Jamestown Interpretive Essays

Jamestown's Environment

Dennis B. Blanton
Director, Center for Archaeological Research
College of William & Mary

Climate and aspects of the natural setting of Jamestown Island have set limits on what its human inhabitants can reasonably do, from restricting the kinds of food plants they can grow, to defining where their boats can safely pass. Gathering evidence of past environments is a hallmark of modern archaeology, as specialists from geology, biology, history, and archaeology cooperate to provide a comprehensive picture of the past.
During the 10,000 or more years that Jamestown Island has been occupied by humans, the backdrop of environmental change has been mainly governed by slow, global-scale shifts. Specifically, world-wide warming beginning 15,000 years ago at the end of the last great ice age, known as the Pleistocene, has driven major changes throughout the Chesapeake estuary of which the James River is a part. Virginia remained south of the great ice sheets, but their retreat produced significant, indirect effects. Since the latter part of the Pleistocene, hemispheric temperatures are estimated to have risen an average of about 10 degrees Celsius. This warmth has been sufficient to completely alter the ecosystem encountered by pioneering Native American groups more than 10 millennia ago. The ice age forests were more boreal in character, meaning they were most similar to spruce-fir-pine forests familiar in much higher latitudes today like Canada. With time they were replaced by the mixed pine and hardwood forest communities of the present.
Perhaps the most impressive effect of the glacial retreat is sea level rise. Enormous volumes of meltwater from the continental glaciers raised the Mid-Atlantic's sea stand by at least three hundred feet. A prominent local result was creation of the Chesapeake Bay estuary by flooding of its parent river valleys. Streams like the James River gradually became brackish, tidal, and broad. By around three thousand years ago, the environment of Jamestown Island was noticeably affected by these changes. Much of the low-lying island fringe was inundated and tidal wetlands encroached significantly up the small creeks and ravines draining its interior. It was during the millennia before estuarine conditions took hold that Jamestown enjoyed its heyday environmentally-speaking. At that time, it was a well-drained peninsula with ample fresh water seeps bordering one of the region's great rivers.
Indeed, Jamestown Island was a peninsula attached to the mainland over most of its history. It divided the James River from a smaller stream known now as Powhatan Creek. This peninsula began to form long before humans arrived in the area. Sand, silt, and clay deposited at the mouth of Powhatan Creek built up over the last one hundred thousand years. Regular undulations, created by ravines cutting through underlying sediments, characterized the peninsula's surface. Many low areas contained small seeps, creating minor freshwater streams. Only in the recent past-about two hundred years ago-did erosion related to sea level rise sever the thin isthmus connecting the peninsula to the mainland, thus creating the island.
Archaeological evidence has revealed significant effects of the estuarine shift on human decisions by about two thousand years ago. The new conditions, which approximate the modern character of the island, transformed it into a less favorable place for people to live. Most freshwater sources were flooded by the tidal wetlands and the island mass lost a great deal of its well-drained uplands.
Through careful research, scientists have learned a great deal about the natural scene at the time the English arrived in 1607. They have found that hardwood-dominated forest likely covered most of the upland areas. Small openings and second-growth forest occurred in areas that had once been cleared by fire. These fires, whether started naturally or by people, acted to keep the underbrush in check and to create occasional openings in the forest canopy. Tidal wetlands skirting the James River and intruding along minor stream courses appeared much the same as those seen today, even though in 1607 sea level was about three feet lower than it is now. This difference in water level was sufficient to conveniently place the shoreline closer to the deepwater channel. Over the last few centuries, however, gradual inundation has forced the shoreline into the original fort site itself.
Today, visitors to Jamestown can find vestiges of the undisturbed forest familiar to Native Americans and the early English colonists on remote corners of the island. Narrow offshoot ridges which were less desirable for farming support impressive stands of old hardwoods sheltering a relatively open forest floor. Walnut and beech trees intersperse themselves among these oak and hickory groves. In such places one can appreciate the comment of Captain John Smith that it was possible to gallop a horse through the impressive, park-like woods. (1)
Many people have commented over the last four centuries on the qualities of Jamestown's environment. Whether seventeenth-century colonists or modern historians, the island's conditions have differently been characterized as perfectly comfortable or miserably inhospitable. Such accounts are influenced by factors ranging from season of observation to the local experience and political intent of the writer. Archaeology and history amply demonstrate that people have done well at Jamestown. Still, it is useful to explore what kinds of environmental factors have limited the island's use in the historic era. This is especially true of shorter-term oscillations in the regional climate such as drought and periods of cold, or even subtle physical characteristics of the island's location.
