Post-classical history


Atlantic Journeys


The Tobacco Coast


It is just possible that John Rolfe was responsible for the worms. Earthworms, to be precise—the common nightcrawler and the red marsh worm, creatures that did not exist in the Americas before 1492. Rolfe was a colonist in Jamestown, Virginia, the first successful English settlement in the Americas. Most people know him today, if they know him at all, as the man who married Pocahontas, the “Indian princess” in countless romantic stories. A few history buffs understand that Rolfe was a primary force behind Jamestown’s eventual success. The worms hint at a third, still more important role: all inadvertently, Rolfe helped to unleash a permanent change in the American landscape.

Like many young English blades, Rolfe smoked—or “drank,” as the phrase was then—tobacco, a fad since the Spanish had brought back Nicotiana tabacum from the Caribbean. Indians in Virginia also drank tobacco, but it was a different species, Nicotiana rustica. N. rustica was awful stuff, wrote colonist William Strachey: “poor and weak and of a biting taste.” After arriving in Jamestown in 1610, Rolfe talked a shipmaster into bringing him some N. tabacum seeds from Trinidad and Venezuela. Six years later Rolfe returned to England with his wife, Pocahontas, and his first big shipment of tobacco. “Pleasant, sweet, and strong,” as Rolfe’s friend Ralph Hamor described it, Virginia tobacco was a hit.

Exotic, intoxicating, addictive, and disdained by stuffy authorities, smoking had become an aristocratic craze. When Rolfe’s shipment arrived, one writer estimated, London already had more than seven thousand tobacco “houses”—café-like places where the city’s growing throng of nicotine junkies could buy and drink tobacco. Unfortunately, because the sole source of fine tobacco were the colonies of hated Spain, the weed in England was hard to obtain, costly (the best tobacco sold for its weight in silver), and vaguely unpatriotic. London tobacco houses were thrilled by the sudden appearance of an English alternative: Virginia leaf. They clamored for more. Ships from London tied up to the Jamestown dock and took in barrels of rolled-up tobacco leaves. Typically four feet tall and two and a half feet across at the end, each barrel held half a ton or more. To balance the weight, sailors dumped out ballast, mostly stones, gravel, and soil—that is, for Virginia tobacco they swapped English dirt.

That dirt very possibly contained the common nightcrawler and the red marsh worm. So, almost certainly, did the rootballs of plants the colonists imported. Until the nineteenth century, worms like these were viewed as agricultural pests. Charles Darwin was among the first to realize they were something more; his last book was a three-hundred-page celebration of earthworm power. Huge numbers of these beasts, he noted, live beneath our feet; indeed, the total mass of the earthworms in a cow pasture may be many times the mass of the animals grazing above them. Literally eating their way through the soil, earthworms create networks of tunnels that let in water and air. In temperate places like Virginia, earthworms can turn over the upper foot of soil every ten or twenty years; tiny ecological engineers, they reshape entire expanses. “It may be doubted,” Darwin wrote, “whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.”

The exact path of these migrants into North America is impossible to trace. What is clear is that before the arrival of Europeans, New England and the upper Midwest had no earthworms—they were wiped out in the last Ice Age. Earthworms from the south didn’t move north after the glaciers melted because the creatures don’t travel long distances unless they are transported by human agency. “If they’re born in your backyard, they’ll stay inside the fence their whole lives,” John W. Reynolds, editor of Megadrilogica, perhaps the premier U.S. earthworm journal, explained to me. They arrived with Europeans, probably in Virginia, and spread with them. Like the colonists, the worms were conquering a new place. In both cases, the arrival of foreigners was an ecological watershed.

In worm-free woodlands, leaves pile up in drifts on the forest floor. When earthworms are introduced, they can do away with the leaf litter in a few months, packing the nutrients into the soil in the form of castings (worm excrement). As a result, according to Cindy Hale, a worm researcher at the University of Minnesota, “everything changes.” Trees and shrubs in wormless places depend on litter for food. If worms tuck nutrients into the soil, the plants can’t find them. Many species die off. The forest becomes more open and dry, losing its understory, including tree seedlings. Meanwhile, earthworms compete for food with small insects, driving down their numbers. Birds, lizards, and mammals that feed in the litter decline as well. Nobody knows what happens next. “Four centuries ago, we launched this gigantic, unplanned ecological experiment,” Hale told me. “We have no idea what the long-term consequences will be.”

In some ways this is unsurprising: Jamestown itself was a case study in unintended consequences. The Virginia colony was an attempt by a group of merchants to snatch up the vast stores of gold and silver they imagined—incorrectly, alas—existed around Jamestown, in the big, shallow estuary of Chesapeake Bay. Equally important, the merchants wanted to find a route through North America, which they imagined, again incorrectly, to be only a few hundred miles wide, less than a month’s journey. And when the colonists came to the Pacific coast, they would be able to sail, possibly with Virginia silver, to the colony’s ultimate reason for existence: China. In the anodyne language of economics, Jamestown’s founders intended to integrate isolated Virginia into the world market—to globalize it.

Purely as a business venture, Jamestown was a disaster. Despite the profits from tobacco, its backers suffered such heavy losses that their venture collapsed ignominiously. Nonetheless the colony left a big mark: it inaugurated the great struggles over democracy (the colony established English America’s first representative body) and slavery (it brought in English America’s first captive Africans) that have long marked U.S. history. Rolfe’s worms, as one might call them, illustrate another aspect of its course: Jamestown was the opening salvo, for English America, of the Columbian Exchange. In biological terms, it marked the point when before turns into after. Setting up camp on the marshy Jamestown peninsula, the colonists were, without intending it, bringing the Homogenocene to North America. Jamestown was a brushfire in a planetary ecological conflagration.


On May 14, 1607, three small ships anchored in the James River, at the southern periphery of Chesapeake Bay. In movies and textbooks they are often depicted as arriving in a pristine forest of ancient trees, small bands of Indians gliding, silent as ghosts, beneath the canopy. Implicit in this view is the common description of the colonists as “settlers”—as if the land was unsettled before they came on the scene. In fact, the English ships landed in the middle of a small but rapidly expanding Indian empire called Tsenacomoco.

Three decades before, Tsenacomoco had comprised six small, separate clusters of villages. By the time the foreigners came from overseas, its paramount leader, Powhatan, had tripled its size, to about eight thousand square miles. Tsenacomoco stretched from Chesapeake Bay to the Fall Line, the bluffs at the edge of the Appalachian plateau. In its scores of villages lived more than fourteen thousand people. Europeans would have been impressed by these numbers; Michael Williams, a historical geographer at Oxford, argued that the eastern U.S. forest may have been more populous in 1600 than even “densely settled parts of western Europe.”

The ruler of this land was known by multiple names and titles, a hallmark of kings everywhere; Powhatan, the name used most often by the colonists, was also the name of the village in which he was born. Wary, politically shrewd, ruthless when needed, Powhatan was probably in his sixties when the English landed—“well beaten with many cold and stormy winters,” according to colonist Strachey, but still “of a tall stature and clean limbs.”

The only known likeness of Powhatan created in his lifetime, this sketch ornamenting a 1612 map by John Smith depicts him in a longhouse, smoking a tobacco pipe while surrounded by wives and advisers. (Photo credit 2.1)

His capital of Werowocomoco (“king’s house”) was on the north bank of the York River, in a little bay where three streams come together. (The York runs more or less parallel to the James and a few miles to its north.) Projecting from the shore was a peninsula dominated by a low rise, twenty-five feet at its highest point, which held most of the village’s houses. Behind it, separated by a double moat from the rest of Werowocomoco, was a second, smaller hill, with several structures at its base that combined the function of temples, armories, and treasure houses. Generally closed to commoners, they contained the preserved bodies of important chiefs and priests, mounted on scaffolds and ringed by emblems of wealth and power. Atop the hill was the biggest structure in Tsenacomoco: a great, windowless barrel vault, perhaps 150 feet long, its walls made of overlapping sheets of chestnut bark, with gargoyle-like statues at each corner. At the far end, lighted by torches, was the royal chamber. Inside, the sovereign greeted visitors from a raised, pillow-covered divan, surrounded by wives and advisers, long gray hair tumbling over his shoulders, ropes of fat pearls descending from his neck. Confronted with this regal spectacle, colonist John Smith was awed; the Indian men, who generally had better diets than the English, “seemed like Giants,” with deep voices “sounding from them, as a voyce in a vault.” Sitting in the center, Powhatan himself, Smith thought, had “such a Majestie as I cannot expresse.”

To the English, Powhatan was a recognizable figure: the king of a small domain, with the lofty bearing that they expected from royalty. Any strangeness adhered not to the man in the foreground of the picture but the background against which he appeared: the fields, forests, and rivers of Tsenacomoco. It could hardly have been otherwise. Chesapeake Bay was shaped by ecological and social forces unknown to the colonists. Speaking broadly, the most important ecological force was the region’s different tally of plant and animal species; the social force, just as consequential, was the Indians’ different land-management practices.

