04 February 2008

Death in Jamestown

Fyndeinge of fyve hundrethe men we had onely Lefte aboutt sixty, The reste beinge either sterved throwe famin or Cutt of by the salvages.
George Percy, “A Trewe Relacyon”
In early 1610, sixty English colonists remained from the previous year’s population of five hundred. After two years, the colony at Jamestown had not yet established itself as a viable settlement. Approximately 90% of the colonists to Virginia had died—killed by Indians, starved, fallen to disease—or run away and disappeared into the wilds of America. Conditions were so grim that the surviving remnant prepared four boats and set out to return to England. Some considered burning the small fort where they had suffered, but were persuaded that it might yet be occupied by others who would follow them. As they sailed downriver, they met Lord De La Ware’s ship loaded with supplies and more than three hundred additional colonists. They returned to Jamestown.

The colonists would continue to die. Each ship that arrived in Virginia brought more colonists and most died within two years. Of the many thousands who arrived year after year, perhaps 900 occupied Jamestown and the surrounding area in 1620 (Gately, 73). So many colonists died that an investigation by the Royal Council in 1624—the year that John Smith published his Generall Historie—asked, “What has become of the five thousand missing subjects of His Majesty?” (Morison, 54).

John Smith described the conditions in 1607. Food consisted of meager rations from the common store.
… halfe a pinte of Wheat, and as much Barly boiled with water for a man a day, and this having fryed some six and twenty weekes in the ships hold, contained as many wormes as graines
Smith, “Description,”
Hunger was aggravated by thirst. The colonists were reduced to drinking water from the river.
… when they [Captain Newport and the ships] departed, there remained neither Taverne, Beere-house, nor place of reliefe but the common kettell. … our drinke was water.
Smith, “Description”
George Percy noted the abysmal conditions of the water.
… our drinke cold water taken out of the River, which was at a floud verie salt, at a low tide full of slime and filth, which was the destruction of many of our men.
Percy, “Observations”
Earlier in this paragraph, Percy gives us the earliest diagnosis of the maladies that would continue to devastate the Virginia colony for more than a decade.
Our men were destroyed with cruell diseases as Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers, and by warres, and some departed suddenly, but for the most part they died of meere famine.
Percy, “Observations”
Flixes seems most likely a reference to dysentery, but what caused the fevers?


In A Patriot’s History of the United States, Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen clearly identify one of the principal causes of death.
Disease also decimated the colony. Jamestown settlers were leveled by New World diseases for which they had no resistance. Malaria, in particular, proved a dreaded killer, and malnutrition lowered the immunity of the colonists.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 17.
The identification of malaria as a principal malady killing the settlers is neither surprising nor original. The textbook I read in my first college course in early American history also identified malaria, which the authors linked to the poor choice of location for the settlement.
The town was located on marshy ground where mosquitoes flourished during the summer, and a hundred of the first settlers died from malaria.
Weinstein and Wilson, Freedom and Crisis, 63.
An article in The Pilgrim Newsletter published in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown continues this common assertion, “Malaria and other mosquito born illnesses were rampant in the colony” (Stacy, 17). School children at Jamestown Elementary School in Virginia incorporated this idea into a Rap song written as part of a school project.

Although the identification of malaria as a killer of colonists is not uncommon, Schweikart and Allen's add a new twist with their assertion that it was a “New World disease” against which the English lacked immunities. In contrast to this original idea, a statement from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reflects the current state of knowledge concerning malaria in the New World.
Plasmodium vivax stowed away with the English going to Jamestown, while P. falciparum rode along with slaves from Africa.
Background History on Malaria
P. vivax thrived in northern Europe for centuries, but it killed very few. P. falciparum is far more deadly. Indeed, it is one of the world's leading killers even today. If the English colonists succumbed to malaria, it came with them. But they were unlikely to succumb until a more virulent strain was brought in with imported servants from Africa. The first of these arrived in 1619 by which time the English population at Jamestown was growing and reasonably healthy.

If not Malaria?

The common assertion that malaria killed the Jamestown settlers rests on a weak foundation. In Malaria: Poverty, Race, and Public Health in the United States (2001), Margaret Humpheys suggests that the English colonists might have brought malaria with them. The strain of malaria they brought—P. vivax—was less virulent than that likely brought sometime after 1619 from Africa—P. falciparum. Humphreys earned a medical degree from Harvard as well as her Ph.D. in the history of science. Her qualifications for assessing the epidemiology of colonial Virginia would seem more than adequate. It thus comes as no surprise that her book is thorough and well argued, and offers only tentative conclusions in recognition of the absence of the sort of medical data required to make a definitive diagnosis.

