Labour Problem at James Town

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The Labor Problem at Jamestown, 1607-18
Author(s): Edmund S. Morgan
Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 76, No. 3 (Jun., 1971), pp. 595-611 Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1851619 .

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The Labor Problemat Jamestown,1607-18
EDMUND S. MORGAN

S-rORYOF JAMESTOWN,
the first permanent English settlement in
America, has a familiar place in the history of the United States. We all know of the tribulations that kept the colony on the point of expiring: the shortage of supplies, the hostility of the Indians, the quarrels among the leaders, the reckless search for gold, the pathetic search for a passage to the Pacific, and the neglect of the crucial business of growing food to stay alive. Through the scene moves the figure of Captain John Smith, a little larger than life, trading for corn among the Indians and driving the feckless crew to work. His departure in October 1609 results in near disaster. The settlers fritter away their time and energy, squander their provisions, and starve. Sir Thomas Gates, arriving after the settlement's third winter, finds only sixty men out of six hundred still alive and those sixty scarcely able to walk. In the summer of 161o Gates and Lord La Warr get things moving again with a new supply of men and provisions, a new absolute form of government, and a new set of laws designed to keep everybody at work. But when Gates and La Warr leave for a time, the settlers fall to their old ways. Sir Thomas Dale, upon his arrival in May 161 1, finds them at "their daily and usuall workes, bowling in the streetes."' But Dale brings order out of chaos. By enlarging and enforcing the colony's new law code (the famous Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall) he starts the settlers working again and rescues them from starvation by making them plant corn. By 1618 the colony is getting on its feet and ready to carry on without the stern regimen of a Smith or a Dale. There are still evil days ahead, as the Virginia Company sends over men more rapidly than the infant colony can absorb them. But the settlers, having found in tobacco a valuable crop for export, have at last gone to work with a will, and Virginia's future is assured. The story probably fits the facts insofar as they can be known. But it does THE

An earlier version of this paper was read at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association on December 29, 1968. I wish to express my thanks to those who offered criticisms at that time and also to Helen M. Morgan and to Professors J. H. Hexter, Lawrence Stone, William N. Parker, and William B. Foltz who read the paper subsequently and made valuable suggestions.

I Ralph Hamor, A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia (London, 1615; Richmond, 1957), 26.

595

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596

Edmund S. Mforgan

not quite explain them. The colony's long period of starvation and failure may well be attributed to the idleness of the first settlers, but...
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