Thursday, March 25, 2010

Deadly Days in Early Virginia

Virginia Colony did not get off to a good start. Many of the earliest colonists “we could call gentlemen-adventurers, ‘whose breeding,’ a contemporary said, ‘never knew what a day's labour meant.’ These were men, often lesser scions of nobility, with no future in overpopulated England, [who] didn't know how to farm, didn't know how to hunt, and--possibly feeling betrayed by the Virginia Company's promises, and lacking any land of their own--were not known for their spirit of cooperation either among themselves, nor with the local Indians.” [A Brief History of Jamestown,]

The survival rate of the early settlers was not much different than that of their documents described in yesterday’s post. “Out of fourteen thousand person imported to Virginia but one thousand two hundred and fifty-eight survived at the time of the massacre in 1622. The mortality rate was horrendous. Peter De Vries visited Virginia in 1632, and wrote of the climate that 'during the months of June, July and August it was very unhealthy, that their people who have then lately arrived from England, die, during these months, like cats and dogs, whence they call it the sickly season.’”[Bowman, James Lesley, Ancestors of James Leslie Bowman,

Conditions were so grim in the early days that the tale is told that the survivors piled themselves and their possessions on to an arriving ship and headed down river. Allegedly this total abandonment of the colony was only averted by the dramatic and fortuitous arrival, at that moment, of three ships with provisions and new colonists. Whether the fleet arrival was that dramatic or not, think for a minute how tenuous was the thread that perhaps determined that those in what is now the southern US would end up speaking English and not Spanish.

One consequence of this high mortality rate was that “multiple marriages for the survivors was the norm in Virginia. This was a genealogical bottleneck, a chokepoint where the choice of partners narrowed tremendously, and where through marriage and survivorship there was a possibility of tremendous upward social mobility. Through cousinage and the commonality of multiple marriages the older families of Virginia are incredibly intertwined and linked.... Virginia about 1700 had a relatively small population which was formed into an interlocked society which resembled a huge extended family where, although there were definite social stratii, everybody was likely to be related or socially connected in some fashion by blood or marriage.” [Bowman]

I’ll share what I am learning about my own Virginia ancestry tomorrow.

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