By a quirk of biological history, the pre-Columbian Americas had few domesticated animals; no cattle, horses, sheep, or goats graced its farmlands. Most big animals are tamable, in the sense that they can be trained to lose their fear of people, but only a few species are readily domesticable—that is, willing to breed easily in captivity, thereby letting humans select for useful characteristics. In all of history, humankind has been able to domesticate only twenty-five mammals, a dozen or so birds, and, possibly, a lizard. Just six of these creatures existed in the Americas, and they played comparatively minor roles: the dog, eaten in Central and South America and used for labor in the far north; the guinea pig, llama, and alpaca, which reside in the Andes; the turkey, raised in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest; the Muscovy duck, native to South America despite its name; and, some say, the iguana, farmed in Mexico and Central America.1

Jamestown was founded inside the small indigenous empire of Tsenacomoco. Most Tsenacomoco villages were located along the rivers that served as the empire’s highways. Because the water at the river mouths was brackish, the villages were mostly upstream. The English put Jamestown as far upriver as they could—but not far enough to avoid the bad water. Even the groundwater was salty.

Click here to view a larger image.

The lack of domestic animals had momentous consequences. In a country without horses, donkeys, and cattle, the only source of transportation and labor was the human body. Compared to England, Tsenacomoco had slower communications (no galloping horses), a dearth of plowed fields (no straining oxen) and pastures (no grazing cattle), and fewer and smaller roads (no carriages to accommodate). Battles were fought without cavalry; winters endured without wool; logs skidded through the forest without oxen. Distances loomed larger when people had to walk from place to place; indeed, in terms of the time required for Powhatan’s orders to reach his minions, Tsenacomoco may have been the size of England itself (it was much less populous, of course).

Chesapeake Bay is the remains of a giant meteor crater. The impact shattered rock for miles, letting seawater infiltrate. The U.S. government suggests that salt levels should not exceed 20 milligrams per liter (mg/L); Jamestown water had more than twenty times as much and other settlements had even higher levels.

Click here to view a larger image.

Just as most Europeans lived in small farm villages, most of Powhatan’s people—the “Powhatan Indians,” as the newcomers called them—lived in settlements of a few hundred inhabitants surrounded by large tracts of cleared land: fields of maize and former maize fields. The villages clustered along the three rivers—the Rappahannock, York, and James—that served as the empire’s main thoroughfares. Sailing up the James when they arrived, the English saw the banks lined with farms, fields greenly shimmering with newly planted maize, stands of tall trees interspersed among them.

Rather than covering fenced plots with neat rows of wheat, the Powhatan planted many crops at once, as shown in this replica Wendat (Huron) garden in the Crawford Lake Conservation Area in Ontario, Canada. These farms and gardens were so different from anything the English knew that the newcomers often couldn’t recognize native fields as cultivated land. (Photo credit 2.2)

Europe, too, had its own prosperous riverside farms. But there the similarities ended. To create a farm plot, Europeans cleared forestland, yanked out the stumps with horses and oxen, and plowed the result, again with horses or oxen, until it was a flat expanse of nearly bare soil. In these stripped areas farmers planted single crops: solid rustling expanses of wheat or barley or rye. Fallow plots were used as pasture. Dotting the open areas were patches of forest, clearly demarcated as such, used for hunting and wood.

Lacking draft animals and metal tools, the Powhatan perforce used different methods and obtained different results. They toppled trees by circling their bases with a ring of fire, then laboriously hacked at the burned zone with stone axes until the trunk collapsed. Brush and slash were put to the torch, leaving a heave of blackened stumps. Around the stumps farmers dug shallow holes with long-handled hoes made from bone or clamshells, dropping in each hole a few kernels of maize and several beans. As the maize grew, the young colonist Henry Spellman observed, “the beans run up thereon”—twining themselves around the growing maize. Below the maize grew squash and gourds, pumpkin and melon, common beans and runner beans, ropy vines asprawl in every direction. Here and there patches of thick-leaved tobacco plants stood. The ensemble of charred stumps, hummocked land, and overlapping crops could stretch for considerable distances: “thirty to forty acres of treeless land per capita,” in one historian’s “conservative” estimate. Smith saw family plots that covered as much as two hundred acres—a third of a square mile.

Except for defensive palisades, Powhatan farmers had no fences around their fields. Why screen off land if no cattle or sheep had to be kept inside? The English, by contrast, regarded well-tended fences as hallmarks of civilization, according to Virginia D. Anderson, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Fenced fields kept animals in; fenced woodlots kept poachers out. The lack of physical property demarcation signified to the English that Indians didn’t truly occupy the land—it was, so to speak, unimproved. Equally unfamiliar was the Powhatan practice of scattering their farm plots within larger cleared areas. To the Indians, fallow lands were a kind of communal larder, a place for naturally occurring useful plants, including grains (little barley, sumpweed, goosefoot), edible greens (wild lettuce, wild plantains), and medicinals (sassafras, dogbane, smartweed). Because none of these species existed in Europe, the English didn’t know the groundcover was useful. Instead they saw “unused” land, something that bewildered them. How could Indians go to the trouble of clearing the land but then not use it?

Even Tsenacomoco’s streams were different than their English equivalent. English waterways ran swiftly in the spring, scouring away the soil from steep banks, then turned to dribbling trickles in July and August. Beyond the riverbanks the land was drier; one could hike for miles in summer without stepping into mud. Chesapeake Bay was, by contrast, a seemingly endless patchwork of bogs, marshes, grassy ponds, seasonally flooded meadows, and slow-moving streams. It seemed to be wet everywhere, no matter what the season. Credit for the watery environment belongs to the American beaver (Castor canadensis), which had no real English equivalent. Weighing as much as sixty pounds, these big rodents live in dome-shaped lodges made by blocking streams with mud, stones, leaves, and cut saplings—as many as twenty dams per mile of stream. The dams smear the water across the landscape, so to speak, transforming a rushing rivulet into a series of broad pools and mucky wetlands linked by shallow, multiply branched channels. Indians regarded this as a fine thing—easier to take a canoe through a set of ponds than a narrow, quick-flowing stream. English accounts, by contrast, are filled with descriptions of colonists unhappily stumbling through the sopped countryside.2

The freshwater marshes favored the growth of tuckahoe (Peltandra virginica, arrow arum), a semi-aquatic plant found in stands throughout the eastern United States and Canada. Tuckahoe has a bulb-like, underground rhizome (enlarged stem area used for storage) that every spring sends out a thin stalk with a long leaf shaped like a child’s sketch of an arrowhead. It was a standing larder for the people of Tsenacomoco, always ready in the springtime if they exhausted the maize from the previous fall. Standing shin deep in the marsh, women mucked about with their bare feet and hands, gradually working loose the roots. The work was unpleasant; when I dug up some tuckahoe one warm spring day in Virginia, I ended up perspiring in the heat even as the cold mud numbed my feet. Tuckahoe root contains calcium oxalate, a potentially fatal poison. To break down the toxin, women sliced the peeled root, baked the slices, then ground them into flour with a mortar and pestle. At home I made tuckahoe flour with an oven and a food processor, then added water and boiled up some porridge. One mouthful was enough to tell me why native people preferred maize.

Surrounding the cleared areas and the fruitful marshes was the wood, splendid with chestnut and elm, but hardly untouched. Like the fields, the forest was shaped by native fire. Every fall Indians burned the underbrush, sending ash billowing into the heavens; when ships approached during fire season, the Dutch merchant David Pieterszoon de Vries observed in 1632, “the land is smelt before it is seen.” From the embers emerged tender new growth, attracting deer, elk, and moose. These were hunted by fire. Men drove the animals into ambushes with flaming torches, herded them toward waiting archers with strategically placed bonfires, encircled them terrified within mile-long walls of flame. Prowling through the woods one evening, John Smith navigated “by the aboundance of fires all over the woods.”

Regular fall burning kept the Maryland forest so open, the Jesuit priest Andrew White wrote in 1634, that “a coach and four horses may travel [through it] without molestation.” The statement is hyperbole, but not entirely false—rather than paving roads, Indians used fire to make what the ecological historian Stephen J. Pyne has called “corridors of travel.” Well-used paths could be six feet wide, hundreds of miles long, and cleared completely of brush and stones. Occasionally one did find unburned patches of land, Virginia colonist William Byrd warned, and these were dangerous. In those places, “the dead Leaves and Trash of many years are heapt up together, which … furnish fewel for a conflagration that carries all before it.” Because Indian burning killed underbrush and saplings, the forest encountered by the early English colonists was a soaring space, hushed as a cathedral, formed by widely spaced walnut and oak six feet in diameter—a beautiful sight, but one just as artificial as the burned-off clearings. “Much as cooking helped rework an intractable environment into food and as the forge refashioned rock into metals,” Pyne explained, native fire “remade the land into usable forms.”

