Saturday, June 7, 2014

May 1610: Downriver, feasting on fish and crabs. Upriver, starvation.

           In one of the most puzzling mysteries of the Starving Time, while the Jamestown colonists were dying from starvation, the thirty-odd residents of Algernon Fort, 39 miles downriver on Chesapeake Bay, had plenty to eat. In fact, they caught so many crabs that they fed the surplus to their hogs. Algernon Fort had been built in October 1609. It was now May 1610. As the months passed, why didn’t President George Percy try to contact Captain James Davis and his people at Algernon Fort? Percy knew they must have food. One of the reasons he had chosen that location for a fort was “the plenty of the place for fishing.”
On the other hand, after all that time, why didn’t Davis send someone upriver to find out what was happening to his countrymen at Jamestown?
Perhaps the people at Algernon Fort did not want to know how things were inside the palisade at Jamestown. In January 1610, as Francis West had sailed for England, he had told them how desperate things were upriver, and how hostile the Indians had become. Perhaps Captain Davis, secure in his fort with plenty to eat, made a decision to keep clear of Jamestown.
        Why Percy and the others upriver did not try to reach Algernon Fort is more puzzling. And if some Jamestown colonists,, according to Percy, ran away to live with the Indians, then why did not others take one of the boats and run away to join their own people at Algernon Fort? Part of the answer lies with the James River. It is an estuarial river (one whose currents reverse with the incoming and outgoing tides). When the tide rose in Chesapeake Bay a boat sailing downriver had to stop and wait several hours to catch the outgoing tide again. Because of this, from Jamestown to Algernon Fort, nearly 40 miles, was a sail of at least two, perhaps three, days.
        A boat on the river would be a sitting duck for Indians.

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