Wretched Winter

The year was 1607 and England was desperate to rise to power in a competition against rival Spain. Spain had already colonized parts of North America and gained much wealth from the discovery of gold in the southwest region. In an attempt to gain power and riches, King James I formed the Virginia Company and assembled a crew of 105 men heading for the New World.

The expedition was led by Christopher Newport and the plan was to settle around the Chesapeake Bay area and find gold. They left England in December of 1606 on three ships and arrived in May of 1607. They built the Jamestown Colony named in honor of King James I. They dug for gold instead of planting food or building protection. Captain John Smith was part of the governing council at Jamestown. He began to recognize that the colony would not survive if it did not start preparing. He told the men that if they did not work building fences and planting gardens, they would not eat. He formed a trade relationship with the neighboring but defensive Powhatan tribe.

With the help of the Powhatan tribe, the Virginia Company made it through the first winter, however, only 38 settlers survived. The colony faced many hardships as the water was brackish, there was a severe lack of food, a drought, mosquito infestation and declined relations with the Natives. By 1609, John Smith returned to England after getting hurt in an gun powder explosion. This left the men without a good leader and the colony began to fall apart.

Many ships arrived in July 1609 bringing more men to the colony but the supply ship did not make it as a storm shipwrecked the boat to Bermuda. With more men to feed and no supplies, the colony was in a desperate situation as the winter of 1609 approached. Men found it hard to find water and began drinking salt water. Salt water poisons the body and the mind. Desperate for food they stole from the Natives causing Native attacks. They soon became stranded within their fort as it was unsafe to go outside.

Winter was brutal as starvation led to the increase of disease and led some colonists to madness. Lack of food options caused many settlers to eat their leather boots, horses, rats and snakes. The Jamestown settlement was in danger of demise. The daily death rate was staggering. The colonists resorted to cannibalism, digging up dead bodies and eating flesh and organs. Records indicate that a man killed his pregnant wife to try and eat her. He was hung for his actions.

Relief came in the Spring of 1610 as a supply ship arrived finding only 60 settlers left out of 400. The colony survived despite all odds. Miraculously, the colony grew and prospered as more colonists came. They never found gold but they did discover something of value- tobacco. In 1619, John Rolfe developed a strain of tobacco that became an important commodity to England. He married the infamous Pocahontas.

The first English settlement in North America tells a story. A story of absolute despair, of utter desperation, of will and of unwavering determination that I cannot even fathom. Settler’s stories are still being excavated and pieced together by archaeologists today. For instance, the story of “Jane”. A white young female found buried in a heap. Her body cut up in pieces apparently the victim of cannibalism. Was she a servant? Was she a daughter? Was she sick? Was she killed? Was she scared? We may never know her story but we know she existed and was part of creating a bigger story; the eventual growth of the 13 English colonies. She played an important role, as did all the settlers of this colony. Their story is preserved in the remnants of the Historic Jamestown site for all to visit.

Here we are over 400 years later and dealing with hardship like many of us have never known. As I reflect on historic stories like these, it reminds me that like those that came before us , we are strong, we will endure and we will prevail.

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