Like the English countryside the colonists left behind them, Chesapeake Bay had been refashioned by its inhabitants into a working landscape. And just as the tidy English checkerboard of fields and woodlots was essential to English culture—indeed, to England’s survival—the jumbled patchwork of ecological zones in coastal Virginia was essential to Powhatan culture and survival. But to the newcomers the Virginia coast was not a humanized place. They saw it as a random snarl of marshes, beaver ponds, unkempt fields, and hostile forest. If the English wanted to live and prosper in this new place in their accustomed manner, they would have to transform the land into something more suitable for themselves.


Most accounts of Jamestown focus on John Smith. No surprise: Smith makes great copy. He was a poor boy who made good with luck, nerve, and self-promotion—in just eighteen years he published no less than five autobiographical accounts of his deeds. (To be fair, one was printed without his knowledge.) The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captain John Smith (1630), his major autobiography, is a wild tale of an orphan who left home at thirteen, fought in the Netherlands, lived in a lean-to teaching himself Machiavelli and Marcus Aurelius, battled “a rabble of Pilgrimes of divers Nations going to Rome” aboard a ship in the Mediterranean (they threw him overboard), and became a pirate in the Adriatic—all in the opening chapter. By chapter 4 (its title: “An Excellent Stratagem by Smith”) he is using torches to send coded messages between mountaintops—a technique from Machiavelli—as he coordinates a battle in what is now Hungary. Later chapters reveal:

·         How Smith served in a Transylvanian army, battling “some Turks, some Tartars, but most Bandittoes, Rennagadoes, and such like.”

·         How he slew three Turkish aristocrats in single combat before raucous crowds.

·         How he was captured and sold into slavery in the Ottoman Empire, where “a great ring of iron” was “rivetted about his necke.”

·         How he seized the chance to “beat out [his master’s] braines” with a farm implement and fled in the man’s clothes to Russia, France, and Morocco.

·         How in Morocco he joined another band of pirates, preying on Spanish vessels off West Africa.

·         How he returned to England and promptly joined the Virginia expedition. He was just twenty-six.

Skeptics have been scoffing at this buckle and swash since 1662, when one noted that the sole record of Smith’s adventures is his own writing: “it soundeth much to the dimunition of his deeds, that he alone is the herald to publish and proclaim them.” Other writers cheered him as a quintessential American: the original self-made man. During the Civil War, Smith’s link with Virginia turned him into a symbol of the Confederate South. Northerners naturally tried to belittle him; after writing an article that highlighted inconsistencies in True Travels, historian Henry Adams, a fervent Unionist, crowed that he had executed a “rear attack on the Virginia aristocracy.” The cruelest blow came in 1890, when a Hungarian-speaking researcher charged that the people and places in Smith’s adventures were fictional. Smith, for instance, said he deployed his “excellent stratagem” at a place called “Olumpagh.” No town named Olumpagh existed in the region. QED: Smith was a fraud. In the 1950s a second Hungarian-speaking researcher, Laura Polyani Striker, counterattacked. Smith’s places, she said, were real—the previous researcher had been misled by Smith’s atrocious spelling. Olumpagh, for example, was Lendava, in Slovenia, known to Hungarians in those days as “Al Limbach.” Such places being unknown in England, Striker argued, Smith indeed must have visited them.

Short, stocky, and homely, John Smith had a formidable chestnut beard that startled native people when they encountered it. He was evidently aware of his unprepossessing appearance: this author’s portrait from his 1624 autobiography was accompanied by a doggerel poem, likely penned by Smith, claiming that his interior excellence more than made up for his less than handsome exterior. (Photo credit 2.3)

No historians doubt that Smith was at Jamestown. Nor do they dispute that this scrappy, self-confident man befriended Pocahontas, obtained desperately needed food from Powhatan, saved the colony from extinction, and constantly annoyed the colony’s leaders, all of whom were his social betters. At the time, English class distinctions were rigid to a degree that is hard now to comprehend; Smith, never one to display deference, so quickly angered Jamestown’s gentry that during the voyage from England they threw him in the brig on vague charges. Historians also accept that after landing in Virginia Smith led the search through Chesapeake Bay for a passage to China. But scholarly eyebrows rise in disbelief about what Smith claims happened in December 1607 during one of those expeditions.

Intending to explore the headwaters of the Chickahominy River, Smith went off in a canoe with two Indian guides and two English companions. They ran into a hunting party led by Opechancanough (oh-pee-CHAN-can-oh), Powhatan’s younger brother, who was vocally anti-immigrant. He wanted no illegal aliens in Tsenacomoco. During the inevitable skirmish the Indians killed Smith’s companions; Smith fell into a swamp and was captured. Opechancanough brought the adventurer to his brother’s capital, Werowocomoco. In the most famous version of the story—the one published in True Travels—Smith approached Powhatan through a gauntlet: “two rowes of men, and behind them as many women, with all of their heads and shoulders painted red; many of their heads bedecked with the white downe of Birds.” The king gave him a public feast. Then, Smith wrote, Powhatan decided to kill him on the spot, in the banquet hall. Executioners “being ready with their clubs to beat out his brains, Pocahontas, the king’s dearest daughter,” then perhaps eleven years old, suddenly rushed out and cradled Smith’s head in her arms “to save him from death.” Fondly indulging his daughter’s crush, Powhatan commuted Smith’s sentence and returned him to Jamestown, where the girl “brought him so much provision, that saved many of their lives, that els[e] for all this had starved with hunger.”

Countless romantic novels have been spawned by Smith’s tale, but most researchers believe it to be untrue. In his debunking, Henry Adams pointed out that the earliest account of the rescue dates from 1624, in the boastful autobiography Smith published just before the boastful True Travels. But Smith also wrote about his abduction in 1608, a few months after it happened, in a report not intended for public view, and said not a word about being saved by a love-smitten Indian maiden. Smith clearly relished the image of infatuated women coming to his rescue—in True Travels, it happens no less than four times. More damning still, no anthropologist or historian has found any suggestion that the Powhatan ever held feasts for prisoners of war before executing them. Nor were children like Pocahontas admitted to official dinners—they were in the kitchen, washing dishes. “None of the story fits the culture,” the anthropologist Helen Rountree told me. “Big meals are for honored guests, not criminals to be executed.” In her view, the feast suggests the Indians regarded Smith as a potential treasure trove of data about the foreign invaders. “It’s hard to see them killing an intelligence asset,” she said.

John Smith’s tale of rescue from execution by the “Indian princess” Pocahontas has proven irresistible to generations of artists, despite historians’ disbelief in its veracity. In this 1870 engraving, Pocahontas resembles an opera star, the Powhatan have been given tipi homes like those in the West, and the venue has been transplanted to a hilly and almost treeless expanse unlike anything in coastal Virginia. (Photo credit 2.4)

Historians dislike the Pocahontas-rescue story for another, deeper reason. By pumping up the romance and fanfaronade, it draws attention from what the English were actually trying to accomplish in Virginia—and what happened to Tsenacomoco when they arrived. Brave adventurers like Smith were integral to Jamestown, but the colony was primarily an economic venture. And for all the danger and conflict, its fate was decided less, in the end, by the clash of arms than by impersonal ecological forces—the Columbian Exchange—that nobody in Virginia was then equipped to understand.

Like La Isabela, Jamestown was intended as a trading post, a midway point from which England could seize its share of the China trade. But whereas La Isabela was largely sponsored and controlled by the Spanish monarchy, Jamestown was the creation of private enterprise: a consortium of politically connected venture capitalists known as the Virginia Company. The difference was anything but absolute: Spanish merchants hoped to enrich themselves at La Isabela, and the political ramifications of Jamestown preoccupied the English government. But Jamestown was closer to the capitalist ventures meant in today’s discussions of globalization.

The Virginia Company came into existence because English sovereigns—Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, James I—wanted the benefits of trade and conquest but couldn’t pay for them. The state had been pushed so deeply into debt by war (in Elizabeth’s case) and profligacy (in James’s case) that it could not afford to send ships to the Americas. Nor could it borrow the necessary cash. From moneylenders’ point of view, the monarchy was a bad credit risk—it could, and all too often did, assert its prerogative to repudiate its debts. In consequence, they charged it ruinously high interest rates. True, kings and queens had the power to force loans from their subjects, a practice that for obvious reasons was deeply unpopular. But was the certainty of incurring discontent worth the gamble of an American colony?

Elizabeth and James came to the same conclusion: no.

