The Miracle That Saved Jamestown

SINCE those disappointed, homesick, quarreling Englishmen in Jamestown had found in Virginia neither gold nor a river flowing into the Pacific, and nothing but a yawning grave that swallowed them up faster than they came, why did they stagger on, "scarce able to bury the dead"? Since the colony had bankrupted the company which planted it in high hope of profit that turned to a total loss, why did the gentry and merchants and guilds of England organize another corporation and throw good money after bad?

None of them know. Both colonists and investors alike seem to have been caught in the grip of a power that was using for its own ends those poor puppets of destiny. This is the miracle, repeated again and again, in the building of America.

No doubt the English kept the first foothold on the continent all the more stubbornly because they knew that the Spanish were watching to see them slip and fall. Fast decaying Spain dared not challenge England with another Armada. But she was sure she had trusty allies in the Indians, the climate and the famine that were besieging Jamestown. Confidently she waited for that triple alliance to drive off the poachers on her new world.

While Spain bided her time, three Spaniards were picked up on the beach near Old Point Comfort. On the plea that they were shipwrecked sailors, they were permitted to tarry long at Jamestown. Their true character was not exposed until three centuries afterward, when the archives at Madrid divulged the reports of that trio of spies, who sometimes smuggled out their secret missives in the boots of English sailors. But in those days, the highest in the councils of England, even Stuart Kings and the proud Cecils, were not above taking Spanish bribes.

Once Spain came near having her wish. The English actually did forsake Jamestown and hoist sail for home; but only to be overruled and thrust back into that scene of wretchedness. This strange, fateful episode occurred in 1610, at the close of the third Winter in Virginia, after a population of 400 had wasted away to 60.

A fleet that was sent out by the new company lost its flagship, with the Governor aboard, and had dumped upon the colony 300 more mouths to be fed from a lean larder. The still hungrier mouths of the rats they brought with them—there was none here before the Europeans came—gnawed away the slender stores. Then came the "starving time."

The headless colony fell apart into factions and degenerated into a helpless, scrambling mob. Houses were torn to pieces and thrown into the fire to warm the shivering, ill-clad people who huddled about the flames. There are grisly tales of some of the starters resorting to cannibalism.

When Spring came and, with it, the Governor and his shipmates who had been cast away on the corals of Bermuda, there remained only 60 giant survivors, "who had eaten all the quick things that were there and some of them had eaten snakes and adders." The Governor accepted the unanimous counsels of despair and decided to give up the colony as a failure.

The refugees from the scene of four years of horror were in full flight when they were met by another fleet headed up river, bringing supplies and reinforcements. Three days, two days, perhaps even one more day, and America would have been lost to the English.

Back to Jamestown the colonists went, to make a fresh start under a new leader, Lord de la Warre, that name-father of a great river and a small State, who landed in his velvet and lace, attended by his bodyguard of spearmen in their scarlet cloaks. A changed spirit sprang up in the reborn colony and in England also.

The Virginia company in London no longer expected gold from its domain, nor to find a watery path through it to far Cathay. It was ready to accept humbler returns: pelts and lumber, tar, pitch, turpentine and sassafras. What a comedown! But only down to earth, to the solid ground of reality. The company resolved, too, that it would stop exporting "gentlemen" and send out only "honest and industrious men."

What was to be a too familiar type in the advance of America already had been evolved by that first of our frontier towns. Jamestown had its "bad men," and the "sheriff" who put them down was Sir Thomas Dale. With a stern hand and even with such savage penalties as "breaking on the wheel," Sir Thomas brought to book the riff raff that England had found willing to chance arrows and hunger in the New World.

The woes of that first experiment of the English in planting a colony are sometimes loosely charged to Communism. The economic system was hardly communistic according to the gospel of Marx and Lenin. It might be less inaccurately described as State Socialism. The company in London owned everything, and the colonists were rather its servants, who lived off the company stores. . . when there were any. That method was discarded by the new company, which substituted the incentive of individualism and the private ownership of land.

England was learning her first lesson from her first experiment station in empire building. The English in America had come to the turning in the lane, and a prophetic poet of the day pointed out to them the true grandeur of their destination:
We hope to plant a Nation
Where none before hath stood.
James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 19, 1927, p. 18