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by William H. Benson

June 20, 2002

     By any definition of the word, Jamestown was an abysmal failure.  Indian attacks, fires, famine, and disease all contributed to an exceedingly high mortality rate that killed off most of the early settlers.  Of the 6000 immigrants that the London-based Virginia Company sent to Jamestown between 1607 and 1625, some 4800 died there.  Jamestown consumed thousands before the first permanent English settlement was firmly established along the Atlantic.

     In December of 1606 three small wooden ships had set sail from England carrying 144 men and boys, including the red-headed John Smith.  By June 15, 1607 the men had constructed a three-sided fort, and on June 21, 1607 the men held their first service in the new church within the fort.  But then the problems began to accumulate.

     The men did not realize that the location was a poor one, primarily in that it lacked good drinking water.  At high tide the James River was salty, and at low tide it was muddy.  And the marshland that surrounded the fort bred mosquitoes that carried malaria.  Then the same foul water that the men drank from readily accepted their waste and sewer.  As a result throughout that first summer the men dropped like flies, such that by September more than half were dead.

     Also, the leaders of the settlement quarrelled and fought about what to do.  Some wanted to copy the Spanish and look for gold and silver.  Others wanted to explore for the Northwest Passage to the East Indies.  Few of them knew how to farm.  Accustomed to an idle life back in England, these gentlemen did not come equipped with farming habits.

     Eventually Captain John Smith ruthlessly took control of the fort, and through shrewd trade negotiations with the Indians, he obtained enough food for the survivors to last that first winter.  He also insisted that the men work in the fields everyday.

     On January 7, 1608 a fire broke out inside the fort and consumed most of the buildings.

    In 1609 after John Smith had left for England, the Indians turned hostile and refused to trade further with the English.  Horrified that they were losing their land and tired of the trinkets and beads, they repeatedly attacked Jamestown, trying to drive the settlers out, and in turn the English brutally burned Indian villages and fields and murdered the Natives.  As a result the English were totally unprepared going into the winter of 1609-1610. 

     Their supplies ran out.  They could not hunt or fish or farm because the Indians would attack them.  Stuck inside the fort, they ate whatever still lived–cats, horses, dogs, and even poisonous snakes. The colonist George Percy wrote that starvation appeared, “in every face.  Of five hundred people we had only left about sixty, the rest being either starved through famine, or cut off by the Indians.”  This was the low point, and the colony’s future hung in the balance.

     By June 1610 the few settlers still alive decided to abandon Jamestown and return to England.  They boarded their ships and floated down the James River, only to meet the incoming ship of the new governor–Lord Delaware, who brought the needed supplies, and he convinced the colonists to turn around and return to Jamestown and give it another try.

     The settlement did finally succeed, mainly because John Rolfe introduced the cultivation of tobacco which was in great demand back in England and brought a high price.

    Tenacity, perseverance, and persistence are words for the same thing–the refusal to quit.  Initial beginnings are difficult.  People everywhere go off to college, take on a new job, start a new business venture, get married, or pick up and move across the country.  The road is often tough and usually lonesome, and yet occasionally that highly-prized human attribute of perseverance will come forward, for they will stick with the venture when the personal and emotional cost is extremely high, they will enjoy some measure of success, and they will endure to the end or die in the process.

     A tradesman explained it this way.  “When I was young, I was too stupid to quit, and now that I am older and doing great, I would be stupid to quit.”


     Jamestown became Virginia, a British Colony, and then a State, and then a part of the United States, and eventually what we have today in 2002.  The payoff for the future generations of those pioneering English colonists was manifold and tremendous.