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Early Jamestown: Why Did so Many Colonists Die? Essay Sample

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Early Jamestown: Why Did so Many Colonists Die? Essay Sample

It was a rough beginning with constant deaths throughout the colony of Jamestown. English settlers started arriving at the James River in the Chesapeake Bay region of Virginia in the spring of 1607. Some hoped for new homes; most hoped to become rich, but for the most part, the adventure would come to a tragic end. By 1611, 400 of the original 500 colonists had died. So, the question to be answered is why so many colonists died. The answer is to why people died can be found in three basic reasons: issues with the water, the fact that the colonists came with mostly unhelpful skills, and the fact that the colonists failed to maintain peaceful relations with the Indians who were already living in the area.

The water became a major problem for the colonists because it was not fresh water; it was a harsh mixture of saltwater and freshwater enough to do some damage. The colonists tried to dig wells for fresh water, but these were subject to drought and/or saltwater intrusion. Since the colony dumped all of their waste in the water source, it became even more toxic as the weeks passed, and could have also contributed to disease. The headcount began to rapidly drop, and several of the deaths were caused by saltwater poisoning. It seems water was an important factor in the hardship of the colony, but it is not the only one.

The colonists were not very smart in whom they brought to established their new colony. For example, the largest group of one profession that came was all gentlemen, whom were people of wealth and did not know anything about hard labor. There were only twelve laborers brought in the first shipment. This made it hard for the colonists to obtain food and build shelter. Not only did they not bring enough of certain people, they also brought people who had no purpose in being there other than to eat all the food, which was scarce to begin with. Skills of tailors, barbers, and even a drummer were brought over by the English. What use could Jamestown’s foundation building have for these people other than to starve them on a daily basis? True, this did affect the water problem, due to the fact that had these settlers brought some apothecaries with them, they might have been able to cope with the saltwater intrusion better. Unfortunately, this was not on the list of importance, but this was not the only time they blundered.

When they first arrived, the settlers believed that their only threat was a Spanish fleet coming from behind because it seemed to them that the Indians living in the region would welcome them and supply them with food. Although, how could they when their home was being invaded by a number of snobbish Englishmen? They had quite a motive to be hostile. In 1609 however, the problem grew when another Englishman named Francis West, along with his crew of thirty-six men, “sailed up the Chesapeake bay to try to trade for corn with the Patawomeke Indians”(Hume). It seems he “persuaded” them to trade, most likely by torturing, threatening, and even killing the Indians. He left a lot of angry Indians with a load of grain that he would take to the Jamestown colonists for a supply of food, but he decided instead to just take it back to England with himself. The death toll of the colonists increased after this event, due to the now excelled hostility of the Native neighbors.

In conclusion, it seemed that the water, the skills, and the Indians were equivalent causes in the deaths colonists, and although the lack of effective people and the rivalry with the Patawamekes were plenty to have nearly destroyed the colony, I believe the number one cause was the brackish water. The water was an everyday issue that the people themselves contributed to by their dumping of waste into their source, and it poisoned several of the colonists. Had the water been cleaner, the colonists would have probably survived with less trauma and hardship. They wouldn’t have to spend all of their time caring for the people who fell ill (who could be performing essential labor instead), had the reason for the sickness not exist. Today, we still look back on this death toll and its causes because had the settlers not survived, our nation would be entirely different right now. The majority of the people here in America would be Hispanic as they are English today if the colonists had all died off, and that is why this huge factor which decided history continues to be acknowledged.

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