As La Isabela showed, colonization was inherently risky. The English faced the additional danger that most of the Americas already had been claimed by Spain. Hostility between the two nations was intense; indeed, Pope Pius V had practically ordered Catholic monarchs like Spain’s Philip II to take up “Weapons of Justice” against Protestant England. (“There is no place at all left for Excuse, Defence, or Evasion,” the pope fulminated. Queen Elizabeth, “Slave of Wickedness,” had to be overthrown.) Spain sent a fleet to invade England in 1588, England a fleet to invade Spain in the following year. Both attacks failed, in part because of violent weather—a manifestation, perhaps, of the Little Ice Age. Ultimately Elizabeth relied upon a more successful tactic: sponsoring what is remembered in England as “privateering” and in Spain as “terrorism.” She authorized English ships to loot any Spanish ships or colonies they came across. After Elizabeth died in 1603, James I ratcheted down tensions. But he knew that installing English colonies in North America would rekindle the conflict. Spain had already planted more than a dozen small colonies and missions on the Atlantic Coast, one of them just miles away from Jamestown’s future location (it had failed). The empire would not look favorably on an intrusion into its domain. If that weren’t enough, France, too, had claimed North America, setting down five colonies and missions of its own.

Still, the monarchy was unwilling to cede the Americas to the competition. In a kind of white paper to Elizabeth, the influential cleric and writer Richard Hakluyt argued that Christian rulers had a sacred duty to save the souls of “those wretched people”—that is, Indians. “The people of America crye out unto us,” he said, to “bringe unto them the gladd tidings of the gospell.” Spain, he noted, had already converted “many millions of infidells.” And what had been Spain’s reward for this deed? God had “open[ed] the bottomles treasures of his riches,” letting England’s hated adversary acquire vast stores of silver, which in turn had let it open trade with China. Hakluyt pointed out that Spain, formerly a “poore and barren nation,” was now so rich that, incredibly, its seamen had almost stopped being thieves. England, by sad contrast, was “moste infamous” for its “outeragious, common, and daily piracies.”

And there was opportunity in North America, or so it was thought. Between 1577 and 1580 Sir Francis Drake, England’s best-known privateer/ terrorist, went on a round-the-world tour, sacking Spain’s silver fleet along the way. During this trip he stopped on the west coast of the United States. Exactly what he did there is not known because almost all of the expedition’s records have disappeared. But something Drake saw convinced many powerful Londoners that a watery channel cut across North America—it was possible to sail through the United States. If so, the Americas could only be a few hundred miles wide. After that short trip one would be on the Pacific shore, ready to sail to China.

Elizabeth and James were wary but persuaded. Unwilling to pay the high interest rates moneylenders charged poor credit risks, though, the sovereigns delegated colonization to an entity that could independently support it: a joint-stock company. An ancestor to the modern corporation, joint-stock companies consisted of groups of wealthy people who pooled their resources to fund a commercial enterprise, being repaid by shares of the proceeds. By working with other investors, members of the company can limit their participation in an uncertain enterprise to a small part of the total sum. If a colony failed, the total loss would be huge but the loss to each individual investor would be tolerable—painful, to be sure, but not disastrous.

As the economic historian Douglass C. North has argued, the joint-stock company was more than a novel means of making money; it was one of many institutional arrangements European societies were developing to mobilize resources efficiently. (North shared the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, largely for working out these ideas.) These institutional arrangements secured property rights (necessary because people will not risk investing if they believe that their gains can be taken away); opened markets (necessary to prevent entrenched interests from stifling innovation); and strengthened democratic governance (necessary to check rulers’ excesses). All permitted trade and commerce to be independent, which led to research and investment becoming routine—a constant activity that people could profit from with little state interference. “What counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity,” wrote the Harvard economist David S. Landes. In his classic Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1999), Landes argued that Europe had developed ways of organizing people and resources—private joint-stock companies, for instance—that fostered and rewarded individual initiative, which in turn promoted these virtues. Other places did not develop them. The result of these innovations, North argued, was economic growth so robust that it led to “a new and unique phenomenon”: the ascension of European societies to world power.

English joint-stock companies were not immediately successful. The first was created in 1553. Fifty-three years later, when the Virginia Company received its charter, England had just ten. Three of these ventures were created to plant colonies in the Americas. (A fourth American project used a similar risk-sharing arrangement, but was not formalized as a joint-stock company.) Every one of these American enterprises had failed. Soberingly, the attempt, in the 1580s, to take over Roanoke Island, off the North Carolina coast, resulted in great expense—three costly voyages across the Atlantic—and the total obliteration of the colony.3

Despite this dismal record, the Virginia Company believed it worth trying again. At its inception, the company consisted of two investor groups, one in Plymouth and one in London. The Plymouth group focused on what is now New England, and quickly launched a colony on the coast of Maine. It disintegrated within months, and the Plymouth investors threw in the towel. The London group set its sights on Chesapeake Bay and in practice took over the entire venture. Its ships set sail from London on December 20, 1606.

Although Roanoke had been wiped out by its Indian neighbors, the Virginia Company directors reserved their fears for distant Spain. They ordered the colonists—their employees, in today’s terms—to reduce the chance of detection by Spanish ships by locating the colony at least “a hundred miles” from the ocean. The instructions didn’t mention that this location might already be inhabited. True, the directors viewed conflict with the Indians as unavoidable. But they viewed the conflict as a problem mainly because they feared Indians would “guide and assist any nation that shall come to invade you.” That is, they worried about Tsenacomoco not because they feared its citizens would attack the English but because they feared it would help Spain attack the English. For this reason, the directors told the colonists to take “Great Care not to Offend the naturals”—naturals being a then-common term for native people.

Jamestown was the result. All the good upriver land was already occupied by Indian villages. As a result, the newcomers—tassantassas (strangers), the Indians called them—ended up selecting the most upstream uninhabited ground they could find. Their new home was fifty miles from the mouth of the James. It was a peninsula near a bend in the river, at a place where the current cut so close to the shore that ships could be moored to the trees.

Unfortunately for the tassantassas, no Indians lived on the peninsula because it was not a good place to live. The English were like the last people moving into a subdivision—they ended up with the least desirable property. The site was boggy and mosquito ridden. Colonists could get water from the James, but it was not always potable. During the late summer, the river falls as much as fifteen feet. No longer pushed back by the flow of freshwater, the salty water of the estuary spreads upstream, stopping right around Jamestown. Because the colonists had arrived in the midst of a multiyear drought, the summer flow was especially feeble and the concentration of saltwater especially high. The saltwater boundary traps sediments and organic wastes from upstream, which meant that the English were drinking the foulest water in the James—“full of slime and filth,” complained Percy, the future colony president. The obvious solution—digging a well—was not tried for more than two years. It was of little help. Chesapeake Bay is the remains of a huge, 35-million-year-old meteor crater. The impact-fractured rock at the mouth of the bay lets in the sea, contaminating the groundwater with salt. Few Indian groups lived in the saltwater wedge, presumably for just that reason. Jamestown was bordered and undergirded by bad water. That bad water, the geographer Carville V. Earle argued, led to “typhoid, dysentery, and perhaps salt poisoning.” By January 1608, eight months after landfall, only thirty-eight English were left alive.

Paradoxically, the colony’s desperation was its salvation; Powhatan apparently couldn’t bring himself to regard the starving tassantassas as a threat. Certain that he could oust the English at any time, he allowed them to occupy their not-so-valuable real estate as long as they provided valuable trade goods: guns, axes, knives, mirrors, glass beads, and copper sheets, the last of which the Indians prized much as Europeans prized gold ingots. After abducting John Smith, this “subtle old fox,” as Percy called him, learned enough from his captive to conclude that the profit from trade with the tassantassas tomorrow was worth giving them grain today. He sent the foreigner back to Jamestown in January 1608 with enough maize to keep his few remaining companions alive for a while. From Powhatan’s point of view, it was a good bet, suggests Rountree, the anthropologist of Tsenacomoco. If the English tried to overstay their welcome, he could simply withhold their food, and the invasion would implode on its own. (“Confidence borne of ignorance,” the University of Missouri historian J. Frederick Fausz has noted, characterized the initial attitudes of both English and Indians toward each other.)

After his return from captivity, John Smith took charge of Jamestown. Because he controlled food negotiations with Powhatan, the colony’s men of consequence swallowed their displeasure. In any case they could hardly point to a record of success. That spring Smith ordered the survivors to plant crops (they would rather have looked for gold) and rebuild the colony fort (they had accidentally burned it down). He himself continued to explore Chesapeake Bay, persuading himself there was a “good hope” that it stretched to the Pacific.

