Jamestown, Lost and Found


The English colonists who landed at Jamestown 400 years ago undermined an ecosystem and changed the continent forever.

Earthworms were first introduced to northern North America by Europeans
By Charles C. Mann.
Images by Rob Clark, © National Geographic (used by permission)

It is just possible that John Rolfe was responsible for the worms—specifically the common night crawler and the red marsh worm, creatures that did not exist in the Americas before Columbus. Rolfe was a colonist in Jamestown, Virginia, the first successful English colony in North America. Most people know him today, if they know him at all, as the man who married Pocahontas. A few history buffs understand that Rolfe was one of the primary forces behind Jamestown's eventual success. The worms hint at a third, still more important role: Rolfe inadvertently helped unleash a convulsive and permanent change in the American landscape.

Like many young English blades, Rolfe smoked—or, as the phrase went in those days, "drank"—tobacco, a fad since the Spanish had first carried back samples of Nicotiana tabacum from the Caribbean. Indians in Virginia also drank tobacco, but it was a different species, Nicotiana rustica. Virginia leaf 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 N. tabacum seeds from Trinidad and Venezuela. Six years later Rolfe returned to England with his wife, Pocahontas, and the first major shipment of his tobacco. "Pleasant, sweet, and strong," as Rolfe's friend Ralph Hamor described it, Jamestown's tobacco was a hit. By 1620 the colony exported up to 50,000 pounds (23,000 kilograms) of it—and at least six times more a decade later. Ships bellied up to Jamestown and loaded up with barrels of tobacco leaves. To balance the weight, sailors dumped out ballast, mostly stones and soil. That dirt almost certainly contained English earthworms.

And little worms can trigger big changes. The hardwood forests of New England and the upper Midwest, for instance, have no native earthworms—they were apparently wiped out in the last Ice Age. In such worm-free woodlands, leaf litter piles up in drifts on the forest floor. But when earthworms are introduced, they can do away with the litter in a few months. The problem is that northern trees and shrubs beneath the forest canopy depend on that litter for food. Without it, water leaches away nutrients formerly stored in the litter. The forest becomes more open and dry, losing much of its understory, including tree seedlings.

Whether the night crawler and the red marsh worm actually first arrived on Rolfe's tobacco ships is not known. What is clear is that much of the northern forests in America were worm free until the Europeans arrived there, inadvertently importing earthworms on the root-balls of their plants or in the ballast of ships. The effects of this earthworm invasion have been slow to show themselves because the creatures don't spread rapidly on their own. "If they're born in your backyard, they'll stay inside the fence their whole lives," says John Reynolds, editor of Megadrilogica, the premier earthworm journal. But over time, the effect on the ecosystem can be dramatic.

Jamestown is known for inaugurating the great American struggles over democracy (the colony established English America's first representative government) and slavery (it was the first English colony to use captured Africans). Rolfe's worms, as one might call them, point to another part of its history. The colonists did not come to the Americas alone. Instead they were accompanied by a great parade of insects, plants, mammals, and microorganisms. Some of the effects were almost invisible; others were enormous. Together with the newcomers' different ways of managing the land, these creatures literally changed the ground beneath the Indians' feet. Setting up camp on marshy Jamestown peninsula, the colonists were taking the first steps toward creating the American landscape we know today.

TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY MILLION years ago the world contained a single landmass known to scientists as Pangaea. Geologic forces broke this vast expanse into pieces, sundering Eurasia and the Americas. Over time the two halves of the world developed wildly different suites of plants and animals. Columbus's signal accomplishment was, in the phrase of historian Alfred Crosby, to reknit the torn seams of Pangaea. After 1492, the world's ecosystems collided and mixed as European vessels carried thousands of species to new homes across the oceans. The Columbian exchange, as Crosby called it, is why there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chocolates in Switzerland, and hot peppers in Thailand. It is arguably the most important event in the history of life since the death of the dinosaurs.

For English America, Jamestown was the opening salvo in the Columbian exchange. In biological terms, it marked the point when before turns into after. And it began 400 years ago this month, on May 14, 1607, when 104 colonists disembarked on Jamestown peninsula, on the southern fringe of Chesapeake Bay.

Much of what we learned in grade school about the New World encountered by the colonists at Jamestown turns out to be wrong. In movies and textbooks the colonists are often depicted as arriving in a pristine forest of ancient trees, small bands of Indians gliding, silent as ghosts, beneath the canopy. But the idea that the English were "settlers" of land that was unsettled before they arrived is complete nonsense. In fact, three English ships landed in the middle of a small but rapidly expanding Indian empire called Tsenacomoco.

