What challenges did the settlers face after their first year at Jamestown?

Powhatan trade with English, from 1607: A Nation Takes Root. Jamestown Settlement

Powhatan trade with English, from
1607: A Nation Takes Root. Jamestown Settlement

Challenges continued to plague the settlers. In early January 1608, shortly after Captain Newport’s return, a devastating fire destroyed much of the fort, including the colonists’ dwellings and provisions. Once again, the colony was dependent upon the Indians for food. Ironically, John Smith became the person most likely to succeed in any personal encounters with the Indians, as he had done during the previous critical months. Smith, along with Newport, became the critical negotiator with Wahunsonacock. It was during these negotiations that thirteen-year old Thomas Savage was presented to the chief who received him as his son. In return, Wahunsonancock gave the English his trusty servant, Namontack. The hope was that these “go-betweens” would come to understand the language and culture of both groups and would be invaluable in future negotiations. Smith and Newport were successful in obtaining enough corn to last through the rest of that winter and early spring.

By summer of 1608, the fort was rebuilt. John Smith reported that the settlers built a blockhouse at the entrance to the island, experimented with glass making and planted 100 acres of corn. Conditions at this new Jamestown seemed to improve when Smith became president in September of 1608. Captain Newport, ever mindful of the economic purpose of the Virginia Company, had sent the early settlers digging for gold ore, but Smith thought it folly to search for gold. Instead, he ordered laborers and gentlemen to plant crops and build shelters. He offered strict leadership, pronouncing, “he that will not worke shall not eate.” He trained men in military skills and dealt effectively with the Indians in trade and political negotiations, until his strong-armed tactics angered local tribes. One of his most important contributions was the exploration  and mapping of the Chesapeake Bay area. Smith’s tenure as president lasted about a year. In October 1609, he was forced to return to England due to a gunpowder injury, and the colony again began to deteriorate.

John Smith, from 1607: A Nation Takes Root. Jamestown Settlement

John Smith, from 1607: A Nation Takes Root.
Jamestown Settlement

In mid-August 1609, a fleet with several hundred new settlers arrived in Virginia. Their flagship, Sea Venture, carrying acting governor Sir Thomas Gates and other newly appointed colonial leaders, had ship wrecked in Bermuda. The more than 300 colonists, including women and children, arrived tired and hungry. With Smith gone, George Percy had agreed to accept the position as president and was in command during the infamous “starving time” of 1609-10. Evidence now shows a serious drought had engulfed the area during this time worsening conditions even for the local Indians. Faced with sickness, disease, malnutrition and retaliatory attacks by the Indians, the colony was brought to the brink of extinction.

In May 1610, Sir Thomas Gates belatedly arrived with more than 100 survivors from Bermuda. He found the fort in ruins and remaining 60 colonists there “famished at the point of death.” Thirty others at Point Comfort fared much better. Gates established martial law to maintain order, but soon decided to evacuate Jamestown. On June 7, “burying our ordinances before the fort gate which looked into the river,” the Jamestown inhabitants sailed down the James River, seeming to bring the colony to a close. Downriver they met an advance party from the incoming supply fleet of the first governor, Lord de la Warr (Thomas West). With a new supply of provisions and settlers, the demoralized colonists turned back, and once again new life was breathed into the Jamestown venture.

Lord de la Warr arrives, from 1607: A Nation Takes Root. Jamestown Settlement

Lord de la Warr arrives, from
1607: A Nation Takes Root. Jamestown Settlement

Lord de la Warr set about rebuilding the colony. He rebuilt the triangular palisade, with a marketplace, storehouse and chapel occupying the interior. He had new houses erected, framed like traditional “mud and stud” English houses with wide “Country Chimnies.” The walls and roofs were covered with fine woven mats and bark, keeping out the rain and hot sun rays. This combination of English and Indian building techniques kept their houses cool during the hot summer months.

In spite of stern discipline and substantial progress at the fort, Lord de la Warr experienced setbacks in his attempts to end the war with the Indians. In addition, he experienced some rebellion among his own men. About a third of the colonists perished, and he fell to illnesses that sapped his ability to lead. At the end of March 1611, Lord de la Warr put George Percy in charge and set sail for England.