Recall that the Jamestown Colony was primarily a private enterprise sponsored by the Virginia Company of London (a joint-stock company) for economic gain. Investors in the Virginia Company hoped to find valuable natural resources, such as gold or silver, to trade with the local native populations and to exploit the region for other potentially valuable natural resources or agriculture. The first three ships that brought English settlers to what would become the Jamestown colony carried approximately 144 men of varying ages. Some listed their occupation simply as “gentleman” while others, listed as masons, bricklayers, and carpenters, for example, were more accustomed to hard physical labor. The ships carried no women, although a small trickle of women and children would arrive in the next few years.
The location for settlement selected by the colonists was not ideal. On a peninsula feeding into the Chesapeake Bay, Jamestown was swampy and lacked healthy drinking water. In the summer, the climate was hot and the settlement was a haven for disease. And despite Virginia’s more southerly latitude compared to England, the winters were colder and snowy. After the first winter in Jamestown, only 38 of the original settlers remained alive. The Virginia Company knew it needed to attract more support in the form of financial investors and adventurers willing to make the journey across the Atlantic to save its failing venture. In 1609, Robert Johnson, the son-in-law of the Virginia Company’s treasurer, published Nova Britannia to do just that. In it, he wrote:
. . . the land yeeldeth naturallie for the sustentation of man, aboundance of fish, both scale and shell: of land and water fowles, infinite store: of Deere, Kaine and Fallow, Stages, Coneys, and Hares, with many fruits and rootes good for meate. There are valleyes and plaines streaming with sweete Springs, like veynes in a naturall bodie: there are hills and mountaines making a sensible proffer of hidden treasure, never yet searched: the land is full of mineralles, plentie of woods. . . But of this that I have said, if bare nature be so amiable in its naked kind, what may we hope, when Arte and Nature both shall joyne, and strive together, to give best content to man and beast?
As you have learned, historians take great care when reading primary sources and always think about the context of the source to account for possible bias. This is one of the 5 Cs and a key part of critical thinking. Imagine that you had read this source without thinking about the greater context of the Virginia Company’s mission in the New World, and had simply taken the source at face value. Johnson glowingly describes an abundance of natural resources in Virginia and limitless economic potential. He describes the native population in simplistic, romantic terms, as “gentle and loving” and eager to embrace the culture and religion of the English. But are these descriptions accurate? Do they tell the whole story?
Due to the poor environmental conditions that existed in Jamestown in its early years, as well as attacks from local Native Americans, the death rate in the colony remained high. Though ships carrying hundreds of new arrivals landed at Jamestown each year after 1607, by 1611 the population was still hovered at slightly over 100. The winter of 1609-1610 was particularly bad. Known as the “Starving Time,” the colony lost approximately 75% of its residents. The following two accounts tell of the experiences of the Jamestown settlers in their own words.
George Percy, governor of the Virginia colony from 1609-1610, wrote a first-hand account of the “Starving Time,” detailing the dire situation faced by the colonists and the desperate measures (including cannibalism) they took to survive the winter:
In 1623, Richard Frethorne, an indentured servant in Martin’s Hundred, near Jamestown, wrote a letter to his parents in England several months after he arrived in the New World. Frethorne’s letter suggests that conditions in Virginia had only marginally improved in the intervening years:
. . . Wherefore, for God’s sake, pity me. I pray you to remember my love to all my friends and kindred. I hope all my brothers and sisters are in good health, and as for my part I have set down my resolution that certainly will be; that is, that the answer of this letter will be life or death to me [earlier in the letter Frethorne asks his father to “redeem’ him; that is, send him money to pay off his indentured servitude].
Frethorne appears on a list of the dead in Martin’s Hundred in 1624.
Both of these accounts document suffering, disease, death, and, in the case of Frethorne, threats from local Native Americans (whom he calls the “enemy”) during the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. There is no doubt among historians that life in early Virginia was very hard and often deadly. But how should we read Percy’s and Frethorne’s descriptions of life in the early Virginia colony alongside Nova Britannia? As an appeal to parents for aid and an accounting of Percy’s leadership meant for public consumption, can these sources be taken at face value? Or do they also need to be read with a critical eye and consideration for why they were written?
In contrast to Jamestown, the early Massachusetts colonies (Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay) were not settled primarily for economic gain. As we have learned, Puritans migrated to America to establish themselves in a new land where they could practice their religion without interference. The Mayflower was the first ship of religious separatists, 102 settlers led by William Bradford, and it arrived in 1620. They quickly established a colony in Plymouth, on the eastern shore of Massachusetts. Delayed in their ocean voyage, the ship arrived in November, and its occupants were unprepared for the onset of winter. As a result, many died by spring. In 1630, a much larger contingent of Puritans (approximately 900) led by John Winthrop set sail for Massachusetts. Once again, however, these settlers were not driven by dreams of money and glory but of religious freedom. Unlike the ships arriving in Jamestown in its early years, the Puritan migration was one of families, including men, women, and children, many of whom had no intention of ever returning to England.
Unlike the unhealthy environment of the Chesapeake Bay, the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies benefited from several advantages. Although the winters were cold, the more northerly climate kept diseases at bay. For several reasons, Native Americans in Massachusetts posed less of a threat to the English settlers than did their counterparts in Virginia. Moreover, fresh water and sources of food in the north were abundant. Finally, the Puritans carried with them a religiously inspired work ethic and sense of shared purpose that translated into cohesive communities and, ultimately, a thriving population.
In 1621, William Hilton, who arrived at the Plymouth Colony that year aboard the ship Fortune, wrote a letter home to his cousin in England asking that his wife and children follow (they did so in 1623). In it, he paints a promising picture of life in “New England,” as it came to be called:
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Jessica Foley, Ph.D
Source: Nova Britannia, Virtual Jamestown, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia (http://bit.ly/2jcOGyv)., A True Relation, Virtual Jamestown, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia (http://bit.ly/2hYH4DD)., Richard Frethorne’s Letter to his Mother and Father , Virtual Jamestown, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia (http://bit.ly/2i1CMts)., Letter from William Hilton, contained in The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, Virtual Jamestown, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia (http://bit.ly/2iKNJR7).