(WHTM) — This year marks the 415th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first successful English settlement in what would eventually become the United States of America.
It wasn’t very successful at the start. In fact, three years after its founding, Jamestown was on the brink of being abandoned.
Both Jamestown and the James River next to it were named for King James I. One hundred four settlers were sent to the new world by the Virginia Company. Their job was to turn a profit for the company’s investors.
Upon arrival, their three ships — Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery — poked around the Chesapeake Bay for a couple of weeks, looking for a place to set up the colony. They finally went ashore at a spot along the James River, chosen in part because the Virginia Company told them not to take land occupied by the Native people.
It turned out there were good reasons the local Native Americans weren’t using the land. It was swampy, insect-infested, and teaming with diseases. The water sources were salty and contained traces of arsenic. (The aquifer was probably further fouled by the colonists’ outhouses.)
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It took only a few weeks for the colonists to anger the local Powhatan people. The English had barely started building a fort before they were attacked and were only saved by cannon fire from the ships. The year of 1607 became a time of death — settlers died from attacks, illnesses, and, most of all, famine.
By January of 1608, only 38 of the original 104 settlers still survived. That was when 100 new settlers arrived, along with much-needed supplies.
If 1607 had been bad, 1609 was worse. Relations with the Powhatan tribe deteriorated to the point where the fort at Jamestown was under siege. The colony’s leader, Thomas Gates, was shipwrecked in Bermuda with supplies. Winter 1609-1610 was called the “starving time.” In order to survive, colonists ate horses, dogs, cats, rats, mice, turtles, snakes, and, on at least one occasion, each other.
Gates finally arrived in May 1610 to find only 60 survivors. He ordered Jamestown abandoned, loaded up the survivors, and prepared to sail back to England, just as a new governor, Thomas West, 12th Baron De La Warr, arrived on the scene with three ships, 150 settlers, and, most importantly, supplies.
The settlers slowly moved to healthier areas, and Jamestown was abandoned. Today, the original location of Jamestown is part of the National Park Service, and archeological excavations are slowly filling in details of day-to-day life in England’s first successful colony in America.