Within months, John Smith took charge of Jamestown. His wily, sometimes brutal diplomacy allowed the foreigners to extract enough food from Tsenacomoco villages to survive the next winter. This was quite a feat—with the arrival of two more convoys, the number of mouths at Jamestown had risen, even with all the deaths, to about 200. Despite his successes, Smith, a yeoman's son, managed constantly to irritate his social betters in the Virginia Company's leadership. Worse for the colony, he left for medical treatment in England in the fall of 1609. He had suffered terrible burns when a bag of gunpowder he had fastened around his waist accidentally ignited. In his absence, things deteriorated. That winter, the death toll again was high.
Although Jamestown was nearly defenseless, Powhatan didn't attack. For the first year or two of the colony's existence, he seems to have decided that the foreigners' trade goods—guns, axes, glass beads, and copper sheets, which the Indians prized much the way Europeans prized gold ingots—were worth giving up some not-very-valuable real estate. In addition, Powhatan was probably convinced that the tassantassas would die off without his assistance, suggests Helen Rountree, an emerita anthropologist at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, and the most prominent historian of Tsenacomoco. He could sit back and wait; the invasion from abroad would end itself.
Things would get ugly before Powhatan was proved wrong. By the beginning of 1610, the settlers at Jamestown were dining on "dogs, cats, rats, and mice," Percy wrote, as well as the starch for their Elizabethan ruffs, which could be cooked into a kind of porridge. With famine "ghastly and pale in every face," some colonists stirred themselves to "dig up dead corpse[s] out of graves and to eat them." One man murdered his pregnant wife and "salted her for his food." When John Rolfe arrived that spring, only about 60 people at Jamestown had survived what was called "the starving time."
Rolfe himself barely made it to Virginia. Almost a year before—June 1609—nine ships had left England, carrying 500 new colonists, Rolfe among them. Not far from landfall, a hurricane slammed into the expedition. Rolfe's vessel twisted so much in the waves that the caulking popped from its seams. For three straight days every man aboard, many "stripped naked as men in galleys," worked pumps and bucket chains. The voyagers were near collapse when the ship ran aground on an unpeopled island in the Bermudas. For nine months, Rolfe and the other survivors recovered on the island, catching fish, wild hogs, and sea turtles and assembling two small boats from the wreckage of their ship. They staggered into Jamestown on May 24, 1610, a year after leaving London.
Appalled by what they found and with limited supplies, Rolfe's group quickly decided to abandon Jamestown. They loaded the skeleton-like survivors into boats, intending to set off for Newfoundland, where they would beg a ride home from fishing vessels that plied the Grand Banks. As they waited for the tide to turn for their departure, they saw three ships approaching. It was yet another convoy, this one amply supplied and containing a replacement governor and 150 more colonists. The old colonists, despondent, returned to the task of figuring out how to survive.
It wasn't easy. At least 6,000 people came to Virginia from England between 1607 and 1624. More than three out of four died.
The central mystery of Jamestown is why the badly led, often starving colonists were eventually able to prevail over the bigger, better-organized forces of the Powhatan empire. In other parts of the Americas, colonizers had their way smoothed for them, so to speak, because they landed in places that already had been devastated by Eurasian illnesses like smallpox, measles, and typhoid—diseases that had not existed in the Americas. When the Pilgrims came to Massachusetts in 1620, for instance, they established Plymouth village literally on top of an Indian village that had been emptied two years before by an epidemic (apparently spread by survivors of a French vessel that shipwrecked on Cape Cod). In Virginia, despite previous contact with Europeans, the Powhatan had somehow avoided any epidemics and were going strong when the Jamestown colonists arrived. Yet by the late 17th century, the Powhatan too had lost control of their land. What happened?
One answer emerging points to what historian Alfred Crosby calls "ecological imperialism." The tassantassas replaced or degraded so much of the native ecosystem that they made it harder and harder for the Indians to survive in their native lands. As the colonists bitterly came to realize that Virginia had no gold and that the Indians weren't going to selflessly provide them with all the food they needed, they began to mold the land to their needs. Unable to adapt to this foreign landscape, they transformed it into a place they could understand. In doing so, they unleashed what would become a multilevel ecological assault on North America. Their unlikely weapons in this initial phase of the campaign: tobacco, honeybees, and domestic animals.
MOST HISTORIANS think it unlikely that Pocahontas saved John Smith's life. Smith was sent off to explore the headwaters of the Chickahominy River in December 1607, in a canoe with two English companions and two Indian guides. One hope was that the river might be the entrance to the long-rumored passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The expedition was intercepted by a force led by Opechancanough, Powhatan's powerful brother.
Opechancanough brought his captive to Powhatan, who lived on the north bank of the York River. In Smith's telling, the leader decided to execute him after a public feast. Executioners "being ready with their clubs to beat out his brains, Pocahontas, the king's dearest daughter," then perhaps 11 years old, suddenly rushed out and cradled Smith's head in her arms "to save him from death." Fondly indulging his daughter's crush, Powhatan commuted Smith's sentence and returned him to Jamestown with food.
