Bay Journal

Trees reveal early colonists arrived during worst drought in 800 years

  • By Associated Press on June 01, 1998

Starting a new life in unfamiliar land along the Chesapeake Bay couldn't have been easy for early English colonists in America.

But scientists now believe the settlers had the bad luck to arrive during the worst drought in the past 800 years, bringing starvation and death to colonists at Jamestown as well as to an earlier settlement on Roanoke Island, NC.

Jamestown survived despite the early period known as the "starving time," when settlers were forced to eat boiled shoe leather, dogs and even their own dead.

The colonists who settled Roanoke Island mysteriously disappeared, including Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America.

New evidence of the droughts does not solve the mystery of Roanoke Island, but it helps explain the hardships faced by settlers in both places, said researcher Dennis Blanton.

"It challenges your imagination to try and understand how it could have been so horrendous," said Blanton, director of the College of William and Mary's Center for Archaeological Research.

"There were other factors, but the drought clearly contributed to their major problems," said Blanton, co-author of a study published in the journal Science. 

The knowledge of drought conditions also challenges the widely held notion that the Jamestown settlers were ill-prepared because they were motivated purely by profit, Blanton said.

"They were profit-motivated, but this drought ... would have challenged any group of people," Blanton said. "If it weren't for bad luck these guys wouldn't have had any luck at all."

Blanton teamed with tree-ring specialists from the University of Arkansas to research the effect of weather on the early English settlements in the Tidewater area. Roanoke Island is roughly 100 miles southeast of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America.

Matthew D. Therrell of the University of Arkansas said his group measured the width of tree rings from the trunks of bald cypress trees, which can live for 1,000 years or more. The rings were much smaller than average from 1587 to 1589, and from 1606 to 1612.

Therrell said the 1587-1589 period, during the Roanoke Island settlement, marked the most extreme drought of any comparable period during the 800 years of the tree-ring record.

The rings also indicated that the Jamestown settlers arrived in 1607 in the midst of the driest seven-year period in 770 years. But they didn't know it because they weren't familiar with the local climate and the area looked lush, although some tree leaves probably dried up, Blanton said.

The level of the nearby, brackish James River would have been unaffected because it is a tidal river, he said. The drought, however, made fresh, good-quality groundwater scarce, leaving the colonists thirsty and suffering from associated illnesses. It also ruined the native Powhatan Indians' corn crop, which the settlers had planned to buy for food.

"Here we've got evidence that the Indians were not deceiving the English when they said they had scarce food," Blanton said.

Conflict erupted when the Indians could not supply the food as promised. The settlers couldn't leave the confines of their fort to fish or hunt for fear of attack by the Indians.

When the supplies they brought from England ran out or spoiled, the settlers ate boiled shoe leather, tree bark, dogs and rats, said Diane Stallings, the National Park Service's historian at the Jamestown site. A few even turned to cannibalism, she said.

One settler killed his pregnant wife, threw the fetus into the river, cut up his wife's body and ate the parts, according to a written account from the period, Stallings said. The man was executed for his acts. Only 38 of the 104 original settlers survived the first year, and 4,800 of 6,000 people who lived there died between 1607 and 1625.

The demise of the Roanoke Island settlement is not as easy to understand,as it was shorter-lived. But the drought "had to make a tough situation even tougher," Blanton said.

The settlement became known as the "Lost Colony" because its 120 residents disappeared from history after 1587. 

A ship that left them in America went back to England for supplies and returned in 1590 to find the colony abandoned. The only trace was a tree carving of the word "Croatoan," the name of a nearby Indian tribe.

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