In May of 1607, a hearty group of Englishmen arrived on the muddy shores of modern-day Virginia under orders from King James I to establish an English colony. But despite their efforts, the Jamestown Colony was immediately plagued by disease, famine, and violent encounters with the native population. “There were never Englishmen left in a foreign country in such misery as we were in this new discovered Virginia,” one colonist recalled.
Although more than a third of the colonists perished in the harsh conditions, the group eventually overcame their disastrous start and founded the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Here are some of the lesser-known facts about the Jamestown Colony.
1. The original settlers were all men.
In December of 1606, the Virginia Company, under charter from King James I, sent an expedition to establish an English settlement in North America. When their ships, the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, arrived near the banks of the James River on May 14, 1607, 104 men and boys set foot on what would soon become Jamestown. The initial group contained well-to-do adventurers, a handful of artisans and craftsmen, and laborers eager to forge a new home. Notably absent were members of the opposite sex. It would be another nine long months before any women arrived at the fledgling colony.
2. Drinking water likely played a role in the early decimation of the settlement.
While the terrain might have appeared ideal from the deck of a ship—unoccupied and ripe with natural resources—the Virginia Company established its settlement on a swath of swampy land with no source of fresh water. Soon after, the men began to perish. Only 38 of the 104 original settlers were still alive by January 1608.
As documented in colonial records, many died from disease and famine. Others met their fate in skirmishes with the Powhatans and their tribal allies. Experts also believe that some may have succumbed to an invisible threat: toxic water. Modern-day samples taken from some of the wells used by Jamestown colonists have revealed high levels of salt and varying degrees of arsenic and fecal contamination—a foul, and potentially lethal, cocktail.
READ MORE: What Was Life Like in Jamestown?
3. Bodies were buried in unmarked graves to conceal the colony’s decline in manpower.
Before more colonists arrived from England, the population of Jamestown dwindled. The Virginia Company had predicted that disease would manifest, and lives would be lost. Concerned about prying eyes and an ambush on a weakened colony, they had stressed "above all things" that the colonists hide the sick and bury the dead in unmarked graves. The men followed orders, burying their deceased out of sight behind the fort wall. When the death toll spiked between May and September of 1607, they also made use of double burials with two men laid to rest in the same shaft.
4. The settlers resorted to cannibalism during the “starving time.”
Between January 1608 and August 1609, 470 new settlers arrived at Jamestown. Although their circumstances looked promising, the tide soon turned against them. Captain John Smith, who had negotiated favorable relations with the Powhatans and whose leadership bolstered the strength of the settlement, suffered gunpowder injuries and had to return to England in the fall of 1609. Smith’s ship had barely vanished from the horizon, when Chief Powhatan called for a siege of Jamestown.
Surrounded by Powhatan’s warriors and trapped inside the fort, the settlers eventually ran out of food and were forced to eat whatever they could find: horses, dogs, rats, snakes, leather shoes and, according to forensic evidence, even each other. Marked by survivalist cannibalism, Jamestown reached one of its lowest points during the winter of 1609-1610—a period now known as the “starving time,” in which at least one deceased colonist was consumed as food.
5. Mail-order brides helped populate (and save) Jamestown.
Back in England, women had heard horror stories about the conditions at Jamestown. They were not exactly jumping at the opportunity to join the men across the pond. This gender imbalance boded ill for the colony’s future, as men left in droves to seek out wives. Edwin Sandys, the Virginia Company treasurer, convinced his fellow board members that they advertise for women to immigrate to Jamestown and marry the colonists. The Virginia Company offered attractive incentives for would-be wives: free transportation, a plot of land, a dowry of clothing and furnishings. They also allowed the women to choose their husbands after entertaining the eager suitors. The tactic had some success, and, the women, in theory, became America’s first mail-order brides.
6. Climate change threatened the survival of Jamestown.
Before their arrival, European explorers assumed America's climate would match that of other lands situated at the same latitude. They soon discovered that the New World was both hotter and colder than they expected. To make matters worse, the already harsh and unpredictable environment was exacerbated by climate change, namely a “Little Ice Age” that lasted from 1550 to 1800. Wet springs led to flooding, hot summers brought on droughts, and frigid winters covered the landscape in blankets of thick frost.
The colonists arrived in Jamestown during one of the driest seven-year periods (1606-1612) in 770 years. The 17th century was also one of the coldest on record. The dramatic weather patterns in the Virginia colony brought on a cycle of conflict, scarcity and death, with climate change threatening its survival.
7. The birth of American democracy began in Jamestown.
By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and the first peaceful transfer of U.S. presidential power occurred between George Washington and John Adams in 1797, Americans had already experienced over 150 years of democracy. The roots can be traced to Jamestown. With the establishment of the House of Burgesses, America's first democratically elected legislative body, a precedent had been set. Thereafter, each new English colony sought its own legislature. Although there were challenges and power struggles, the concept of elections, creation of laws and power through and by the people, began in America's first English settlement.
8. Smuggled tobacco seeds gave Jamestown economic viability.
King James I had a strong, and well-known, distaste for tobacco. “A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose,” he once declared. It’s ironic that this very crop gave Jamestown its economic viability. The settlement had struggled to find a marketable commodity that it could trade and ship back to England for profit. The colonists dabbled in forestry, silk making and glassmaking, with little financial return.
Then, in 1610, John Rolfe arrived in Jamestown with a convoy of 150 new settlers. He brought with him a sweet, and quite possibly illegal, strain of South American tobacco seeds. After some initial trial and error, Rolfe cultivated them into a major cash crop—one surprisingly granted a monopoly from King James I—making Jamestown economically stable for the first time.
No one knows where or how Rolfe obtained the seeds. Until then, Spain had controlled tobacco on the European markets and selling seeds to non-Spaniards was a crime punishable by death. Rolfe may have smuggled the seeds from Bermuda, where some of the fleet was shipwrecked for 10 months before arriving in Jamestown, or somewhere in the Caribbean. Either way, the risk paid off.
9. English pirates brought the first African captives to Jamestown.
John Rolfe documented the arrival of the first African captives to Jamestown in late August 1619. He reported that a Dutch ship had arrived with “20 and odd” Africans who were “bought for victuals.” August 1619 is the date that the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia, but they didn’t arrive on a Dutch ship as Rolfe mentioned. They were originally captured in modern-day Angola, an area of West Central Africa, and forced to march over 100 miles to board the San Juan Bautista, a Portuguese ship destined for Mexico.
While in the Gulf of Mexico, two English privateers, the White Lion and the Treasurer, attacked the ship and stole 50 to 60 African captives on board. This act of piracy, politely called “privateering” in the 17th century, led to the White Lion bringing the first Africans to Jamestown. Historians believe that Rolfe either falsified his report to conceal what the English had done or that the White Lion swapped flags with a Dutch ship while out at sea, causing Rolfe to incorrectly record the ship’s country of origin.
10. To this day, Jamestown remains an active dig site.
Active archaeological excavation, research and analysis have been ongoing since 1994 at the original site of Jamestown. Archaeologists have found parts of the palisade of the original 1607 fort, discovered the site of the second church and unearthed the remains of a handful of the settlement’s early inhabitants. They’ve debunked the myth that the original Jamestown site had washed into the James River long ago, uncovered evidence of the “starving time” and cannibalism and learned more about the settlers’ daily lives and work habits. To date, millions of artifacts have been uncovered and the facts about this defining chapter in American history have been rewritten or brought to light.