From Archeology 1998. David Stahle is a great-great-grandson of John and Bridget:


Grimness of Mythic Proportions

Archeology 1998

In 1607, 104 English settlers founded the Jamestown colony in what is now Virginia. One year later, only 38 or them were still alive. Many had starved. Some of the survivors later resorted to cannibalism. "The stories of what a grim place it was have reached almost mythic proportions," says archeologist Dennis Blanton of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia [note: John and Bridget have a great-great-granddaughter enrolled presently at William and Mary]. Researchers have never fully understood why life was such a struggle in Jamestown. The waters were full of fish, the forest teemed with game -- how could so many of the colonists have starved to death? Many historians have blamed ineptitude and lack of preparation. Blanton, however, says the colonists cannot be faulted for at least one thing: they happened to arrive during one of the worst droughts in history.

Looking through the diaries of John Smith and other settlers, Blanton took note of a few isolated remarks. One colonist mentioned that an Indian chief had asked the settlers to pray to their English gods for rain, as the Indian gods remained unmoved by prayer. John Smith reported that the Indians complained of a poor corn crop and were unwilling to trade their corn to the settlers. "The Indians basically said, 'Look John, we don't have any more to give,'" says Blanton. "And modern historians have been disbelieving of this, thinking maybe there was some deception here." Perhaps the Indians were not being spiteful, Blanton thought. The inexperienced colonists may not have recognized that they were in the middle of a severe drought.

Finding evidence of a dry spell within the period of just a few years would be nearly impossible using the traditional tools of archeology. "You're not going to get information that specific by digging in the ground," says Blanton, so he called dendrochronologist David Stahle at the University of Arkansas. By studying tree rings from all over the world, Stahle and his colleagues have been creating a record of climate that goes back 800 years in Virginia (ten times as far as in other places). Trees add on a layer of wood each year, and like any plant, they grow more in wet years than dry ones. By analyzing the width of growth rings, Stahle can tell how much rain has fallen, year by year, in a particular area. Among the trees in his record were thousand-year-old bald cypresses from the Tidewater region of Virginia and North Carolina. Blanton explained his drought theory and asked Stahle what his trees had to say about it.

"I don't know that they put much stock in the idea, but to amuse me they said they'd do it," says Blanton. "I was like an expectant father -- I kept calling them to find out the results. And finally they said, 'This is incredible! You were right.'" Stahle, who published his team's results in April, detected a seven-year drought from 1606 through 1612, the worst in 770 years. The mortality rate in Jamestown's first six years, 1607 to 1613, was a terrifying 50 percent. Corn withered on its stalks and good water was hard to find. The nearby James River is salty even at the best of times; the settlers dug wells only to have them filled with brackish water as the drought lowered the water table. Relations between the colonists and the Indians grew increasingly difficult. "You have two alien cultures suddenly in contact, and they're trying to understand each other. That's tense enough," says Blanton. "Add to that a food shortage and water problems. That made it even worse."

The growth rings revealed an even more severe drought in the area from 1587 to 1589, coincident with the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke colony, the first English settlement in the New World. Roanoke, founded in 1585, was last seen in 1587, the first year of the drought. By 1589, the colony had inexplicably vanished. "The Lost Colony drought," says Stahle, "stands out as the worst in 800 years." The drought was particularly severe in the Tidewater region, but its effects were felt for years throughout a huge swath of North America, including Mexico, California and the southwestern United States. "In the late 1500's, it's the all-time record drought in a milennium," says Stahle. "I think this gives us a unique perspective on the European beginnings of North America. The drought affected Spanish expansion and English attempts to settle." And Blanton adds that "any colonial effort would have been supremely challenged by a drought of this magnitude."                     --Shanti Menon


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