The Myth of “Living Off the Land” at Jamestown

In a recent Washington Post article about the Artemis project, which aims to establish a long-term human presence on the South Pole of the Moon, NASA’s Prasun Desai likened the astronauts to “the settlers who came to Jamestown” and “lived off the land.” 

While it’s tempting to think of Jamestown as a proto-Artemis full of intrepid settlers, that was far from the reality, as our entry on the Early Jamestown Settlement makes clear. Granted, the 104 Jamestown colonists were a more fractious bunch than typical astronauts. They almost hanged John Smith after they became convinced that he was plotting to “usurpe the governement, murder the Councell, and make himselfe kinge.” He arrived at the new colony in shackles and was only freed when a sealed box was opened and it was revealed that he was to be one of the seven-member Council charged with running the settlement. Awkward.

Between grumbling about their leaders, the colonists managed to build a fort they named Jamestown on a marshy jut of land fifty miles up the James River. The die-off began almost immediately. Men died of “the bloudie Flixe” (dysentery)—it turns out the water wasn’t safe for drinking—“of the swelling,” or “of a wound given by the Savages” as the settlers fended off attacks by local Algonquian-speaking Indians associated with Tsenacomoco, the Powhatan paramount chiefdom, who correctly viewed their presence with apprehension. 

In fact, the settlers failed miserably at living off the land. Not only did they locate their fort in a spot with brackish water, but the colonists landed at the start of a seven-year drought that was the driest period in nearly 800 years. And these colonists were no farmers or even fishermen—they included a “proportion of gentlemen six times higher than could be found in England, many of them soldiers by occupation,” according to our entry. 

The plan all along had been for them to be provisioned by ships from England or to buy or trade for food with the Native population. As a result: 

“Rather than hunt, farm, or fish, then, they depended on Smith, who showed a special talent for striking out with a few men and coming back with boatloads of corn, sometimes bargained for, often simply taken from the Indians.”

So much for living off the land. These white settlers were living off of the knowledge and resources of the Virginia Indian tribes that had long called the area home.

As relations with the Virginia Indian tribes and the drought worsened, food became scarce. Smith sent one group of men north and another south “to live off the land and, by extension, off the Indians”—who violently resisted attempts to take their dwindling food supplies. Nansemond warriors stuffed bread in the mouths of some of the English they killed “in Contempte and skorne.”

The pressure on the Indians of Tsenacomoco to provision the colonists led to the First Anglo-Powhatan War and the siege of Jamestown, which precipitated the “Starving Time,” as the desperate winter of 1609–1610 became known, when three-quarters of the English colonists died of starvation and disease and some apparently resorted to cannibalism

Without a knowledgeable Native population to provision the Artemis astronauts, NASA might want to learn a lesson from the nearly disastrous Jamestown settlement and think a little less optimistically about “living off the land”–and pack plenty of supplies.


2 thoughts

  1. Well written and informative article. Thanks for giving me the true history, as I was taught the states version. Amazing how many lies we were told in the fifties and sixties.

  2. Fun to read. I’ve been told my family (Damron/Dameron) picked the spot on the Chesapeake Bay reasoning they could live out of the water if the crops failed. I have no idea if that is correct or not.
    I enjoy the history you share here. Thank you.


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