If you look back at what life was like for the early colonists and settlers in North America, you’ll find plenty of hardship. The land was wild and undeveloped, the winters brutal, and tensions with local native populations ran high. Although we may never be able to fully relate to the strife and challenges of early America and its settlers--we can still learn from them.
Jamestown, Virginia, is a particularly notable example. Named after King James I who granted the charter to the Virginia Company to establish settlements, Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. The settlement was created on May 13, 1607, by 104 English men and boys who arrived fresh off the boat from England. They chose the area for several key reasons:
- It was surrounded by water on three sides, but was located far inland--making the settlement easy to defend from Spanish attacks.
- Despite being further inland, the channel was deep enough for the English to anchor their ships at the shoreline.
- Although the Powhatan nation was close by, the exact site of the settlement was not inhabited by the native population.
Despite these ideal factors, the settlement faced numerous hardships--many of them resulting from poor planning.
The Hardships of Jamestown
As if the proliferation of disease wasn’t bad enough, Jamestown’s food supply also began to run low. The land was difficult to work, and instead of putting their main focus on farming as they should have, they mined the land for gold. Fortunately, the Chief of the Powhatan Indian nation sent gifts of food to help the English. This alliance helped the settlers in the early years--but their good fortune didn’t last for long. First things first: the physical health of the settlers was key to their strength as a collective. However, not long after constructing the main fort of Jamestown, many settlers start to become sick. This was mainly due to the fact they had been drinking contaminated water from the local river. Lowered immune systems weren’t ideal for the brutal East Coast winters they were about to experience. Before they knew it, the settlers were hit with various illnesses, fevers, and pneumonia.
That winter became known as “The Starving Time.” Settlers remained within their fort, threatened by potential attacks from the Powhatans who placed the settlement under siege. This meant they had less opportunities to scavenge or hunt for food beyond their fort--and resorted to eating things like leather from their shoes and belts, and even fellow settlers who had already died. George Percy, President of the Council of Jamestown, wrote that to satisfy their “Crewell hunger,” some went into the woods looking for “Serpents and snakes, and to digge the earthe for wylde and unknowne Rootes,” but those people “weare Cutt off and slayne by the Salvages.” By early 1610, starvation, disease, and warfare had claimed most of the settlers’ lives. A seven-year drought struck the region, affecting the food supply for everyone in the area. According to the National Park Service, by late 1609, “the relationship between the Powhatan Indians and the English had soured as the English were demanding too much food” during the drought.
Throughout the early decades of Jamestown, its settlers faced a variety of additional hardships, from frequent changes of leadership, warfare with surrounding Indian tribes, shipwrecked supplies, a damaging fire, and more. Fortunately, there is plenty that we can learn from their trials and errors to strengthen our likelihood of survival.
Lessons from Jamestown
There’s no doubt that there are a few unanticipated factors that struck the Jamestown settlement, such as a seven-year drought. That said, there are several things the settlers could have done to increase their chances of survival. Here are three key lessons we can derive from their story, and apply to our lives today…
#1: Aim for food resilience: If the early settlers of Jamestown had planned for food shortages, they would have been able to avoid a lot of death and hardship. Without enough emergency food stockpiled, their food production system was not strong enough to last them through the winter and periods of drought.
Today, we never know when weather systems, natural disasters, or economic and political crises may affect our access to food. Supply chains can be all too easily disrupted with little notice. That’s why it’s imperative to have a supply of nonperishable foods at the ready at all times. Additionally, creating your own garden and preserving foods by canning, pickling, and freezing will help you and your family during long-term food shortages. Make sure you use heirloom seeds so that your garden grows year after year.
#2: Ward off disease: The early Jamestown settlers had little knowledge about how to remain healthy and drink purified water. Keeping sanitary living conditions and accessing clean drinking water is key to remaining strong and disease-free. If your water supply becomes compromised, which usually happens during an emergency, there are a variety of ways you can purify drinking water from other sources. For example, check out the Alexapure Pro Water Filter, Survival Spring Personal Water Filter, and drinking water germicidal tablets.
#3: Maintain strong local alliances: At first, the relationship between the English settlers and the Powhatan Indians was ideal. The Indians aided the colonists when they faced their first food shortage. However, the colonists took their help for granted, and when the drought affected the Indians and colonists alike, the relationship went downhill. According to Historic Jamestowne, “Captain John Smith had some success trading European goods for corn in the first two years of the settlement, but his strongarm tactics also angered the tribal communities.” During “The Starving Time” in 1610, the Powhatans placed the settlement under siege, and kept it under siege for a total of four years.
During times of hardship and limited resources, you’ll fare far better if you make alliances versus enemies. Don’t take these alliances for granted, and make sure the relationship feels balanced. Have a store of items that you can trade and barter for other resources you may need, and approach potential partners with a genuine spirit of support. We are stronger as a community, and isolating yourself and cutting ties with others will only hurt you in the end.
America wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for the pure will and determination of the early settlers. That’s not to say that they didn’t make their fair share of mistakes. Fortunately, we can learn from these mistakes and ensure that we survive and thrive through any situation.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply