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What Was Life Like in Jamestown?

Life in the early 1600s at Jamestown consisted mainly of danger, hardship, disease and death.

The first settlers at the English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia hoped to forge new lives away from England―but life in the early 1600s at Jamestown consisted mainly of danger, hardship, disease and death.

All of the early settlers in 1607 were men and boys, including laborers, carpenters, bricklayers, a blacksmith, a barber, a tailor, a mason and a preacher. Within weeks, they built a basic fortification to protect themselves against attacks from local Powhatan Indians. The Powhatan’s reception of the settlers was mixed―some welcomed them, while others assaulted them.

“Since there were often several different tribes in a given area, it was not strange for different native groups to view the Europeans as potential allies against enemies,” says Stephen Leccese, a historian and Ph.D. candidate at Fordham University. “Great diversity among native groups meant that rarely was there widespread cooperation against European settlements.

As the roughly 100 colonists settled in, they soon realized angry Indians were the least of their problems: They were pathetically unprepared for forging a new colony. Daily life soon revolved around survival as starvation and disease ravaged them; only about 38 settlers survived the first year.

Jamestown

Three ships lie at anchor on the river as early settlers carry lumber and raise the walls of the stockade fort at Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in America, circa 1610. (Credit: Getty Images)

The winter of 1609 was disastrous―and crude health care didn’t help.

In January 1608, more settlers arrived―including the first two women and the first physician. According to Leccese, “The English government at the time had a vested interest in settlers traveling to the Americas because this was a rough time in English history … the government concluded that England was overpopulated and wanted a way to get rid of the excess population.”

During the winter of 1609, relations between the colonists and the Indians worsened and the Indians laid siege to Jamestown during a terrible famine. To survive, the colonists ate anything and everything they could including, according to recently discovered (and disputed) archaeological evidence, some dead corpses of other settlers. Only 60 colonists survived this “starving time.”

There’s not much written about specific remedies physicians used in Jamestown to treat their sick and dying patients. Bloodletting is documented as well as the use of herbal remedies. Local Native American medicinal practitioners likely had an influence on treatments used. But as evidenced by the massive number of settlers who died, these early medicines were only marginally successful at best.

The marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas created stability.

Despite the arrival of more colonists and attempts to improve conditions at Jamestown, it wasn’t until 1612, when colonist John Rolfe introduced tobacco to the settlement, that the colony became profitable.

In 1613, English colonists captured the Powhatan princess Pocahontas. In 1614, she converted to Christianity and married John Rolfe, which led to a period of peace between the Powhatan and the Jamestown settlers.

In 1619, a representative General Assembly was established to make laws and help maintain order in the fledging colony.

Pocahontas and John Rolfe

The marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. (Credit: Archivio GBB/Agenzia Contrasto/Redux)

Women showed real grit in the early Jamestown colony.

Between 1620 and 1622, well over one hundred women arrived in Jamestown. Some were purchased by unwed colonists as wives. Others were indentured servants who endured harsh conditions working the tobacco fields―as well as physical and sexual abuse.

England hoped the women would help men create ties to the community and make them less likely to abandon the colony.

Once an indentured woman paid her debt, she’d likely marry, but many were still responsible for working the fields as well as handling domestic household duties. Women were much less submissive in Jamestown than in England, however, and often fought for their rights and those of their children.

At first, some men appreciated their wives’ contributions so much that they requested the women be given land of their own. This generosity didn’t last, however. By the mid-17th century, as the men’s primary concern turned from mere survival to consolidating wealth and land, the General Assembly passed a law in 1662 stating that argumentative wives could be dunked under water.

VIDEO: Slavery in America

In 1619, the Dutch introduced the first captured Africans to America, planting the seeds of a slavery system that evolved into a nightmare of abuse and cruelty that would ultimately divide the nation.

Africans arrived in Jamestown as indentured servants.

By 1619, tobacco was king and daily life for almost everyone in Jamestown revolved around producing and selling tobacco.

In August, the first Africans arrived as indentured servants. Although they were not officially slaves and might eventually gain their freedom, they’d been kidnapped from their homeland and forced to live a hard life of servitude. Their presence opened the door for Virginia to accept the institution of slavery and eventually replace African indentured servants with African slaves.

The next decades in Jamestown brought periods of war and peace with the Indians. More and more colonists arrived, spread out and created new towns and plantations. In 1624, Virginia became a royal colony.

Fire, disease, famine and Indian attacks remained, but according to Leccese, “One other important problem was the increasingly stratified society. As time went on, original settlers had snatched up all the quality land and new settlers were finding less opportunity to become independent farmers on their own land. This resulted in a small class of rich landowners and a large class of landless or small farmers.”

By 1699 there were around 60,000 people in the Virginia colony, including about 6,000 African slaves. Jamestown had started a tradition of slavery that would endure in America for generations.

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