The major factors that caused high death rates for the early settlers of Jamestown

One hundred and four settlers from a broad range of social classes, backgrounds moved to Jamestown in Virginia by 1607. However, these settlers faced tremendous challenges as they got to the new land and most of them started dying (Potter, 13). Accordingly, this is because of the harsh life that they lived, which made the colonists extremely weak and sick. Not only were they dying of extreme weather conditions but also starvation and major sicknesses.

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To begin with, it is important to note that the primary cause of significant deaths in Jamestown was diseases. The water used for drinking, washing and cooking was unclean. Specifically, this was because Jamestown was situated near a swamp, which made it easy for the people to contract dysentery, typhoid and other water borne diseases (Potter, 12). The settlers also died of malaria as mosquitoes breeding attacked them in the densely swampy settlement.

Another pertinent cause of death was drought. Potter further suggests that when the settlers moved to Jamestown, they did not carry enough supplies of food since they believed that they would learn to grow their food in a short time. However, an extreme drought hit the land they had settled between the years 1587-1589, which plagued the settlers adding to the many problems they were already experiencing (Potter, 17). The natives also denied providing them food and consequently, to keep themselves from starvation as a result of the food scarcity, some of the colonists resorted to cannibalism. The act of cannibalism also led to some of the deaths of the settlers because of salt poisoning (Smith, 555). The colonists also died as a result of adverse weather conditions. It is worth noting that the temperatures during winter dropped below freezing point and the settlers were not ready for such harsh conditions. Moreover, during summer, a notably huge number of colonists died of dehydration and intolerable heat exhaustion (Smith, 554). Besides, the settlers lacked skills, which cultivated a negative relationship with the natives who killed them in their attempt to acquire food through unorthodox means. The population of the settlers was significantly reduced and this called for the intervention of the Native Americans to salvage them from further deaths (Smith, 555).

Survival with Native Americans

The relationship between the natives and white settlers started out well, and the role that the Powhatans played in the survival of the settlers cannot be underestimated. For instance, Roper postulates that the Indians gave the colonists food supplies, taught them how to develop land for building and planting new crops as well as how to live in the heavily forested land (1630). Consequently, the settlers learned that they had to grow their food to survive without the help of the natives or England and by 1624, they had established the Jamestown colony. Furthermore, it was becoming profitable as they started earning money through the growing and selling tobacco, a new crop that the settlers were planting (Roper, 1647).

The two groups initially formed an alliance that allowed the white settlers control of some communities and get weapons and metal tools. However, this relationship was strained when the colonists started being greedy and wanted to take more native tobacco farms, which made the natives, start making attacks on the white settlers. Conflicts also ensured as Smiths diplomacy often became violent and started destroying villages and grabbing food. As a result of this new hostility, the Powhatans became hostile and denied the colonists firewood and food, which made the settlers starve (Potter, 19).

The white settlers also suffered because of a waste of time and resources. It is noteworthy that the colonists had set out on a journey to enrich themselves with gold and ignored the fact that food was important in their ships (Roper, 1648). The colony could have perished if John Smith had not intervened to impose strict discipline on the settlers that required them to work or starve and each settler was required to be on the farm for four hours per day. Specifically, this was to focus the colonists on solving their immediate needs instead of searching for gold.

Last but not least, the spies at Jamestown made the white settlers live in collective fear. Spain, a notably long time rival with England started watching the settlers in Virginia as soon as they established their settlement. The spies always kept an eye on the native Jamestown through a broad network of spies at the Caribbean and in London (Potter, 19). As a result, the settlers lived in panic and fear of an attack, which slowed their quest for a quick settlement in Jamestown. In sum, the settlers lacked the necessary knowledge that was required to survive in a land filled with disease and harsh conditions, which caused the death of many of them. On the whole, their obstacles changed the development of the native Jamestown and influenced the approach for settlements that followed.


Works Cited

Potter, Teresa. “Relatedness and Mortality among Jamestown Colony Settlers.” Utah Historical Review 4 (2014): 1-20.

Roper, Louis H. The English Empire in America,1602-1658: Beyond Jamestown: New York: Routledge, 2015.

Smith, Suzanne E. Death and the American South.Cambridge Studies on the American South). (2016): 553-555.