All the while, Smith negotiated with Powhatan for food. He wanted to dribble out enough knives, hatchets, and iron pots to Tsenacomoco to get the necessary grain shipments but not enough to saturate the Indian demand for English goods. Complicating his task, English demand kept rising; two more convoys in the spring and fall of 1608 increased the number of mouths to about two hundred. Like any good businessman, Powhatan responded to the rising demand by raising maize prices; he asked for guns and swords, rather than hand tools. Smith refused, fearing the consequences of arming the Indians. Powhatan responded by cutting side deals for weapons with Jamestown residents who chafed at Smith’s autocratic rule. And he kept the pressure on Smith by allowing his men to pick off stragglers outside Jamestown.

Smith left for medical treatment in England in October 1609. Canny but clumsy, he had suffered terrible burns when he accidentally ignited a bag of gunpowder he’d fastened around his waist. For the tassantassas, his departure came at a specially bad time. Two months before, yet another convoy had arrived, carrying more than three hundred new colonists, among them another squad of Smith-hating gentlemen. They had persuaded the Virginia Company directors to depose him. Happily for Smith, the ship with the company’s written instructions—and his replacement as governor—had been delayed. Still, the scornful newcomers posed an immediate threat to Smith’s authority and, to Smith’s way of thinking, Jamestown itself. To get them out of his hair, he split up the new arrivals and dispatched them to seek food from several Tsenacomoco groups. This proved to be a mistake.

One party went to the Nansemond, who lived on an island off the opposite, southern bank of the James. When the group’s envoys to the Nansemond did not return on time, Percy wrote, the rest of the English “burned [the Indians’] houses, ransacked their temples, took down the corpses of their dead kings from off their tombs, and carried away their [funerary] pearls, copper and bracelets.” Smith was appalled. He had berated and bullied and blustered at the Indians, but he also believed that Jamestown should not massacre its food supply. But by then he was too badly injured to force the colonists to apologize.

The incident evidently convinced Powhatan that the tassantassas’ new leaders had abrogated the pact he had struck with Smith. That winter he struck back, directly and indirectly. On the first, direct track, native fighters cut down seventeen colonists who sought to ransack the village of Kecoughtan for food; killed another party of emaciated tassantassas in the forest (as a sign of “contempt and scorn,” the Indians left the bodies “with their mouths stopped full of bread [maize]”); wiped out a boatload of soldiers in an upstream outpost established by Smith; and slaughtered a contingent of thirty-three colonists who had been lured to Werowocomoco by promises of grain. The leader of this party, Percy reported, was killed in a fashion that was ghastly, inventive, and slow: “By women his flesh was scraped from his bones with mussel shells and, before his face, thrown into the fire.” In the next five years, natives slew as many as one out of every four colonists, Fausz estimated in a history of this “first Indian war.”

Powhatan’s indirect attack was more deadly still: he stopped sending food. His timing was excellent. Smith left before his official replacement as governor had arrived. His opponents in the colony chose as a temporary leader George Percy, the younger brother of the earl of Northumberland. While under attack, Smith had been unable to force the colonists to maintain Jamestown’s gardens or mend the fishing nets. The otiose Percy was even less successful at organizing the colonists—a lack of respect related, one assumes, to his practice of swanning around the muddy encampment in silk garters, gold-banded hats, and embroidered girdles. In consequence, the English had no stockpiled food when Powhatan cut off supplies. As Percy later admitted, they were reduced to eating “dogs, cats, rats and mice,” as well as the starch for their Elizabethan ruffs, which could be cooked into a kind of porridge. With famine “ghastly and pale in every face,” some colonists stirred themselves to “dig up dead corpse[s] out of graves and to eat them.” One man murdered his pregnant wife and “salted her for his food.” By spring, only about sixty people had survived what was called the “starving time.”

On some level the colony’s plight is baffling. Chesapeake Bay was and is one of the hemisphere’s great fisheries. Replete with pike, carp, mullet, crab, bass, flounder, turtle, and eel, this long, shallow estuary was so biologically productive that John Smith joked about being able to catch dinner in the frying pan used to cook it. The Atlantic sturgeon that swam in the James grew big enough, one colonist reported, that native boys could loop vines around their tails and be pulled underwater. (I didn’t believe this until an archaeologist at Jamestown told me he had uncovered bones from a sturgeon that may have been fourteen feet long.) Oysters grew in such numbers that one mound of discarded shells from native feasts covered nearly thirty acres.

The luckless George Percy, younger son of the earl of Northumberland, in a nineteenth-century copy of a portrait, now lost, made during his lifetime. (Photo credit 2.5)

How could the colonists starve in the midst of plenty? One reason was that the English feared leaving Jamestown to fish, because Powhatan’s fighters were waiting outside the colony walls. A second reason was that a startlingly large proportion of the colonists were gentlemen, a status defined by not having to perform manual labor. The first three convoys brought a total of 295 people to Jamestown. According to the historian Edmund S. Morgan, fully 92 of them were gentlemen—and many of the rest were “the personal attendants that gentlemen thought necessary to make life bearable even in England.” The attendants, too, defined their position by not performing manual labor. But even if they had been able to cast aside their life-long, ingrained customs, they might not have been able to survive, because the English were unfamiliar with the Virginia environment. They could have tried fishing for bass and catfish, which are common in the lower river at winter. But they didn’t know where and when these fish like to feed. As anglers know, fishing in the wrong place at the wrong time is futile. The colonists died of ignorance as much as inanition.

John Rolfe was lucky enough to arrive in Virginia the following spring, after the starving time. Almost a year before, he had left England on the flagship of the expedition that brought the Smith-hating gentry. Rolfe’s ship carried Smith’s official replacement. Halfway across, a hurricane slammed into the group. The other ships slipped through the storm and made landfall in Virginia, with the results that I described above (attacking the Nansemond, enraging Powhatan, dying in droves). Meanwhile Rolfe’s vessel was blown south and nearly sank. For three straight days, one passenger remembered, every person aboard, many “stripped naked as men in galleys,” worked bucket chains in chest-deep water. The ship staggered awash to Bermuda, where it wrecked on the northernmost of the country’s four main islands. For nine months the survivors remained on the beach, surviving on fish, sea turtles, and the pigs they had brought for Jamestown. They slowly fashioned two smaller vessels from island cedar and the wreckage of their ship. Rolfe’s party arrived in Chesapeake Bay on May 23, 1610.

Appalled by the famine and ruin they found, the Bermuda group decided within two weeks to abandon Jamestown. Rolfe and the other newcomers loaded Jamestown’s skeletal inhabitants onto their two makeshift vessels and two others at the colony, intending to set off for Newfoundland, where they would beg a ride home from fishing boats that plied the Grand Banks. As they waited for the tide to turn for their departure, a small boat hove into view. It was the longboat preceding yet another convoy, this one containing yet another new governor, 250 new colonists, and, most important, a year’s worth of food. The previous colonists, despondent, returned to Jamestown and the task of figuring out how to survive.

It wasn’t easy. Although they no longer had to depend on Powhatan for food, the Virginia Company later reported, “not less than one hundred and fifty of [the 250 newcomers] died” within months, among them Rolfe’s young wife. Their fate was anything but atypical. Year after year, the company spent outsize sums to send colonists to Virginia—more than a hundred shiploads all told. Year after year, most of the would-be settlers perished within weeks or months—men and women, rich and poor, child and convict. England shipped more than seven thousand people to Virginia between 1607 and 1624. Eight out of ten died.

Most of the thousands of hopeful English who came to Virginia quickly died. This chart represents the author’s best attempt to calculate the total number of migrants, increasing year by year, and Jamestown’s actual population every year. The figures could well be off by several hundred, because the extant records are fragmentary and sometimes contradictory. But the overall picture is clear—and dismaying.

So unremitting was the parade of death that even today it is painful to pore through the letters, reports, and chronicles Jamestown left behind. From every page dolorous phrases toll. Few in the Shipp that I came in are left alive.… Many newcomers either have all perished or have suffered horrible extreamities.… In 3 yeares their dyed about 3000 p[er]sons. Reports tally names and fates with the unadorned deadpan of old-fashioned obituary columns. Colony treasurer George Sandys notes that a servant newly shipped from London is dead before delivered. Colonist Hugh Pryse is found in the woods rente in pieces with wolves or other wild Beasts, and his bowels torne out of his body. In a drunken clash William Epps strikes Edward Stallenge so violently that he Cleft him to the scull and next day he died. Surgeon William Rowsley brought 10 men ov[er] w[i]th him to Virginia but within weeks all of his servants are dead. Edward Hill tells his brother in England he remains in Virginia only to gett what I have lost and then god willing I will leave the Contrey. (Hill never did leave; unable to recoup his losses, he died in Virginia a year later.) I am quite out of hart to live in this land, wails Phoebus Canner, god send me well out of it.

