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Learning from Jamestown

The violent catastrophe of the Virginia colonists is the best founding parable of American history.
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During the early years of the tobacco boom, about 95 percent of the incoming settlers were indentured laborers, which was a lucrative business for traders: Desperate people were enticed by stories of abundant food and fertile land. However, because of malnutrition and disease, nearly 3/4 of these servants died, most of them within just six months of arriving. The Company could barely send laborers fast enough to keep pace with this terrifying mortality rate, packing them by the hundreds into overcrowded ships where passengers were profoundly vulnerable to communicable diseases. Pro-Jamestown propaganda during the period contained darkly humorous Q&A exchanges, such as this one from 1623, in which the “divers Planters that have long lived in Virginia” dispelled unsavory rumors of mass worker die-offs in winter:

The new people that are yearly sent over which arrive here for the most part very Unseasonably in Winter, finde neither Guest house Inne, nor any the like place to shroud themselves in at their arrivall… soe that many of them by want hereof are not onely seen dyinge under hedges and in the woods but beinge deadly by some of them for many dayes Unregarded and Unburied.

Answere. To the first they Answere that the winter is the most healthfull time and season for arrivall of new Commoners. True itt is that as yett theris no Guesthouse… for any dyinge in the fields (through this defecte) and lyinge unburied, wee are altogether ignorant, yett that many dy suddenly by the hand of God, wee often see itt to fall out even in this flourishinge and plentiful Citty [London] in the middest of our streets, as for dyinge under hedges thereis noe hedge in all Virginia.

It’s a sign of how truly shitty things were that this was the best the Virginia Company’s spinmasters could do with the existing facts. Rumors of people dying under hedges in Virginia are exaggerated, because there are no hedges in Virginia! Step right up!

Eventually, in 1623, the Crown decided to take Jamestown off the Company’s hands and turn it into a royal colony. The settlement’s expansion, in conjunction with the booming tobacco industry, had led to deeper and deeper encroachments into Indian lands, which led the Indians to launch a coordinated massacre of nearly a quarter (347) of the English settlers. (This massacre was organized by chief Opechancanough, whom some historians believe was the same person as, or a close relative of, the mysterious “Don Luis” who had returned with the Spanish Franciscans in 1570). As England’s territorial ambitions in the New World became more expansive, and diplomacy with the Indians broke down, the Crown wanted tighter control over the development of the colony. Although Jamestown’s life as a company town was over, it continued as a royal colony for about 50 more years, before being burned down during Bacon’s Rebellion, a popular uprising animated by a combination of anti-elite and anti-Indian sentiment.
So why would a Jamestown-themed holiday be better than a Plymouth-themed holiday? Firstly, the story of Jamestown captures many important American values, such as: showing up in a home that is not your own, and wondering where all the food is already. Secondly, what better way to really ratchet up the tension at an awkward family gathering than by drawing straws to see whose child will get cooked for dinner? (The eating-other-humans-out-of-bitter-necessity period of Jamestown history is officially known as “The Starving Time,” incidentally, which is also a way better name for an eating-centered holiday than “Thanksgiving.”)

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