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Jamestown - John Smith and Pocahontas

Jamestown, the first English colony in North America, was established by the Virginia Company in 1607. The settlers, unprepared and seeking quick wealth, neglected farming and clashed with local Powhatan tribe. John Smith's leadership improved conditions, but survival rates remained low until the discovery of tobacco.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] So after getting a very late start, the English finally started a New World colony on the coast of North America in 1607, and it was here at Jamestown. The English colonists at Jamestown could not have been less prepared to settle a New World. They came from the Virginia Company, which was a joint-stock company, or kind of like a modern-day corporation, which was trying to make wealth for its shareholders as quickly as possible. Now, if you think about people in this time period, they in England are taking a look over at Spain and seeing Spain bring ships full of gold and silver back to Europe from the New World, and they wanna get in on that action. And as far as they know, the whole New World is just piled up with silver and gold. So in the first months, they sent gentlemen, and the English definition of a gentleman here is someone who does not work with his hands, to try to find gold in Virginia. Now, spoiler alert, there is no gold in Virginia. But that whole first summer, when they were there, they could have been planting crops, they could have been fishing, I mean this is actually a pretty bountiful area when it comes to natural resources in plants and animals. But they were trying to find gold, they were trying to basically get rich quick, this was the scheme. But then winter rolled around. Those who hadn't already been killed by mosquito-borne illnesses, like malaria or yellow fever, were now subject to starvation. And there the story gets even more complicated, because the English settlers, who were all men, by the way, they were adventurers, they were not there to start families, start a long-term colony in the New World, they just wanted to find gold and get out. So as these English colonists are starving, they start to run afoul of local Native Americans. There were an Algonquian tribe living in the Virginia tidewater, who were under the rule of this man here. This is a drawing of him done by John Smith, who we'll talk about in a second. His name was Powhatan. His real name was Wahunsunacawh, but the English called him Powhatan, and the people that he ruled, the Powhatans. And as the English settlers realized that they had not put away enough for practically any stores to get them through the winter, they started raiding the food supplies of the Powhatans, which, of course, didn't make them very happy, they were also trying to survive the winter. Then the Powhatans kidnapped John Smith, and there's an engraving of him here. Uh, and they kinda tried to show him their power. So there's a legend that Powhatan was intending to execute John Smith. The daughter of Powhatan, Pocahontas also wasn't her real name, that was her nickname, it kinda meant little playful person. Her real name was Matoaka, but we know her today by her nickname, Pocahontas. And Pocahontas intervened and kept her father from executing John Smith, either out of the goodness of her heart or maybe because she had a crush on him. This is pretty much completely untrue. The Disney version of this story says that Pocahontas and John Smith go on to fall in love and get married. The fact of the matter was that Pocahontas was probably about 13 years old at the time. And she will go on to marry an Englishman, but not John Smith, John Rolfe, who is famous in another way, which we'll get to soon. It's also quite likely that Powhatan didn't actually intend to execute Smith. Instead, what he was doing was kind of a ritual of power and mercy, so he's doing kind of a mock execution, saying, "All right, I have the power to execute you." But then, Pocahontas, playing her ritual role, steps in to say, "No, have mercy." So he says, you know, "I could kill you "because I'm a strong leader, "but because I an also a merciful and just leader, "I will not." So after his kidnapping, John Smith really kinda steps up as the savior of Jamestown, which probably would have completely collapsed were it not for him. And in 1608, he takes over and says that, "He who shall not work shall not eat." So you gotta pull your weight if you're gonna get supported by the rest of the colonists. Nevertheless, the first years at Jamestown were pretty rough. In the winter of 1609 to 1610, which they called the starving time, the colonists were so hungry that they resorted to eating vermin, and they resorted to eating each other. One man actually killed and ate his wife in one of the few known examples of English cannibalism. So Jamestown was a pretty rough place to be. Only about 15% of the settlers who went to Jamestown actually survived. In fact, that following spring of 1610, they decided to give up and head back to England. They were met, just as they were leaving, by new supply ships that continued the Virginia experiment, which will become much more successful after the discovery of tobacco. We'll get to that in the next video.