On December 4, 1619, John Woodlief landed with thirty-five men at a new plantation, upstream from Jamestown, called Berkeley Hundred. Woodlief had been instructed by his backers to celebrate the day of arrival “as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god”—the first Thanksgiving in English America. Berkeley Hundred’s founders had ordered the date to be observed every year. By the next December 4, thirty-one of the thirty-five tassantassas who had landed that day were sleeping in the soil.

Why did the Virginia Company keep trying? “Whatever else may have entered into the activities of the company,” Wesley Frank Craven observed in his history of the company, “it was primarily a business organization with large sums of capital invested by adventurers whose chief interest lay in the returns expected from the investment.” Yet the Virginia Company did not act like an ordinary business organization. When the initial hope of discovering precious metals and a route to Asia didn’t pan out, the company tried wine making, shipbuilding, iron monging, silk weaving, salt panning, and even glassblowing. All failed, at dreadful cost in money and lives. Nonetheless, the firm kept dumping money and people into Virginia. Why didn’t the company’s backers pull the plug? Why did they keep sending ship after doomed ship?

Equally puzzling, why did Powhatan allow the colony to survive? Jamestown escaped his first assault but remained at the edge of a precipice for years. Why didn’t Powhatan push it over, once and for all?

Part of the answer to both questions is the Columbian Exchange.


Pocahontas probably did not save John Smith when he was captured in 1608, but she did help save Jamestown—by marrying the widower John Rolfe six years later. Evidence suggests she was a curious, mischievous child, one who like all children in Tsenacomoco went without clothing until puberty. After Smith’s return from captivity, Pocahontas visited Jamestown, colonist Strachey wrote afterward. The colony’s young men turned cartwheels with her, “falling on their hands turning their heels upwards, whom she would follow, and wheel so her self naked as she was all the fort over.” Her real name was Mataoka; Pocahontas was a teasing nickname that meant something like “little hellion.”

The tassantassas liked the girl—but not enough to prevent them from using her as a hostage. After Smith’s departure, when Powhatan had again brought the English to the brink of annihilation, the colony’s new leaders decided to counterattack. They put Jamestown under strict martial law—one colonist who stole several pints of oatmeal was chained to a tree until he starved to death—divided the men into military companies, and sent out expeditions to bring Tsenacomoco to heel. Attacking without warning, the colonists razed native villages up and down the James. The Indians repeatedly struck back, picking off colonists one by one, forcing them to retreat behind Jamestown’s palisade, where they were claimed by hunger and disease.

It was a classic guerrilla-war stalemate. The tassantassas could win every battle, but never obtain a decisive victory; Powhatan’s troops could always retreat into the hinterland, then reappear to deadly effect, arrows rushing from the trees in a sudden cloud. Yet Powhatan could not finish off the tassantassas, either. He could make the colonists so afraid to venture outside that they couldn’t harvest their own crops. But as long as London was willing to keep shipping replacement supplies—and replacement people—the Indians, too, could not win. Both sides were exhausted by March 1613, when Jamestown’s military commander, Thomas Dale, ordered a subordinate to trick the teenage Pocahontas into coming aboard an English ship. Then they sailed away with her.

Regarding the young woman as having noble blood, Dale put her under comfortable house arrest at the home of the colony’s minister. Meanwhile, he sent a ransom note to Powhatan: to get back his daughter, he would have to return all the swords, guns, and metal tools “he trecherously had stolne,” along with all the English prisoners of war. For three months Powhatan refused to negotiate with people he regarded as criminals. Finally he sent back a handful of English captives with an offer: five hundred bushels of maize for the girl. The guns and swords could not be returned, he said, because they had been lost or stolen. Dale scoffed at this claim. Communications ceased for another eight months, during which time some of the freed English captives ran back to the Indians—they preferred Tsenacomoco with its foreign culture and language to Jamestown with its martial law and famine.

Early images of northeastern Indians are rare. This 1616 engraving of Pocahontas (left), executed during her visit to England, is the only known full portrait of a Powhatan. No portraits exist of Opechancanough, though one can imagine him looking something like this shaven-headed man (right), possibly a Virginia Indian visiting London, whose likeness was captured by the Bohemian artist Wenceslaus Hollar in 1645. (Photo credit 2.6)

Determined to end the standoff, Dale led Rolfe and 150 musket-wielding tassantassas in March 1614 to meet Powhatan. In an angry standoff, several hundred native troops faced Dale’s men on the banks of the York River. With both sides fearing a battle that would inflict many casualties, England and Tsenacomoco finally began active parley. Rolfe was on the English negotiating team. Tsenacomoco was represented by Powhatan’s brother, Opechancanough, the man who had seized John Smith in the swamp. Over two days they put together an informal pact. Perhaps surprising, a key tenet was that Pocahontas would not return home.

After her abduction Pocahontas had been, one colonist reported, “exceeding pensive and discontented.” In addition, one assumes, she was bewildered by the tassantassas, with their unwieldy clothes, their practice of confining women to the home and garden, their strangely rigid eating habits (at home, people simply dipped into the stewpot when hungry). But over time her attitude changed. Perhaps she was angered by her father’s initial refusal to ransom her. Perhaps she liked being treated royally by the English—in her father’s house, she was but one of many children from many wives. Perhaps she thought that by staying with the English she could end the war, with its intermittent eruptions of atrocity. Perhaps she simply fell in love with John Rolfe, whom she met while she was in captivity. In any case, she agreed to stay in Jamestown as his bride.

Nobody cared that Pocahontas was already married. Because she was still childless, Rountree says, native custom allowed her to sunder the marital bond at any time. And the English were willing to overlook “savage” marriages—they were un-Christian, and therefore nonexistent. In consequence, both natives and newcomers could treat Pocahontas’s wedding to Rolfe as a de facto cease-fire—a “timely and face-saving method of ending the war without capitulation, a written treaty, or a formal winner,” as Fausz put it in his history of the strife.

Opechancanough used the suspension of hostilities to take the levers of power from his brother (Powhatan retired in about 1615 and died three years later). Unyielding and methodical, opposed to the tassantassas from the day of their arrival, Opechancanough manipulated Jamestown into attacking his native rivals, augmenting his empire even as the English domain expanded. Determined to understand his enemy, the new ruler infiltrated his people into Jamestown. Working in English homes, trading with English ships, and serving in English militias, the Indians studied the ways of the foreigners. Opechancanough’s men acquired a stockpile of guns, and trained themselves to use them.

The colonists were blithely unaware of Opechancanough’s schemes. Nonetheless, they initiated, all unintentionally, a devastating countermeasure: the Columbian Exchange. The constant flow of ships to Virginia brought with them an entire suite of new species, opening what would become a multilevel ecological assault. One of the most potent weapons was tobacco.

Even at the height of the war John Rolfe had been experimenting with N. tabacum. King James I had initially excoriated smoking as “lo[a]thsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, [and] harmefulle to the braine.” He thought about banning it but changed his mind—the perpetually cash-short monarch had discovered that tobacco could be taxed. English smokers were relieved, but not happy; the Spaniards kept raising prices. Much as crack cocaine is an inferior, cheaper version of powdered cocaine, Virginia tobacco was of lesser quality than Caribbean tobacco but also not nearly as expensive. Like crack, it was a wild commercial success; within a year of its arrival, Jamestown colonists were paying off debts in London with little bags of the drug. The cease-fire with Powhatan let colonists expand production explosively. By 1620 Jamestown was shipping as much as fifty thousand pounds a year; three years later the figure had almost tripled. Within forty years Chesapeake Bay—the Tobacco Coast, as it later became known—was exporting 25 million pounds a year. Individual farmers were making profits of as much as 1,000 percent on their initial investment.

One thousand percent! And all that was needed was sun, water, and soil! The sums skyrocketed if farmers could afford servants—laborers’ annual pay was about £2, but they could grow £100 or even £200 of tobacco in that time. In an object demonstration of the power of economic order to focus the human mind, the tassantassas whom John Smith had to order into their fields at gunpoint now became intent on wringing tobacco from the soil. Newcomers poured in, grabbed some land, and planted N. tabacum.English-style farms spread like rumors up and down the James and York rivers. So many colonists poured in that the company realized they could not be controlled entirely from across the ocean and created an elected council to resolve disputes—the first representative body in colonial North America. Its opening session lasted from July 30 to August 4, 1619.

Barely three weeks later a Dutch pirate ship landed at Jamestown. In its hold was “20. and odd Negroes”—slaves taken by the pirates from a Portuguese slave ship destined for Mexico. (About thirty more showed up in another ship a few days later.) In their hurry to extract tobacco profits, the tassantassas had been clamoring for more workers. The Africans had arrived at harvest time. Without a second thought colonists bought the Africans in exchange for the food the pirates needed for the return trip to Europe. Legally speaking, the “20. and odd” Africans may not have been slaves—their status is unclear. Nevertheless, they were not volunteers; their purchase was a landmark in the road to slavery. Within weeks of each other, Jamestown had inaugurated two of the future United States’ most long-lasting institutions: representative democracy and chattel slavery.

