John Smith and Pocahontas
In 1609 came what the colonists called “the starving time.” Desperate, the survivors resorted to acts of cannibalism and even looted the fresh graves of their own number as well as those of local Indians.
Jamestown would certainly have joined the Roanoke colony in a common oblivion had it not been for the presence of the soldier of fortune the Virginia Company had hired to look after the military defense of the colony. The intrepid Captain John Smith (ca. 1579-1631) managed to get himself adopted by the local Indians, who were led by the powerful old chief Powhatan, and, from them, obtained enough corn and yams to keep the surviving colonists from starving. He also instituted martial law in the colony, sternly declaring that only those who worked would eat. Enforcing this iron discipline, Smith saved the fledgling colony.
Relations between the colonists and the “Powhatans” (the English named the numerous Algonquin Indian villages after the single chief who controlled them) were always strained. Simply by refusing to share their food, the Powhatans could have wiped out the struggling colony at will. Yet they did not do so, albeit they repeatedly threatened war. Doubtless in an effort to intimidate Chief Powhatan and his people into maintaining peaceful relations, in 1613, Captain Samuel Argall kidnapped his daughter Pocahontas and took her to Jamestown (and, later, to Henrico) as a hostage. Fascinated by the English, the “Indian princess” quickly learned their language and customs—and rapidly evolved from hostage to ambassador. In 1614, with the blessing of her father, she married John Rolfe, a tobacco planter. The union brought eight years of peace between the Indians and the settlers, a period crucial to the survival and development of the colony. (Rolfe took his bride on a voyage back to England, where she was a favorite with London society as well as the royal court. Sadly, this remarkable young woman succumbed to an illness and died, in England, on March 21, 1617, at the age of 22.)
To what must have been the great surprise of anyone who had witnessed the first terrible year at Jamestown, the colony survived and even prospered. The indentured colonists, having fulfilled their obligations, took control of their own land, on which they planted tobacco, as the Indians had taught them. A great fondness for the weed developed in Europe, and America found its first cash crop and significant export product. The prospect of growing rich from the cultivation of tobacco attracted more settlers. The Virginia enterprise was, at long last, successfully launched, and the world-New and Old-would never be the same.