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English Colonies: the one that got away and the one that was here to stay


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John Smith, leader of the first traceable colonists, looks out onto the James River
Wanted: A group of able-bodied folk willing to live together on a faraway land and endure hardships in order to have a shot at great riches.

No, no, it's not Survivor. It's time to play Who Wants to be an English Colonist? In this game, the riches are not guaranteed, the hardships can be deadly, and the land is far from being deserted.

Our story takes place in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. And instead of an exotic island or the Australian outback, our setting is right here, in what is now the United States. Spain is already active in the "New World " and England feels it needs to get in on the action. Both countries have a desire to grow bigger and more powerful. It is believed that the New World has an abundance of land to offer, and an abundance of gold, copper, pearls and other riches as well. To England and Spain, the New World seems to be the perfect place to send some adventuring souls with a desire for wealth.

If you think of early English colonies, the name Jamestown might stick out in your mind. But first we're going to go a little further back, to a colony that mysteriously disappeared!

Part 1: The "Lost Colony"

In 1585 an English gentleman by the name of Sir Walter Raleigh sent an expedition of 108 men to America to settle on what is now Roanoke Island, North Carolina. The trip was a failure, and at the first chance they got, the colonists ditched their settlement and caught a ride back home. So much for that.

Life on a ship was not all fun and games
By 1586, Raleigh was at it again, this time sending a group that included women and children and the hopes for a long-term community. Yet once again they ran into hardships. After a two month struggle for food, the colonists demanded that their governor, John White, return to England for supplies and more help. The poor fellow reluctantly agreed and never saw his family or any of the colonists again. It took three years for White to find a ship to go back to Roanoke and by the time he got there, all he could find was a high fence of logs that had been built where the village used to be. There were no houses left, no bodies, no pots and pans, nothing! The only clue was that on one of the fence posts was the carved word: "CROATOAN." So now we are left with this mystery. What happened to the Roanoke colonists? Were they killed by the natives? Ravished by disease? Destroyed in a fire? Washed away by a hurricane?

Maybe, but if this was the case, we would expect to find remains or signs of fighting or some evidence of such events.

And what about that crazy word CROATOAN? The word is the name of a nearby island which White attempted unsuccessfully to sail to, thinking his family and friends may have headed there. So did the colonists just pack up their bags and move away? Once again, we have no evidence. It seems to me that if they did move away, and were trying to leave a message, they could have been less cryptic about it. How about, "Gone to Croatoan" at least or "Croatoan or Bust!"?

By golly, where's that village?
What do you think happened? My personal theories range from alien abduction to a search for Krispy Kreme donuts which somehow ended in tragedy (Becky tells me Krispy Kreme was started in North Carolina but so far our search has been fruitless. I can only imagine what it would have been like for the colonists).

Hey, I just don't know. I guess that's why they call it the Lost Colony. Although I have to admit, Becky and I did a fair amount of searching for it while we were in town. We're sorry to report that we were not able to find it. I think if it wasn't raining so hard, we would have had better luck but Becky tells me I'm a bit kooky.

Part 2: Jamestown

Okay, so our first batch of survivors didn't quite survive (at least not that we know of). But demand for the riches of the New World and rivalry with Spain was still high and in 1607 more than one hundred colonists decided to try again. Under the leadership of John Smith they anchored in the James River, establishing the colony of Virginia with Jamestown as its capital.

Before even reaching shore, the settlers had to face the challenges and hardships of life at sea. Becky and I saw some life-size replicas of the Discovery, Godspeed and Susan Constant, the three ships that made the original voyage to Jamestown. Let me tell you, these ships were TINY! There was one that was no bigger than a school bus. Can you imagine traveling across the Atlantic in a vessel that size? Most of the settlers managed to deal with the cramped and stinky living space below deck and to survive on their daily rations of hardtack (bread as hard as a rock) and salty meats (which often attracted maggots) for the approximately five-month journey.

Once they settled in Jamestown, however, living conditions did not get much better. The early years of the colony were truly desperate and disastrous ones. The settlers would have surely perished if it were not for the help of Virginia's natives. The Tidewater Indians helped these new and unfamiliar people adapt to life on their land, showing the colonists uses of hickory and pecan trees and how to prepare native foods such as hominy.

Yet in 1609-1610, harsh weather hit and death and disease were soon to follow. This period became known as The Starving Time, and although the colony had grown to 500 people, around 440 of these inhabitants died off. Needless to say, if you were a colonist, your chances of survival were pretty slim (Becky thinks that we would have been hearty settlers, but we definitely would have had to beat the odds to have persevered). To survive, the settlers became scavengers, eating dogs, horses, rats and snakes.
Fred shows off the colonial trade of armory
The promise of land had attracted farmers, merchants and gentlemen who could not acquire land at home in England. The hope for a better life had attracted commoners who were trying to escape hunger, disease and crowded living conditions and trying to break the cycle of poverty in the New World. Yet now instead of riches, the settlers were faced with the daily struggle to survive.

They attempted to make their livelihood through crafts such as glassblowing, but with little success. Glassblowing was a difficult trade and I can only guess that transporting cute little glass objects back to England was not the easiest of tasks. Then came the true economic success of the colonies: tobacco. John Rolfe (the English settler who married Pocahontas) had the idea to cultivate the plant, a move that forever changed the character of the colony.
The weed of great wealth
They came searching for gold and instead found a yellow weed -- doesn't sound like the best deal. Yet this weed proved to be the foundation of the Jamestown economy, luring more English over to Virginia with the goal of buying land and planting what soon became known as "brown gold."

To help supply the large workforce that tobacco required, the first Africans were brought to Virginia in 1619 as indentured servants who could work off their time before establishing their own farms as free men. This in turn led over the decades to the growing use of slaves from Africa and the West Indies to provide a more permanent labor force. (Be sure to check out our upcoming dispatches on slavery for more info).

Although there were many hardships for the settlers, it is important to keep in mind how devastating colonization was for other members of the Virginia population. The Africans were soon forced into slavery; and the Native Americans whose generosity was taken advantage of, and whose way of life was threatened to virtual extinction. It is all part of the Jamestown legacy.

One of the interesting parts about Jamestown and Roanoke today is discovering more of the legacy through the archaeological excavations that continue to take place. Although they are looking at events that happened almost 400 years ago, historians are learning new information about them daily as they continue to reflect and dig and explore. For example, Becky and I saw an excavation of a burial ground found below the foundation of a 1700's statehouse complex. These haphazard and unmarked graves might include bodies from the 1609-1610 Starving Time! It is amazing how much can be determined by looking at coffins and skeletal remains and the way the graves are oriented. Scientists can even tell if a person was born and raised in America vs. England by looking at a type of carbon in the bones. This carbon is different if the person had a diet of mainly maize (like in America) as opposed to wheat and barley (like in England).

This new information, coupled with what we already know, will provide more and more clues into England's first colonies and the people who made the treacherous trek across the Atlantic to live in them. From those settlers who didn't quite have what it took to survive, to those who struck brown gold and found the riches they were seeking, the story of European expansion and the lives that made it happen will continue to unfold.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - When greed for money can make a good idea go bad
Irene - Could we be speaking Dutch instead of English?
Irene - The Quakers: peaceful individuals or radical rebels?
Team - Hero? villain? The team gets MAD about Columbus