Not that the colonists paid attention to these landmarks—they were too busy exporting Virginia leaf. Obsessed by tobacco, some of the leadership complained, the colonists let Jamestown fall once again into ruin: “the Church down, the Palizado’s [walls] broken, the Bridge in pieces, the Well of fresh water spoiled; the store-house they used for the Church; the market-place, and streets and all other spare places planted with Tobacco.” Massive celebratory drunkenness was common; incoming ships brought liquor and profitably transformed themselves into floating temporary taverns. Dale was forced to issue an order to Virginia’s planters: grow food crops, too, or forfeit your tobacco to the colonial government. Few paid attention.

Alas, the boom came too late for the Virginia Company. Shipping colonists across the Atlantic only to have them die had exhausted its start-up capital. Company officers persuaded London’s powerful clergy that helping Jamestown find more investors was the duty of all English Christians. Sunday after Sunday, ministers urged their parishioners to buy shares in the Virginia Company. “Goe forward,” Rev. William Crashaw urged potential “noble and worthy Adventurers,” some of whom sat in the pews of his Temple Church, one of the nation’s most influential houses of worship. If England did not seize its opportunity in Virginia, Crashaw predicted, future generations would ask, “Why was there such a pri[z]e put into the hands of fooles who had not hearts to take it?” (Emphasis in original.)

The tactic worked. Ministers enticed more than seven hundred individuals and companies to put at least £25,000 into the Virginia Company.4 (By contrast, historians believe that fewer than a dozen men were the original backers of the company and that they put in no more than several hundred pounds.) The new sum was enough to send over hundreds of colonists, Rolfe and Dale among them, who eagerly grew tobacco. But even the rush of tobacco profits could not offset the debts from the company’s years of losses. The Virginia Company was again running out of money on March 22, 1622, when Opechancanough attacked.

Early that morning Indians slipped into European settlements, knocking on doors and asking to be let in. Most were familiar visitors. They came unarmed. Many accepted a meal or a drink. Then they seized whatever implement came to hand—kitchen knife, heavy stewpot, the colonists’ own guns—and killed everyone in the house. The assault was brutal, widespread, and well planned. So swift were the blows that many colonists died without knowing they were under attack. Entire families fell. Houses burned across what had been Tsenacomoco. At the last minute several Indians told English friends about the attack, providing enough warning to let Jamestown gather its defenses. Nonetheless the attackers killed at least 325 people.

The aftermath claimed as many as seven hundred more. Because the attack disrupted spring planting, the tassantassas grew even less maize than usual. Meanwhile, the company tried to rebuild Jamestown by sending over more than a thousand new colonists. Incredibly, they were sent with no food supplies. Actually, not so incredibly—ship captains were paid by the person transported, so they overloaded their vessels with passengers, carrying as little unprofitable food as possible. The luckless, scurvy-ridden souls aboard were dumped ashore, where they were forced to eat “barks of trees, or moulds [soil] of the Ground. Again colonists scrabbled in rags over handfuls of maize. It was a second “starving time.” By spring the survivors were so debilitated, colony treasurer George Sandys wrote, “the lyveing [were] hardlie able to bury the dead.” (Emphasis in original.) Altogether about two out of every three Europeans in Virginia died that year.5

Although this image is confused in many ways—note the neatly walled fortress in the distance, so utterly unlike Jamestown or any Powhatan settlement—something of the shock caused by the Powhatan attack on Virginia in 1622 was captured in this engraving by the German artist Matthäus Merian. (Photo credit 2.8)

By any measure, Opechancanough was in a commanding position. His forces now more numerous and better supplied than the enemy, they raided English settlements at will. Jamestown’s governing council confessed that the colonists couldn’t successfully mount a reprisal, “by reasone of theire swyftnes of foote, and advantages of the woodes, to which uppon all our assaultes they retyre.” Opechancanough predicted in the summer of 1623 that “before the end of two Moones there should not be an Englishman in all their Countries.”

Just as he foresaw, the Virginia Company did not survive. Horrified by the attack, James I created an investigatory commission, which issued a damning report. The company’s parliamentary support vanished. Management fought desperately to retain the king’s favor. Its investors had sunk into Virginia as much as £200,000, a vast sum at the time. As long as the firm existed the money potentially could be recouped. If James revoked the company charter, it would be beyond recovery. Nevertheless he revoked the charter on May 24, 1624. “Any responsible monarch would have been obliged to stop the reckless shipment of his subjects to their deaths,” wrote Morgan, the historian. The wonder was that the king had not done so earlier. Opechancanough had defeated the Virginia Company.

But victory over the company did not mean victory for the Indians. Opechancanough did not launch a final, killing assault, pushing the foreigners into the sea. Indeed, a second coordinated attack didn’t take place for twenty-two years, when it was far too late. The reason for his hesitation will never be known with certainty, because English accounts provide the great majority of historical records, and the hostilities ensured that the tassantassas lost what little view they had into native life. But one possible answer is that Opechancanough had lost Tsenacomoco before his troops fanned out into English homes. By growing tobacco, the English had transformed the landscape into something unrecognizable.

Indians had traditionally raised tobacco, but only in small amounts. The colonists, by contrast, covered big areas with stands of N. tabacum. Neither natives nor newcomers understood the environmental impact of planting it on a massive scale. Tobacco is a sponge for nitrogen and potassium. Because the entire plant is removed from the soil, harvesting and exporting tobacco was like taking those nutrients from the earth and putting them on ships. “Tobacco has an almost unique ability to suck the life out of soil,” said Leanne DuBois, the agricultural extension agent in James City County, Jamestown’s county. “In this area, where the soils can be pretty fragile, it can ruin the land in a couple of years.” Constantly wearing out fields, the colonists had to keep moving to new land.

In Tsenacomoco, one recalls, families traditionally farmed their plots for a few years and then let them go fallow when yields declined. The unplanted land became common hunting or foraging grounds until needed again for farms. Because the fallow lands had already been cleared, the foreigners could readily move in and plant tobacco on them. Unlike the Powhatan, the English didn’t let their tobacco fields regenerate after they were depleted. Instead, they turned them into maize fields, and then pasture for cattle and horses. Rather than cycling the land between farm and forest, in other words, the foreigners used it continuously—permanently keeping prime farmland and forage land away from the people of Tsenacomoco, pushing the Indians farther and farther away from the shore as they did.

In a decade or two the English had grabbed most of the land cleared by Indians. They moved into the forest, as the environmental historian John R. Wennersten wrote, “using slash-and-burn techniques that had not been seen in Europe for centuries.” They felled great numbers of trees, and lavishly used the fallen timber. Farmers marked their property with “worm” fences—zigzag constructions of six to ten interlocking rails—that Wennersten estimates consumed 6,500 long, thick timbers for every mile of fence. Other wood was converted into pitch, tar, turpentine, and wooden planks. The plentiful leftovers were exported, in the form of barrels, casks, kegs, and hogsheads, to timber-starved England. “They have an unconquerable aversion to trees,” one eighteenth-century visitor dryly observed. “Not one is spared.”

Subject to annual burning, native woodlands had been both open, in that people could freely move around, and closed, in that the canopy of big trees sheltered the land from the impact of rainfall. Taking down the forest exposed the soil. Colonists’ ploughs increased its vulnerability. Nutrients dissolved in spring rains and washed into the sea. The exposed soil dried out more quickly and hardened faster, losing its ability to absorb spring rains; the volume and speed of runoff increased, raising river volume. By the late seventeenth century disastrous floods were common. So much soil had washed into the rivers that they became difficult to navigate.

Tobacco from South America was far from the only biological import. The English brought along all the other species they were accustomed to finding on farms: pigs, goats, cattle, and horses. At first the imported animals didn’t fare well, not least because they were eaten by starving colonists. But during the peace after Pocahontas’s marriage, they multiplied. Colonists quickly lost control of them. Indians woke up to find free-range cows and horses romping through their fields, trampling the harvest. If they killed the beasts, gun-waving colonists demanded payment. Animal numbers boomed for decades.

The worst may have been the pigs. By 1619, one colonist reported, there were “an infinite number of Swine, broken out into the woods.” Smart, strong, and constantly hungry, they ate nuts, fruits, and maize, turning up the marshy soil with their shovel-like noses in search of edible roots. One of these was tuckahoe, the tuber Indians relied upon when their maize harvests failed. Pigs turned out to like tuckahoe—a lot. Traveling through the area in the eighteenth century, the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm found that pigs were “very greedy” for the tubers, “and grow very fat by feeding on them.” In places “frequented by hogs,” he argued, tuckahoe “must have been extirpated.” The people of Tsenacomoco found themselves competing for their food supply with packs of feral pigs.