Because the adjacent river and creeks became brackish as water levels rose, reliable sources of fresh water would have been scarce by the seventeenth century. Most springs and seeps at the shoreline were subject to tidal inundation and seasonal drying. English colonists dug shallow wells to supply themselves with sources of drinking water, but these were vulnerable to drought and salt water intrusion. Also, historian Carville V. Earle attributed the startling afflictions from disease in the early years to Jamestown's position at the salt-fresh water transition, where filth introduced into the river tended to fester rather than flush away.
The island is not situated at a point of great natural food abundance, especially relative to other locations very close by. The brackish river water at Jamestown is not sufficiently saline to support edible shellfish like the oysters that can survive just a mile or two downstream. Fish are present in local streams, but only in the spring and early summer are they there in impressive abundance. This is most true of the enormous Atlantic sturgeon that captivated the English and smaller spawning fish like shad. Crabs, too, tend to exhibit a seasonal pattern of abundance.
Climate is naturally prone to change, even if the shifts are only temporary. While essentially modern in character, the climate at the time of the English colonization was less conducive to a comfortable existence than what we recognize today. For instance, the period around 1607 coincided with a cool spell in North America and western Europe that historians recognize as an early expression of the so-called Little Ice Age, lasting roughly from AD 1500 - 1850. This period was not one of continuous cold, but instead a time of more frequent and extreme intervals of low temperature. Indeed, Captain John Smith commented that the severe Virginia winter the colonists experienced in 1607-08 was akin to the "great frost" that gripped England at the same time. (2) The 1607 winter in the British Isles was so severe there are reports of trees splitting open from the cold.
Also, a dendroclimatological study recently discovered that a severe drought complicated life during the first years of the colony. By examining the rings of ancient, living bald cypress trees, researchers determined that this drought affected the area for the seven years between 1606-1612. Rainfall well below average amounts restricted the trees' growth, causing a series of very narrow rings that explain the historical reports of hunger, sickness, death, and conflict. These natural clues help us understand the settlers' complaints about the purity of water in streams and shallow wells which declined with fresh input from rainfall. They also help explain tensions between the English and Indians over corn supplies. It may not be a coincidence that the first period of hostilities between the two cultures ended in 1612 after the drought when corn supplies were more abundant. The tragic mortality rate in the colony is also better understood under drought conditions, a time when malnourished and thirsty colonists would be most vulnerable to sickness.
Even the well-known El Nino Southern Oscillation may have been a factor in 1607 conditions. Long-term reconstructions of this climatic pattern indicate a strong El Nino that year. While the effects of the phenomenon are not altogether clear in the Mid-Atlantic region, it is not unreasonable to believe some of the extremes like cold and drought were aggravated by this event.
Looking back now we can understand how the environment of Jamestown Island has changed under the effects of both long-term and short-term natural shifts. The conditions we observe there today are only remotely suggestive of the scene that met the first inhabitants many thousands of years ago. On the whole, there is much about the earliest conditions that made the island-to-be more attractive for the people who occupied it. Gradually, it became a challenging place to live and by the time the English arrived, the Indians made use of it only sporadically. Outright bad luck also plagued the first colonists who arrived in the midst of short-term but extreme climatic events like drought and unusual winter cold. There is a lesson here valuable today, as through the Jamestown story alone all of us are reminded of the intimate link between culture and environment, and how a some respect for the limitations it places on our actions can make a difference in quality of life.
Suggested Readings:

Blanton, Dennis B. "Drought as a Factor in the Jamestown Colony, 1607-1612." Historical Archaeology, 34(2000):74-81.

Bradley, Raymond S. and Philip D. Jones, eds. Climate Since A.D. 1500. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

Earle, Carville V. "Environment, Disease, and Mortality in Early Virginia." In The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century: Essays on Anglo-American Society, eds. Thad W. Tate and David L. Ammerman, pp. 96-125. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

Fagan, Brian M. Floods, Famines and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Fagan, Brian M. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Lamb, H. H. Climate, History and the Modern World, 2nd edition. New York and London: Routledge, 1995.

Stahle, David W., Malcolm K. Cleaveland, Dennis B. Blanton, Matthew D. Therrell, and David A. Gay. "The Lost Colony and Jamestown Droughts." Science (1998) 280:564-567.

End Notes:

1 John Smith, A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Hapned in Virginia, (1608), in Lyon Gardiner Tyler, ed., Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907), p. 101.

2 John Smith, A Map of Virginia. With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion (1612), in Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Captain John Smith: A Select Edition of His Writings, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), p. 211.

Crandall ShifflettŠ 1999, 2000