With Thanksgiving approaching thoughts turn to the first English colonists to America. If you remember your history lessons, the first attempts to colonize the New World were the Roanoke Colony in 1587 and the Jamestown Colony in 1607. The Roanoke Colony disappeared without a trace, and has been the subject of much speculation ever since. The Jamestown Colony had only 38 of the 104 original settlers still alive after the first year, and 4800 of the 6000 settlers sent to Jamestown between 1607 and 1625 died primarily due to malnutrition…they starved to death. These two colonies have been criticized for poor planning and basic indifference to their own subsistence. Perhaps this is true, but there is evidence that the reason for their troubles was bad timing.
There is a science called Dedrochronology, which involves using tree rings from really old trees to determine what the climate was like long ago. Rings very close together indicate slow growth, probably from droughty periods. Wider rings indicate wet years with plenty of rain. You can even determine when wildfires occurred by looking for old scars. Scientists don’t have to cut down the trees to study the rings, but can use a device called an increment borer to extract a small core of wood that allows examination of the rings.
There are stands of really old baldcypress trees growing in southeastern Virginia that have been used to develop a history of dry and wet year cycles over the last 800 years, which includes the period when the Roanoke and Jamestown Colonies were first established. It turns out that the Lost Colony had the misfortune of coming to America during the most extreme drought in the entire 800 years (1587-1589). Jamestown wasn’t very fortunate either, as they colonized during the driest 7-year period in 770 years (1606-1612).
Experts suggest that the 3-year drought of the Lost Colony would have created a major survival problem for the Native Americans. The colonists were expected to live off the land and through trade with the Indians, which would have left them extremely vulnerable during drought. Besides starvation, bad water is another possible reason for the ill health at Jamestown, which is poorest during drought.
Based on the tree ring data, even the best-planned colonial expedition would have struggled due to the extremely dry conditions Roanoke and Jamestown had to endure.