Jamestown Plays With Fire – It Happened Today, January 7, 2017

On this date in history the Jamestown settlement burned down. As if they didn’t have enough problems already. Mind you it wasn’t much of a settlement back on January 7 of 1608. Basically a fort full of fools who didn’t know where they were, how to grow crops or almost anything else you’d want in the old tool kit if you were, say, moving to a new continent in the age of sail.

Be that as it may, there was a lot more there before the fort burned down than afterward. For instance a fort in which to take refuge if the locals attacked you because of something you had done like steal from them or lie to them or show up looking ominous, or just because they had a habit of attacking anyone handy. (Correct answer: all of the above; despite PC versions the first deadly aboriginal attack occurred within two weeks of their arrival.)

Undaunted, they rebuilt the fort and lounged about in it during the "starving time" in which nearly everybody died after eating boot soup (less from the quality of the boots than the insufficient quantity) and various expeditions from England brought more food and more fools. Indeed, just five days before the fire a ship showed up without enough food and 70 more mouths to feed.

Nevertheless John Smith did pull them through the worst of the crisis including abolishing socialism and discovering that people did more work if the benefits were fairly distributed, of all things. And Jamestown prospered and flourished and so did Virginia and then the United States with all its great virtues and some scary defects.

It remains amazing that such a ludicrous venture could in fact succeed despite everything from bad preparation if any to the hostility of the far more numerous locals to choosing a swamp as your ideal site to the worst drought in 700 years to carelessness with fire in your only building. As with many things in history, we should not take it for granted just because it did happen. Certainly if you’d been standing among the blackened timbers on January 7, 1608 you’d have been likely to say "OK, that’s it, I’ve had it, where’s the ship home?"

Only to be told it was one more thing we didn’t really think of.