Humphreys leaves Schweikart and Allen’s novel allegation in shambles: there is no credible reason to believe that malaria was a New World disease. She also offers good reasons to doubt their commonplace assertion that malaria was the cause of the fevers about which Percy and Smith wrote.
The Jamestown settlers came from England, including parts of England where vivax malaria was common. They certainly could have brought it with them. But one would not expect such a nonvirgin population, however malnourished, to experience a major outbreak of vivax malaria with that level of mortality.
Humphreys, Malaria, 24.
Humpreys suggests that the level of mortality is more consistent with typhoid fever than malaria. Typhoid fever had been put forth as an explanation in the work of Wyndham Blanton in the first half of the twentieth century and by Carville Earle in the second half of the century. Earle notes that the parasites Salmonella typhi and Endamoeba histolytica were present in the “slime and filth” that Percy observed in the water.
Ironically, most of them died needlessly, for on at least two occasions, Virginians understood the nexus between site and mortality, and they eliminated that link through the preventative medicine of settlement dispersal only to have their costly insights overturned by company agents freshly arrived in Virginia.
Earle, “Pioneers of Providence,” 482.
Of course, settlement dispersal rendered the colonists more vulnerable to Indian attack. It was bad enough that the English were economically dependent upon the Natives for many of their provisions, whether through trade or abundant theft. The Indians frequently found cause for hostilities—Percy mentions for example an accidental shooting of a Native when a “pistoll suddenly fyered and shotte the salvage” (Nicholls). Moreover, archaeological excavations and “tree-ring analysis of cypress trees” suggest that the Natives were already suffering scarcity of crops due to a severe drought during the years 1606-1612 (Sheler). The additional burden of feeding the helpless English during hard times did not bode well for peaceful relations.

Plausible Deniability

Schweikart and Allen’s statement that malaria killed the Virginia colonists could be true, but more than likely it is false. Their original claim would merit consideration if they offered some evidence in support. The most convincing scholarship available when they were writing their book suggests an alternate hypothesis that seems more likely. They ignore Humpreys' text. Perhaps the belief that malaria killed the colonists should go the way of Smith’s alleged rescue at the hands of an eleven year old Indian child—a useful myth that is probably false but cannot be proven false beyond all doubts.

Their identification of malaria as a New World disease, on the other hand, is absurd. Even so, they do not state unequivocally that it was. The transition from “New World diseases” to “[m]alaria, in particular” in the next sentence certainly implies that malaria was a New World disease, but they do not list it among those “diseases thought to be ‘transmitted’ from Europe” several pages earlier (Stripes). The relationship between the two sentences could be a misleading non sequitur conferring plausible deniability. It could be clever politics; it could be incompetent editing.


“Background Information on Malaria.” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Accessed 4 February 2008.

Earle, Carville. “Pioneers of Providence: The Anglo-American Experience, 1492-1792.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82, no. 3 (1992), 478-499.

Gately, Iain. Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

Humpheys, Margaret. Malaria: Poverty, Race, and Public Health in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Oxford History of the American People. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Nicholls, Mark. “George Percy's ‘Trewe Relacyon’: A Primary Source for the Jamestown Settlement.” Virginia Magazine of History & Biography 113, no. 3 (2005), 212-275.

Percy, George. “Observations gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia by the English, 1606.” In Purchas his Pilgrimes, vol. 4 (1625), 1685-1690.

Schweikart, Larry. “Why It’s Time for A Patriot’s History of the United States.” History News Network. 31 January 2005.

Schweikart, Larry, and Michael Allen. A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror, updated ed. New York: Sentinal, 2007.

Sheler, Jeffrey L. “Rethinking Jamestown.” Smithsonian 35 (October 2005), 48-54.

Stacy, Ann Hooper. “Jamestowne 1607 in Celebration of its 400th Anniversary.” The Pilgrim Newsletter 91, no. 2 (2007), 16-19.

Stripes, James. “Larry Schweikart’s Claim.” Patriots and Peoples. 30 January 2008.

Smith, John. “The Description of Virginia by Captaine John Smith.” In Purchas his Pilgrimes, vol. 4 (1625), 1691-1704.

Weinstein, Allen, and R. Jackson Wilson, Freedom and Crisis: An American History 2nd ed. New York, Random House, 1978.

No comments:

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP