Answer Man: Early settlers had good reason for being so strict

News-DemocratJune 19, 2013 

Q. I understand that Jamestown, Va., -- the first English settlement in the U.S. -- imposed a rigid code of behavior early in its history. Was there a name for this code and why was it needed? -- Carl Williams, of Fairview Heights

A. Try to put yourself in Sir Thomas Gates' shoes for a minute. You're sent into a wilderness to revitalize a small colony of your countrymen who have been ravaged by disease, famine and Indian attacks. The situation has become so dire that the settlers are eating the flesh of their dead comrades to survive.

It was an extraordinary time that called for extraordinary measures, says Mark Summers, the manager of public and education programs for Preservation Virginia in Richmond. So, on May 24, 1610, Gates issued the first of the orders that later would be published as "Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall."

"When you grow up here, it's kind of the period in school where you always hear about the martial law being bad," Summers told me. "But, in a way, it's kind of like the National Guard coming in and putting down a riot.

"When you're taking over a colony like that and rebuilding it, what are you going to do? You have to get harsh to keep people alive."

Initially, the settlers tried to rule by committee, but it was ineffective, said Summers, who is part of an archaeological project that focuses on the history of the Jamestown fort from the first landing on May 14, 1607, to 1624.

Then, in 1608, John Smith restored some order with stricter regulations that made people work for food and punished those who did not. But when Smith was injured in a gunpowder explosion and returned to England in October 1609, the fledgling colony nearly perished. Called the "starving time," disease, famine and incompetent leadership decimated the settlers.

By the time Gates arrived the following spring, he found just 60 gaunt survivors out of the 214 original settlers. The skull of a teenage girl uncovered last year indicated that it had been cut open so the brain could be harvested and eaten.

Gates was so dismayed by what he saw that he ordered the colony abandoned and took off a few days later for Newfoundland. But as they were sailing up the James River on June 8, they met a fully stocked supply ship and a new governor, who ordered them back to Jamestown.

The governor, Lord De La Ware, confirmed Gates' "lawes," which were published in book form in 1612.

The new rules regulated trade with Indians, prohibited unnecessary killing of livestock and forbade the washing of clothing or performing "the necessities of nature" within a quarter mile of the new well. All settlers had to attend church twice each Sunday. Soldiers were severely punished for any infractions, and guards had to read a seven-page prayer aloud twice each day. The measures did not provide for jury trials.

Although harsh, Summers credits them for helping the English survive the coming five-year war with the Powhatan Confederacy.

"It was a pretty brutal war, to be honest, to the Powhatan tribes," Summers said. "Both sides lost a lot of people."

But it was the war during which Pocahontas was captured and converted to Christianity while being held captive. Then, she met and married tobacco farmer John Rolfe in 1614, which ended the war.

"By about 1617 things are more peaceful," Summers said. "You have a new charter. They start giving people their own land and, by 1619, they kind of get rid of all the martial law and establish representative government.

"So I think it's sort of like whenever you have a major war in this country. Everybody has to kick in, and then once that war is over you have peace and conditions are relaxed. They never went back to that type of martial law again."

But, as Summers noted, some things never seem to change.

"The ironic thing is that by 1622 they're going to face an uprising again and find out that they weren't winning anything. They're going to get attacked again."

Today's trivia

The world's very last telegram is scheduled to be sent in India on July 14. Who reportedly chose the message for the first telegram ever sent in the United States in 1844?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: Although technically known as the Aggregat-4 (A4), the weapon that German rocketeer Wernher von Braun designed that terrified London and other targets during World War II was commonly called the V-2. The "V" stood for "Vergeltungswaffe," which is German for "retaliation weapon" -- retaliation, the Nazis said, for the bombing of German cities by Allied planes. It is estimated Germany fired more than 3,100 V-2s, killing more than 2,750 civilians in London alone. The V-1 was known as the "buzz bomb" or "doodlebug," because of the buzzing sound its pulse jet engine made.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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