The Colony at Jamestown
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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