Sunday, April 4, 2010

CSI: Jamestown

The question begs an answer.  Why Jamestown?   With an eastern coast that stretches over one-thousand miles – why did the original English colonists choose to settle here?  Did they know what they were doing, or did they just stick a flag in the first rock they found?  Even with today’s modern conveniences such as gas stations and paved roads, Jamestown was not an easy place to find.  Driving down a dark, two-lane curvy highway through the forests of Virginia was akin to a ride through Sleepy Hollow, a gauntlet of terror between oncoming traffic and would-be road kill.

John Smith:  The colonists' fearless leader.

So why Jamestown?  A 70% mortality rate that first year might have led anyone to believe that they had made a mistake.  Some careful excavation, however, gives us clues as to why the English settlers may have thought that, what we now know as Jamestown, would be an ideal spot for a military fort.  

First of all, Jamestown is located on the James River.  (Both named after King James I of England.) Building a military fort at the narrowest point of the river offered a favorable strategic defensive position.  It gave them the ability to control the river against the other European forces, which might approach by water.  Second, in the early 1600’s, it was believed that the earth was parallel.   Jamestown, therefore, was thought to have a Mediterranean climate with an average temperature of 78 degrees.  This was a very plausible supposition, given that the ships landed on May 14, 1607 when the average temperature was actually 78 degrees!  Jamestown was located 57 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.  It had a natural harbor of fresh water – or so they thought.

Pocahontas:  The girl who saved a nation.

So how could it be that 100 soldiers could survive the 5-month trans-Atlantic journey to America, but could not survive another three weeks on land?  This is where the story begins to unfold.  Through forensic studies, it became clear that the water supply was to blame.  What appeared to be a fresh water harbor during May, would shift with the tides and become ocean salt water in the heat of summer.  The wells they dug on land would soon poison them with sulphur oxide.  Their third source of water, the marshy swamps, contained three times the lethal level of arsenic.   There was a reason that the Powhatan tribe did not occupy that land.

Swampy Backwaters and Salt Water Bays

As we visited Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in what is now the U.S.A., I found it interesting that the settlers’ many hardships may have worked to their advantage.  In fact, it may have even produced their ultimate survival.

Given the information they had, they had indeed selected the ideal spot for a
military fort.  According to their information, Jamestown had an ideal climate, plenty of fresh water and the ability to control the port.  They had no idea that the water would become undrinkable, that they would enter the greatest drought in 800 years as well as the start of the mini ice age.  Despite the leadership of John Smith, chaplain Robert Hunt and others, starvation, hostile relations with the natives, and a lack of profitable exports all threatened the survival of the Colony.  By the end of the first year, the death rate was greater than 70%.  The news of this tragic place spread.  Spain, who was also competing to establish colonies in the “New World”, decided not to send its navy to wipe out the settlement.  Instead, they stayed clear, letting the settlement "die its own slow, tragic death."

Those that did not perish persevered.  In retrospect, it may have been the extreme suffering that allowed the colony to survive.  Surely, in their weakened state they could not have triumphed over Spain.  If Spain had not viewed Jamestown as a death sentence, we could be speaking Spanish today instead of  English!

I wonder if the English settlers, who were devoted Christians, took comfort in the words that God spoke to the Israelites living in exile in Babylon.  God assured them that, despite their present difficulties, He had plans for them –plans for them to prosper and be restored. 

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plan to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

The original entrance to Jamestown's first church.

A view from the other side of a later church built on the original foundation.

It’s amazing to think that, despite their dramatic initial struggles, the colonists did eventually prosper.   The Jamestown location ceased to exist as a settlement after the transfer of Virginia’s capital to nearby Williamsburg in 1699.  Today Jamestown exists only as archaeological remains, but its history reminds us that, despite whatever present difficulties we may encounter, God us ultimately in control.

Jamestown Monument

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