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Page 12345

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The Colony at Jamestown

[Photo: Donald Miller]

Miller: The American Republic was born in 1776, but the revolution that created it began a century and a half earlier, when Englishmen started building a new culture and country in the North American wilderness. We will trace the slow evolution of this new thing called an American, in two profoundly different colonies, Virginia and Massachusetts Bay.

By 1700, they were the most populous and prosperous of England's North American settlements, and their populations were overwhelmingly English. Yet they'd already begun to develop distinctly American ways of life. They were, however, almost as different from one another as they were from England. How these Englishmen developed, in the same land and at the same time, two vastly different civilizations, both of them with some uniquely American strains, is the focus of this program.

[Picture of Powhatan]

In 1600, the forests of the Chesapeake Bay area were the home of Algonquin-speaking tribes who belonged to a powerful confederation ruled by a single chief, Powhatan. The Powhatans were warlike, recklessly courageous, and suspicious of strangers. For them, the most humiliating defeat was not death in battle, but the loss of their ancestral lands.

Into these lands, in 1607, came three small ships carrying 104 Englishmen, all of them men. They were employees of the London Company, a joint stock enterprise created to find gold and other riches in the American Eden. English America began as a business proposition.

The strangers sailed up a broad river and landed on a small peninsula they named Jamestown. It was a perfect place for defense, but it turned out to be a death trap. The mixture of salt water and fresh water in this mosquito-infested swamp became filthy from the settlers' waste matter, and this triggered raging epidemics of typhoid, dysentery, and salt poisoning. The Englishmen died like flies.

They also died because they wouldn't work. The company had sent over a collection of colonists that was a disaster about to happen--lazy gentlemen who'd never worked; London street urchins too worn down to work; craftsmen whose skills were pathetically unsuited to pioneering: goldsmiths and jewelers, barbers and glassblowers. So in bountiful Virginia, with the forests and rivers filled with game, they starved. Only 38 were alive, 9 months later.

Indian Relations

[Picture of John Smith]

They might all have died had it not been for John Smith. The son of a yeoman farmer, Smith had left England at an early age, in the pattern of De Soto, to fight the Moors in Hungary. He was captured in battle and made a slave in Turkey, but escaped to Russia and found his way back to London just in time to sail with the first ships bound for Virginia.

Smith was too low born to command the respect of the rich lay-abouts who governed Virginia. But in desperation, the company made him virtual dictator. Smith divided the settlers, including a few women who had arrived, into labor gangs and ordered them to work or starve. Then he took over negotiations with the Indians.

He and Powhatan settled into an uneasy relationship based on mutual self-interest. Powhatan wanted English iron goods and guns; Smith wanted Indian corn, the only thing that kept the colonists alive. But there was always tension. On one occasion, when trade negotiations broke down, Smith grabbed the chief's brother, Opechancanough, pushed a pistol into his chest, and threatened to kill him unless he got his corn quota.

Not long after this, Smith was injured in a gunpowder accident and had to return to England. That winter the 500 colonists ran out of food and began dying again. Some turned to cannibalism. One man chopped up his wife and salted down the pieces. Another dug up fresh graves to feed on the corpses.

[Picture of Pocahontas]

When summer arrived, the 60 survivors boarded several ships and headed up the James River, abandoning Virginia. But on reaching the mouth of the river they ran into a relief ship from England and were ordered to turn back. For a time, things got better. More colonists were brought in, and what looked like a permanent truce with the Indians was reached when a settler named John Rolfe married Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas, and took her back to England to meet the king.

But when Pocahontas and her father died within a year of one another, Opechancanough led a surprise attack on the colony, slaughtering almost a third of its population. In retaliation, parties were sent out on Indian-exterminating missions. At one bogus peace parley, the English negotiators served poisoned wine, killing over 200 Indians.

Opechancanough struck back again 22 years later, in one final, furious effort to wipe out the colony. He was captured and killed, however, and his defeated people were expelled to the Virginia frontier. By this time, the London Company had gone bankrupt and Virginia had been taken over, in 1625, by the Crown. Death rates remained appallingly high, but the colonists had found a lucrative crop.

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