Three decades before, Tsenacomoco had been a collection of six separate chiefdoms. By the time the foreigners came from overseas, its paramount chief, Powhatan, had tripled its size to about 8,000 square miles (21,000 square kilometers) and more than 14,000 people. Wary, politically shrewd, ruthless when needed, Powhatan was probably in his 60s when the English landed—a "goodly old man, not yet shrinking" with age, according to colonist Strachey, "well beaten with many cold and stormy winters," but still "of a tall stature and clean limbs." His sphere of influence stretched from the Potomac to Cape Henry.

Most of Powhatan's people (known by the colonists as the Powhatan Indians) lived in villages of a few hundred inhabitants surrounded by large tracts of cleared land: cornfields and former cornfields. Except for defensive palisades, the landscape was unfenced. By a quirk of evolutionary history, North America had, except for dogs, no large domesticable mammals; its native species, such as bison and deer, could not be tamed. With no horses, cattle, sheep, goats, or chickens to tend, villagers had no need to enclose their fields.

Between the villages was the forest, splendid with chestnut and elm but hardly untouched. "It was touched, and sometimes heavily," says Donald Young, an ecologist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. In the fall, Indians burned the underbrush, keeping the forest so open and parklike, colonist John Smith wrote, that "a man may gallop a horse amongst these woods." With Indian villages dotting the region's many riverbanks, the Chesapeake Bay was a jumble of farm fields, marshes, deep forest, and secondary forest (young trees growing on abandoned plots). Jamestown peninsula was an example of the last; it had been cleared, perhaps for farm fields, a generation or two before the English arrived.

The new colony was a private enterprise funded by a group of venture capitalists called the Virginia Company. Much like investors in today's dot-com start-ups, the backers wanted a quick return. They believed, incorrectly, that the Chesapeake Bay region was laden, like Mexico and Peru, with vast stores of gold and silver. The goal was to acquire these precious metals as expeditiously as possible. Spain, too, believed that gold and silver could be found there. It had long ago claimed what is now the U.S. East Coast for itself and in 1570 had planted a mission a few miles north of Jamestown.

The local Indians wiped out that mission. English colonists who settled on Roanoke Island 110 miles (180 kilometers) south of Jamestown in the 1580s may also have met their end at the hands of a native group—very possibly the Powhatan. Nonetheless the Virginia Company directors worried more about protecting their investment from distant Spain than from the Indians. They instructed the colonists—their employees, in today's terms—to settle far from the ocean, "a hundred miles [160 kilometers] from the river's mouth," which would minimize the chance of sudden assault by Spanish ships. And they told them to make sure the settlement was close to a deepwater anchorage, so they could lay up "provisions with ease." In all they did, the directors warned, the colonists should act with "great care not to offend the naturals [Indians]."

Jamestown was the result. Not wanting to antagonize Powhatan, the newcomers—tassantassas (strangers), as the Indians called them—looked for uninhabited ground. Because native villages occupied all the good land upriver, the colonists ended up picking a site about 35 miles (55 kilometers) from the mouth of the James. It was a peninsula near a bend in the river, at a place where the current cut a deep channel so close to the shore that oceangoing ships could be moored to the trees.

Alas, there was a reason no Indians lived at Jamestown: 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. Their chosen site was marshy, mosquito-ridden, and without fresh water. Buckets could be dipped into the James, of course, but the water was potable only part of the year. During the summer, the river falls as much as 15 feet (5 meters). No longer pushed back by a big flow of fresh water, the salty water of the estuary spreads upstream, stopping right around Jamestown. Worse, sediments and organic wastes from the head of the river get trapped at the saltwater boundary. The colonists were drinking some of the dirtiest water in the James—"full of slime and filth," complained Jamestown president George Percy.

By the end of September, nearly half of the original 104 colonists had died. Percy attributed most of the deaths to "mere famine," but he was wrong, in the view of the late historical geographer Carville Earle. The river teemed with fish in the summer—especially big, meaty Atlantic sturgeon—and the English caught and ate them. (Archaeologists at Jamestown have uncovered remains from a sturgeon as long as 14 feet [4 meters].) Instead, Earle argued, the colonists were killed by "typhoid, dysentery, and perhaps salt poisoning." All are associated with contaminated water. During winter the water would have cleared, but not in time to help the tassantassas. Many had been too sick that summer to tend the company gardens. Initially the strangers hoped to trade with the Indians for food while they spent their days hunting for gold, but the region was deep into a multiyear drought, and the Indians did not want to part with what little food they had. By January, only 38 colonists were alive—barely.

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