After the final defeat of the Virginia Indians in the 1660s, they were required to wear identifying badges—this one belonged to a native leader—if they wanted to enter English settlements. (Photo credit 2.9)

In the long run, though, the biggest ecological impact may have been wreaked by a much smaller domestic animal: the European honeybee. In early 1622 a ship arrived in Jamestown that was loaded with exotic entities: grapevines, silkworms, and bees. The grapes and silkworms never amounted to much, but the bees thrived. Most bees pollinate only a few plant species and tend to be fussy about where they live. But European honeybees, promiscuous little beasts, pollinate almost anything in sight and reside almost anywhere. Quickly they set up shop throughout the Americas. Indians called them “English flies.”

The English imported bees for honey, not to help their crops—pollination wasn’t discovered until the mid-eighteenth century—but feral honeybees pollinated farms and orchards anyway. Without them, many of the plants Europeans brought with them wouldn’t have proliferated. Georgia probably would not have become the Peach State; Johnny Appleseed’s trees might never have borne fruit; Huckleberry Finn might not have had any watermelons to steal. So critical to European success was the honeybee that Indians came to view it as a harbinger of invasion; the first sight of a bee in a new territory, the French-American writer Jean de Crèvecoeur noted in 1782, “spreads sadness and consternation in all minds.”

Removing forest cover, blocking regrowth on fallow land, exhausting the soil, shutting down annual burning, unleashing big grazing and rooting animals, introducing earthworms, honeybees, and other alien invertebrates—the colonists so profoundly changed Tsenacomoco that it became harder and harder for its inhabitants to prosper there. Meanwhile, it was easier and easier for Europeans to thrive in an environment that their own actions were making increasingly familiar. Despite starvation, disease, and financial meltdown, immigrants poured into Chesapeake Bay. Axes flashing, oxen straining before the plow, hundreds of new colonists planted spreads of tobacco across every accessible river bluff. When they wore out the soil, they gave the fields over to cattle and then moved on.

Ecologically speaking, Tsenacomoco was becoming ever more like Europe—the hallmark of the nascent Homogenocene. By 1650 the Indian empire was mainly inhabited by Europeans.


By all accounts, John Ferrar was a modest, pious, hardworking man who spent his life tending the family business. His father, Nicholas, was a cosmopolitan London leather merchant with a mansion on St. Sythe’s Lane, not far from the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange. One of the original stockholders in the Virginia Company, he sank £50 into Jamestown. The investment did not bear fruit, and Nicholas became convinced that the problem lay with the company’s well-connected but feckless managers. Rather than pulling out, though, the family invested another £50 in 1618, acquiring a plantation of several thousand acres, administered by another relative whom Nicholas dispatched to Virginia. A few months later, he participated in a sort of shareholders’ revolt. New corporate officers were appointed, among them two of Nicholas’s other sons: Nicholas Jr., who became the company counsel and secretary, and John, who was given the unsalaried office of deputy treasurer.

Despite his lowly position, John Ferrar found himself effectively in charge of the company’s finances—the actual treasurer, an important aristocrat, was too busy harassing the king in Parliament. The firm now was making money from tobacco sales but had piled up so much debt that Ferrar had to scramble to pay creditors. Worse, he claimed, the previous management had embezzled £3,000. Attempts to restore the funds were countered by the thieves’ attempts to smear him in court. The intrigue grew so all-consuming that Ferrar held daily crisis meetings at the family manse on St. Sythe’s Lane.

Maps like this one, from 1667, were surprisingly common in seventeenth-century Europe. Depicting North America as a narrow isthmus, it suggested to the Virginia Company’s English backers that their colonists at Jamestown (star on map) could easily walk to the Pacific. From there, they could sail to China. (Photo credit 2.7)

Click here to view a larger image.

In the end, his hard work didn’t pay off. Opechancanough’s attack in 1622 gave the company’s enemies the opening they sought; Nicholas and John, portrayed as reckless swindlers, were briefly thrown in prison. They managed to talk their way free, but cannot have been taken by surprise when the king put an end to the enterprise.

John Ferrar never reconciled himself to the loss. Twenty-five years after the company’s demise, he read William Bullock’s Virginia Impartially Examined, a sixty-six-page tract that blamed him and other managers for Jamestown’s troubles. Ferrar filled the margins of his copy with irate rejoinders. Bullock had written that the colony could prosper only by diversifying; rather than focusing exclusively on tobacco, the colonists should have grown wheat and barley. To Ferrar, this was like telling people who were riding off a cliff that they should wear jackets of another color. As far as he was concerned, Virginia’s mistake had been to ignore what Sir Francis Drake had learned during the 1570s, when he stopped in California during his round-the-world voyage. Drake had proven—proven!—that the Americas were at most a few hundred miles across. Jamestown’s failure to cut through the continent and pioneer a new route to Asia, Ferrar wrote, “is to this day the greatest Error and damadge that hath happened to the Collony all this while.” He was certain that only “8 or 10 days March[,] naye it maybe not a 4 days Journy” separated Jamestown and the Pacific. A single expedition west would have discovered “Soe Infinite a Riches to them all as a passadge to a West Sea would prove to them.” Instead, they had stupidly filled their days with “Smokey Tobaco.”

From today’s vantage the story seems more complex. The goal of the Virginia Company had been to integrate Virginia, and thus poor England itself, into the rich new global marketplace. Although Ferrar never recognized it, the company had done exactly that—with “Smokey Tobaco,” the first American species to disperse into Europe, Asia, and Africa. Fun, exciting, and wildly addictive, tobacco was an instant hit around the globe—the first time people in every continent simultaneously became enraptured by a novelty. N. tabacum was the leading edge of the Columbian Exchange.

By 1607, when Jamestown was founded, tobacco was enthralling the upper classes in Delhi, where the first smoker, to the dismay of his advisers, was none other than the Mughal emperor; thriving in Nagasaki, despite a ban promulgated by the alarmed daimyo; and addicting sailors in Istanbul to such an extent that they were extorting it from passing European vessels. In that same year a traveler in Sierra Leone observed that tobacco, likely brought by slave traders, could be found “about every man’s house, which seemeth half their food.” Nicotine addiction became so rampant so quickly in Manchuria, according to the Oxford historian Timothy Brook, that in 1635 the khan Hongtaiji discovered that his soldiers “were selling their weapons to buy tobacco.” The khan angrily prohibited smoking. On the opposite side of the world, Europeans were equally hooked; by the 1640s the Vatican was receiving complaints that priests were celebrating Mass with lighted cigars. Pope Urban VIII, as enraged as Hongtaiji, promptly banned smoking in church.

From Bristol to Boston to Beijing, people became part of an international culture of tobacco. Virginia played a small but important part in creating this worldwide phenomenon. From today’s perspective, though, N. tabacum in the end was less important in itself than as a magnet that pulled many other nonhuman creatures, directly and indirectly, across the Atlantic, of which the most important surely were two minute, multifaceted immigrants, Plasmo-dium vivax and Plasmodium falciparum—names little known outside specialist circles, but ones that played a devastating role in American life.

1 In recent years, advanced techniques have let researchers domesticate a few previously undomesticable species in laboratory settings—the silver fox is the most well-known example. In all previous history, though, only about forty large animals were domesticated. (That figure does not include domesticated insects, like the European honeybee and the Mexican cochineal, cultivated as a source of red dye.)

2 Europeans later hunted the beaver to near extinction—its fur makes especially good felt, then in demand for hats. In this way, they unknowingly replaced one dominant natural engineer with another, the earthworm.

3 Roanoke apparently did have one signal impact: introducing England to tobacco. Sir Francis Drake probably brought the plant to the nation in the previous decade—he had acquired it on his round-the-world expedition. But it wasn’t widely known until Roanoke colonists returned with strange, fiery clay tubes at their lips. “In a short time,” one courtly eyewitness moaned, “many men every-where … with insatiable desire and greediness sucked in the stinking smoak.”

4 Equivalents in contemporary money are hard to establish, but this sum surely translates into tens of millions of dollars. Even that vague claim may be misleading, because the pool of investment capital was then much smaller; the capital raised by the Virginia Company was a much bigger percentage of the total available than, say, $50 million would be today.

5 Not everything went badly for the tassantassas. In May 1623, a little more than a year after the assault, they staged a counterattack at a peace conference with Tsenacomoco’s leadership. At a celebratory toast, one witness recorded, the English passed out poisoned sack (a sherry-like wine), killing “some tooe hundred” Indians. Pursued by a stricken, enraged crowd, the colonists fled to their boats. As they left, they fired into the mob, killing “som 50 more,” including, they erroneously believed, Opechancanough. Afterward the English “brought hom parte of ther heades”—that is, they scalped some of their victims.

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