiful Citty [London] in the middest of our streets, as for dyinge under hedges thereis noe hedge in all Virginia.

It’s a sign of how truly shitty things were that this was the best the Virginia Company’s spinmasters could do with the existing facts. Rumors of people dying under hedges in Virginia are exaggerated, because there are no hedges in Virginia! Step right up!

Eventually, in 1623, the Crown decided to take Jamestown off the Company’s hands and turn it into a royal colony. The settlement’s expansion, in conjunction with the booming tobacco industry, had led to deeper and deeper encroachments into Indian lands, which led the Indians to launch a coordinated massacre of nearly a quarter (347) of the English settlers. (This massacre was organized by chief Opechancanough, whom some historians believe was the same person as, or a close relative of, the mysterious “Don Luis” who had returned with the Spanish Franciscans in 1570). As England’s territorial ambitions in the New World became more expansive, and diplomacy with the Indians broke down, the Crown wanted tighter control over the development of the colony. Although Jamestown’s life as a company town was over, it continued as a royal colony for about 50 more years, before being burned down during Bacon’s Rebellion, a popular uprising animated by a combination of anti-elite and anti-Indian sentiment.

So why would a Jamestown-themed holiday be better than a Plymouth-themed holiday? Firstly, the story of Jamestown captures many important American values, such as: showing up in a home that is not your own, and wondering where all the food is already. Secondly, what better way to really ratchet up the tension at an awkward family gathering than by drawing straws to see whose child will get cooked for dinner? (The eating-other-humans-out-of-bitter-necessity period of Jamestown history is officially known as “The Starving Time,” incidentally, which is also a way better name for an eating-centered holiday than “Thanksgiving.”)

Thanksgiving, as many American Indian commentators have pointed out, is a holiday that promotes a false narrative of U.S. history. It celebrates a moment of amity between Indians and colonizers, which—even if it weren’t largely fictional—certainly isn’t representative of the trend of Anglo-Indian relations over the next four centuries. The story of Plymouth portrays the United States as a free country founded by strong-willed refugees consciously rejecting state tyranny. The story of Jamestown portrays the United States as a runaway business venture fueled by the greed of capitalists, the desperation of the poor, and the misery of slaves. Jamestown shows that the United States, from its very inception, has treated natural and human resources as equally inexhaustible, and equally expendable. It shows the arrogance of distant elites whose knowledge of their own incompetence is rendered painless by their indifference to human consequences. It’s obvious from the historical record that many of the ordinary people involved in this enterprise did not like where it was going, but did not know how to stop it. We should probably remember Jamestown at least once a year. 

*To locals, this part of Virginia is known as “The Peninsula.” Virginia has four peninsulas, so this was a real power move on our part.

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