United States history is mostly a collection of success stories. We -- our forebears, that is -- built the Erie Canal and transcontinental railroads, explored and then populated the West, won most of our wars. And even before all that we established the original colonies.
But what we tend to forget is how precarious many of those successes were, how -- to use that time worn phrase -- it was touch and go whether we would make it at all.
Often when I am hiking I speculate about the supreme difficulties those original colonists had to overcome. When we confront nature today, even over longer time periods such as the months hikers spend along the Appalachian Trail, we do so with clearly established connections to civilization. We need only leave the trail to get more food, to replace damaged equipment, to obtain medical assistance.
The first Europeans to visit this country didn't have those advantages. And what we seldom remember is that, because of those harsh and unforgiving conditions, many of them didn't live through them.
Recall that the Roanoke Colony was a complete failure. The first 108 settlers lasted less than a year before most returned to England, leaving only fifteen men behind in 1586. Those fifteen had disappeared without a trace by the time another hundred replaced them the next year. The next support convoy, delayed by England's defense against the Spanish armada in 1588, finally arrived in 1591 to find no sign of the hundred colonists except for the words "CRO" and "CROATOAN" carved in trees. Almost certainly every one of them died.
Often we gloss over the hardships with interesting incidents. The Jamestown Colony, for example, is remembered as Pocahontas saving the life of Captain John Smith. (Note that Smith only told that story after the Indian princess and her father, the sachem Powhatan, had both died.) True or not, that romantic tale masks the terrible events between the May 13, 1607 landing and early January 1608 when Captain Newport's ships returned with 80 more daring souls. Over that eight month period 82 of the original 120 colonists had died.
The litany of disaster is shocking. After Newport left them in June of 1607, Thomas Studley wrote, "Within tenne daies, scarse ten amongst us coulde either goe, or well stand, such extreame weaknes and sicknes oppressed us." Two months later George Percy added: "Our men were destroyed with cruell diseases, as Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers, and by warres,... but for the most part they died of meere famine." (Conditions didn't improve later: between 1607 and 1625, 4800 of 6000 settlers died, most of malnutrition.)
Evidence recently uncovered by geographers from the University of Arkansas suggests why those North Carolina and Virginia colonies suffered so severely. Tree-ring chronologies establish that both settlements occurred during extreme local droughts, droughts not replicated for over seven centuries. Their timing could not have been worse.
Imagine the effects of those droughts. Shortages of wild fruits and crop failures leading to starvation. Water quality declining with pollution leading to dysentery.
The subsistence system of the native societies was equally strained. Usually generous with their food in good times, they too were now faced with serious shortages. Who better to blame than the newcomers? Surely some of their antagonism toward the colonists of both settlements stemmed from these conditions.
Such climactic events still create problems today, as witness the effects of El Nino last winter and to a lesser extent this spring and summer. But now we have many defenses. Our ancestors were not so fortunate.
Some resources that served this column:
David W. Stahle, Malcolm K. Cleaveland, Dennis B. Blanton, "The Lost Colony and the Jamestown Droughts," Science 280 (April 24, 1998): 564-567.
David N. Durant, Ralegh's Lost Colony (New York: Atheneum, 1981).
Ivor Noel Hume, The Virginia Adventure, Roanoke to James Towne: An Archaeological and Historical Odyssey (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).
Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984).
J. A. Leo Lemay, The American Dream of Captain John Smith (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1991).
Earl Schenck Miers, Blood of Freedom: The Story of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1958).
Lauran Paine, Captain John Smith and the Jamestown Story (New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1973).
David Beers Quinn, Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606 (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).
David Stick, Roanoke Island: The Beginnings of English America
(Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1983).