On this day in 1607, English colonists, newly arrived to America, situated their camp on a marshy jut of land fifty miles up the James River. They called it Jamestown.
One imagines the local Indians rolling their eyes. After all, this particular patch of ground was located in an ecological zone where the exchange between fresh and salt water is minimal—as poor George Percy soon found out. “Our drinke,” he wrote, “[is] cold water taken out of the River which was at a floud verie salt, at a low tide full of slime and filth, which was the destruction of many of our men.”
My kingdom for a bottle of Evian!
In the meantime, it also turns out that the English, whose bad timing was impeccable, showed up at the beginning of a seven-year drought (1606–1612), the driest period in 770 years, and during a period climatologists refer to at the Little Ice Age (an entry on which is forthcoming). El Niño even made an appearance, making the winter of 1607–1608 one of the coldest anyone had ever experienced. The Thames froze completely, and so did the poor folks at Jamestown. “The cold was so intense,” one Englishman wrote, “that one night the river at our fort froze almost all the way across,” freezing the fish in place.
Still, from their perspective, Jamestown was well-suited for defense against both the Indians and the Spanish, the latter being of greater concern. And while the Spanish threat never materialized, and plenty of men died from drinking that “slime and filth,” the historian J. Frederick Fausz nevertheless has argued that the location of Jamestown was (accidentally) brilliant. Because it was not being used and so did not immediately threaten any Indians in the neighborhood, it was “the only site along the James and York rivers where [the English colonists] had any prospect of surviving more than a few days.”
A version of this post was originally published on May 13, 2011.
IMAGE: James Fort