Following John Smith

By Caroline Kettlewell
Friday, March 31, 2006

The eagle and the osprey both wanted this fish. The osprey, having done the work of catching it, not unreasonably seemed committed to keeping it. The eagle, on the other hand -- apparently reasoning that a fish already obligingly plucked from the water by a fellow raptor beats a fish you have to go to the bother of catching yourself -- seemed equally determined to take it away.

Between the high blue sky and the wind-ruffled waters of the James River, the eagle chased the osprey, matching the smaller bird's every swoop and dodge so closely that the two looked less like pursuer and pursued than like a pair of ice dancers in synchronized performance -- only with better costumes.

Nearly 400 years ago, the first English settlers at Jamestown might have observed a scene just like this; Jamestown's location put it in the heart of the James River's eagle territory. Whether they had the leisure or the inclination to enjoy bird-watching is another matter. Though Jamestown would become the first permanent English settlement in America, its founding residents, and ultimately their Native American neighbors, would pay a grim and exacting price for this historical distinction.

Today, with the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown little more than a year away, historians, archaeologists, researchers and others are revisiting those earliest days of the English colonization of America, uncovering new information, reconsidering long-held assumptions and broadening our understanding of the individuals, the places and the events. One of the best ways you can immerse yourself in the still-unfolding history of early 17th-century Virginia -- and explore the natural beauty of the area as the first settlers and the Native American inhabitants might have experienced it -- is to follow the recently developed, self-guided tour, "Captain John Smith's Adventures on the James River."

Known more concisely as Captain John Smith's Trail and named after the indefatigable explorer and perhaps the most famous of the first Jamestown settlers -- who would map many of the waterways of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries -- the tour follows existing roads and the James itself to many sites, including public and privately-owned museums, state and local parks, wildlife areas, plantations and, of course, Jamestown itself. Via the online guide or with printed maps to be available later this spring (which will include Global Positioning System coordinates for boaters), you can learn of the historical significance and natural attractions of each of the sites on the tour's three loops, which span from Richmond to the Hampton Roads region.

The middle of these, the Cypress Loop, explores an area still largely unspoiled by development, where bald eagles congregate along wooded shorelines, marshlands and shaded forests are alive with birds and wildlife, and archaeologists are painstakingly excavating the original James Fort, rediscovered barely more than a decade ago and now daily revealing new details in a story that made history.

'Like dogs to be buried'

Things started out promisingly enough. Having survived a four-month voyage from England in three cramped, stinking, vermin-infested and alarmingly small ships, the 104 settlers who set about in early May 1607 to make Jamestown their home in the New World must certainly have been grateful for solid land. Settler George Percy wrote lyrically of "the ground all flowing over with faire flowers of sundry colours and kindes, as though it had beene in any Garden or Orchard in England." (Settlers' quotes in this story are drawn from the texts of "First Hand Accounts and Letters," courtesy of Virtual Jamestown, a project of the Virginia Center for Digital History.) The lush forests held abundant game, the river a steady supply of fish and fresh water. And there was the hope of much more; theirs was an economic enterprise in search of profit, backed by a group of London entrepreneurs known as the Virginia Company.

Only their solid land was a mosquito-ridden swamp, the river a brackish tidal flood by turns poisonously salty and fouled with the settlers' own waste. Food supplies spoiled in the sweltering summer heat. Relations with the Algonquian-speaking natives -- whose home lands had been suddenly and unapologetically invaded by these bearded strangers -- remained dangerously unpredictable, sometimes peaceful and sometimes violent, making any venture outside the confines of the James Fort a risky endeavor. And recent research suggests that the settlers had the bleak misfortune to arrive in the middle of a severe, seven-year drought, the worst in the past nearly 800 years.

The summer wore on in a nightmare of disease and hunger, suffering and death, "some departing out of the world, many times three or four in a night; in the morning, their bodies trailed out of their cabins, like dogs, to be buried," Percy wrote. Fewer than 50 remained to greet a supply ship from England in January 1608. Nor were their troubles over. More settlers arrived, but more problems did, too; in the winter of 1609-10, which would become known as "the starving time," Jamestown's population of 214 was reduced to a mere 60.

In June 1610, the residents gave up the venture as a bad job and set sail down the river and for home. In no small sense, 400 years of American history as we know it may well have turned on the remarkable coincidence that on that very day, word reached them that a newly arrived ship from England was heading up the James bearing relief and reinforcements. The fleeing colonists were somehow persuaded to return to Jamestown, and the future of a nation took permanent, if still tenuous, root.

The 'Powhatan Flu'

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