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England's First Enduring North American Settlement
Digital History ID 63

Author:   John Smith


After unsuccessful attempts to establish settlements in Newfoundland and at Roanoke, the famous "Lost Colony," off the coast of present-day North Carolina, England established its first permanent North American settlement, Jamestown, in 1607. Located in a swampy marshlands along Virginia's James River, Jamestown's residents suffered horrendous mortality rates during its first years. Immigrants had just a fifty-fifty chance of surviving five years.

The Jamestown expedition was financed by the Virginia Company of London, which believed that precious metals were to be found in the area. From the outset, however, Jamestown suffered from disease and conflict with Indians. Approximately 30,000 Algonquian Indians lived in the region, divided into about 40 tribes. About 30 tribes belonged to a confederacy led by Powhatan.

Food was an initial source of conflict. More interested in finding gold and silver than in farming, Jamestown's residents (many of whom were either aristocrats or their servants) were unable or unwilling to work. When the English began to seize Indian food stocks, Powhatan cut off supplies, forcing the colonists to subsist on frogs, snakes, and even decaying corpses.

Captain John Smith (1580?-1631) was twenty-six years old when the first expedition landed. A farmer's son, Smith had already led an adventurous life before arriving in Virginia. He had fought with the Dutch army against the Spanish and in eastern Europe against the Ottoman Turks, when he was taken captive and enslaved. He later escaped to Russia before returning to England.

Smith, serving as president of the Jamestown colony from 1608 to 1609, required the colonists to work and traded with the Indians for food. In 1609, after being wounded in a gunpowder accident, Smith returned to England. After his departure, conflict between the English and the Powhatan confederacy intensified, especially after the colonists began to clear land in order to plant tobacco.

In this excerpt, Smith describes the famous incident in which Powhatan's 12-year-old daughter, Pocahontas (1595?-1617), saved him from execution. Although some have questioned whether this incident took place (since Smith failed to mention it in his Historie's first edition), it may well have been a "staged event," an elaborate adoption ceremony by which Powhatan symbolically made Smith his vassal or servant. Through similar ceremonies, the Powhatan people incorporated outsiders into their society. Pocahontas reappears in the colonial records in 1613, when she was lured aboard an English ship and held captive. Negotiations for her release failed, and in 1614, she married John Rolfe, the colonist who introduced tobacco to Virginia. Whether this marriage represented an attempt to forge an alliance between the English and the Powhatan remains uncertain.


1608 At last they brought him [John Smith] to...Powhatan, their emperor. Here more than 200 of those grim courtiers stood wondering at him [Smith], as he had been a monster; till Powhatan and his train had put themselves in their braveries. Before a fire upon a seat like a bedstead, he sat covered with a great robe made of racoon skins, and all the tails hanging by....

Having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was: two great stones were brought before Powhatan; then as many as could laid hands on him [Smith], dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs to beat out his brains, Pocahontas, the king's dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death. Whereat the emperor was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper....

[1609] As for corn provisions and contributions from the savages, we had nothing but mortal wounds, with clubs and arrows. As for our hogs, hens, goats, sheep, horses, or what lived, our commanders, officers, and savages daily consumed them; some small proportions sometimes we tasted, till all was devoured. Then swords, arms, pieces, or anything we traded with the savages, whose cruel fingers were so oft imbued in our blood, that what by their cruelty, our governor's indiscretion, and the loss of our ships, of 500 within six months after Captain Smith's departure there remained not past 60 men, women, and children--most miserable and poor creatures. And those were preserved for the most part by roots, herbs, acorns, walnuts, berries, now and then a little fish. They that had starch in these extremities made no small use of it; yea, even the very skins of our horses.

Nay, so great was our famine that a savage we slew and buried, the poorer sort took him up again and ate him; and so did diverse one another boiled and stewed with roots and herbs. And one among the rest did kill his wife, powdered [salted] her, and had eaten of her before it was known; for which he was executed, as he well deserved. Now whether she was better roasted, boiled, or carbonated [broiled], I know not; but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard.

This was that time, which still to this day, we call the starving time. It were too vile to say, and scarce to be believed, what we endured; but the occasion was our own for want of providence, industry, and government, and not the barrenness and defect of the country, as is generally supposed.

Works 1608-1631, Edward Arber, ed. Birmingham, Eng., 1884, 391-401, 497-516<

Source: Edward Arber, ed., Works 1608-1631, (Westminister: Archibald Constable, 1895), pp. 391-401, 497-516.

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