Birth of American Values
Today is the 400th anniversary of the establishment of Jamestown Colony, the first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States of America. At first, it was a disaster. Their plan was to find gold or silver or a river route to the Pacific Ocean. But they settled in a swampland, the mosquitoes were terrible, and many people caught malaria. The colonists also had trouble growing enough food, and they failed to dig an adequate fresh-water well. There was an epidemic of dysentery and a severe food shortage. More than 400 people starved to death.
The colony only began to be a success when they stopped focusing on gold and began to grow tobacco. It was John Rolfe who introduced a new type of tobacco plant from the West Indies. The crop proved enormously profitable, and it inspired more investment and more colonists to join the settlement. Rolfe went on to marry the princess Pocahontas.
By 1619, Jamestown was thriving, and it was that year that the settlers formed a new kind of government with a general assembly, the members of which were elected by the citizens of the colony. It was the first-ever representative government in what became the United States. That very same year, a ship arrived in Jamestown carrying 50 African slaves, 20 of which were purchased for work in the tobacco fields. And so Jamestown became the birthplace of both democracy and slavery.
From the Writer’s Almanac by Garrison Keillor. Available by e-mail daily.