In fact, early Jamestown looks more like a nightmare of folly, hunger, disease, and violence. The colonists' London-based corporate sponsor, the Virginia Company, naively instructed the colonial leaders never to allow the Indians to see any English people die, lest the natives learn that the colonists were mere mortals. This instruction quickly proved impossible to follow as the colonists died in droves from disease and malnutrition. Of the initial 104 settlers who arrived in April 1607, just thirty-eight were still living nine months later. The continued shipments of newcomers kept the colony barely alive. In the spring of 1609 there were 220 colonists, but only sixty of them survived the winter. One starving colonist killed and ate his wife, for which he was burned at the stake.
In June 1610, the desperate survivors abandoned Jamestown and set off down the river, homeward bound. To their dismay, they were intercepted near the river's mouth by three ships from England bearing three hundred new colonists and a new governor who compelled a grudging re-occupation of Jamestown, where disease and hunger continued to kill the English by the hundreds. Of the ten thousand people shipped to the deadly colony, only one-fifth remained alive in 1622, when a critic charged that Virginia would "shortly get the name of a slaughter house."
Jamestown lay beside a broad swamp, which was good for defense against Spanish or Indian attack but lousy for the health of the colonists. In the hot and humid summer, the swamp bred millions of mosquitoes, carriers of malaria. In addition, brackish water contaminated the shallow wells, exposing the inhabitants to salt poisoning, especially during the summer, when the river ran low. The river's stagnant intertidal zone also retained the garbage and the excrement generated by the colonists, promoting epidemics of dysentery and typhoid fever. The survivors were often too weak and apathetic to work. Unable to cultivate enough corn in summer, they starved during the winter and spring. In 1620, their minister reported that "more do die here of the disease of their mind [than] of their body."
The initial colonists were a fractious and motley crew of gentlemenadventurers and vagrants. One early leader characterized the colony as "full of misery and misgovernment." Unfamiliar with the new territory, the colonists lacked the Indians' skills at fishing, hunting, and raising maize. When a new governor arrived in 1611, he was shocked to find the colonists bowling in the streets instead of planting their crops. Captain John Smith concluded that "most of them would rather starve than worke."
Preferring to bowl or to explore for gold, the early colonists barely survived by extorting corn from the Indians. Possessing scant surplus to spare for their uninvited guests, the Indians frequently lashed out. One set of villagers killed seventeen intruding colonists, stuffed their dead mouths with corn as a sign of contempt, and left the corpses…