Historians don't buy this account, published in 1624, not least because Smith also described his capture a few months after it happened, in a report not intended for publication, and said nothing about being saved by an Indian maiden. Overall, the two versions of Smith's Virginia adventures are similar, except the one intended for the bookstores presents the events with a melodramatic flourish. Being saved from death by a lady's intervention was a favorite motif in Smith's tales. True or not, the story of Smith's rescue has overshadowed a more important bit of history: Pocahontas actually did help save the colony—by marrying John Rolfe six years later.
Evidence suggests Pocahontas was a bright, curious, mischievous girl, one who, like all girls in Tsenacomoco, went without clothing until puberty. Her real name was Matoaka; Pocahontas was a teasing nickname that meant something like "little hellion." When Pocahontas visited Jamestown after Smith's return, Strachey remembered, she got the boys to turn cartwheels with her, "falling on their hands turning their heels upwards, whom she would follow, and wheel so her self naked as she was all the fort over."
The English appear to have liked the girl—but not enough to prevent them from abducting her in 1613. They demanded that Powhatan return the English guns he had acquired, but the leader refused to negotiate with people he must have regarded as criminals. Perhaps Pocahontas was angered by her father's refusal to ransom her. Perhaps she liked being treated royally by the English, who viewed her as a princess. Perhaps Pocahontas, by then a teenager, simply fell in love with one of her captors—decorous, pious, politically adept John Rolfe, who for his part seems to have truly fallen for her. In any case, she agreed to stay in Jamestown as Rolfe's bride.
Both Powhatan and Jamestown's leaders seem to have viewed Pocahontas's marriage as a de facto nonaggression treaty. As relations eased, the foreigners were given free rein to grow tobacco. In Tsenacomoco, the custom was for families to farm their plots and then let them go fallow when yields declined. Any land not currently being planted became common hunting or foraging grounds until needed again for farms. Rolfe and the other tassantassas found a loophole in the system. To them, the Indians' unfenced land looked unused—no matter that it was purposely kept open by burning, and constantly traversed by hunting and gathering parties. The English cleared this "vacant" land to plant tobacco, but instead of abandoning fields as they were depleted, gave them over to cattle and horses. Rather than cycling the land between farm and forest, they divided it into parcels and kept them in continuous agricultural use—permanently keeping prime farm and forage land away from the James River societies, pushing the Indians farther and farther away from the shore.
Tobacco fueled an addiction for more and more land. The Indians had long grown the crop, but only in small amounts, and in fields that mixed different plants. Driven by the English demand, the colonists covered big stretches of land with N. tabacum. Neither natives nor newcomers understood the environmental impact of growing it on a massive scale. "Tobacco has an almost unique ability to suck the life out of soil," says Leanne DuBois, the agricultural extension agent in James City County. "In this area, where the soils can be pretty fragile, it can ruin the land in a couple of years." Constantly wearing out their fields, the colonists cleared ever more forest, leaving behind sparse pastureland.
Even in their own villages and farm fields, the Indians couldn't escape the invasive species brought by the English—pigs, goats, cattle, and horses. Indians woke up to find free-range cows and horses romping through their fields, trampling the harvest. If they killed the beasts, gun-waving colonists demanded payment. To the English, the whole concept of a "civilized" landscape was one in which ownership of the land was signaled by fencing fields and raising livestock. After all, England had more domestic animals per capita than most other European nations. "They looked down on the Indians because they had no domestic animals," says Virginia DeJohn Anderson, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. At first the imported animals didn't do well, not least because they were eaten by starving colonists. But during the peace after Pocahontas's marriage, they multiplied. Colonists quickly lost control of them.
The worst may have been the pigs. Smart, strong, constantly hungry, vicious when crossed, they ate nuts, fruits, shellfish, and corn, turning up the soil with their shovel-like noses in search of edible roots. Among these was tuckahoe, a starchy tuber the Indians relied on when times were hard and their corn crops failed. The pigs liked it, too. The natives found themselves competing for food with packs of feral pigs.
But the largest ecological impact may have been wreaked by a much smaller, seemingly benign domestic animal: the European honeybee. In early 1622, a ship arrived in Jamestown that was a living exhibit of the Columbian exchange. It was loaded with exotic entities for the colonists to experiment with: grapevine cuttings, silkworm eggs, and beehives. Most bees pollinate only a few species; they tend to be fussy about where they live. European honeybees, promiscuous beasts, reside almost anywhere and pollinate almost anything in sight. Quickly, they swarmed from their hives and set up shop throughout the Americas.
The English imported the bees for honey, not to pollinate crops—pollination wasn't widely understood until the late 19th century—but feral honeybees pollinated farms and orchards up and down the East Coast anyway. Without them, many of the plants the Europeans brought with them wouldn't have proliferated. Georgia probably wouldn't have become the Peach State; Johnny Appleseed's trees might never have borne fruit; Huckleberry Finn might not have had any watermelons to steal. So critical to European success was the honeybee that Indians came to view it as a harbinger of invasion; the first sight of one in a new territory, noted French-American writer Jean de Crèvecoeur in 1782, "spreads sadness and consternation in all [Indian] minds."