Bitter Waters

A water crisis in early Jamestown

For the English colonists who arrived in Virginia in May 1607, Jamestown Island seemed like the perfect spot to settle down. 60 miles inland from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, it

John Smith's map of Virginia, published 1612

John Smith’s map of Virginia, published 1612.

was situated at a deep channel in the James River that allowed English ships access to the fort. The site seemed easy to defend from both the enemy Spanish and any hostile Native Americans. On top of that, the colonists had access to the James for drinking water. When they arrived in the spring, they noted that the water was “sweet,” the term then used for fresh water.


But just a few months after their arrival, the new site didn’t seem nearly as attractive as it once had. Many colonists began to feel sick, and by September, more than half the colonists had died from a disease they called the “bloody flux” —better known today as dysentery. Now, this wasn’t the first time the colonists had seen the disease in action, and they knew what was to blame: the water. What had once had been “sweet” had become, as colonist George Percy put it, “full of slime and filth.”


You might expect that the flow of the James River would flush out all that the slime and filth. But according to Julie Richter, who’s working on a geology project investigating water quality in the Jamestown Colony, the river’s seasonal flow patterns make the opposite true.


“It’s the structure of the James River, and the way the currents run during July and certainly through August. [The current] traps the saltier water near Jamestown, and it prevents any water dumped into the river from being flushed down towards the Chesapeake Bay. So any waste-water that gets dumped, whether it’s inside the fort or outside the fort directly into the river, is trapped there by the current.”


Knowing they needed another source of water, in 1608 the colonists dug a well. But as it turned out, any wastewater the colonists dumped inside the fort immediately entered the aquifer that supplied the well. The well water was just as dirty and disease-ridden as the river water, and the colonists were again left with no source of clean, fresh water.


With all of its water troubles, how did the colony manage to stay afloat at all? It’s not a mystery, says Richter.


“[They are] amazingly, continually dependent on imported beer, wine, and alcohol…When those supply ships show up, everybody’s very happy.”


This imported alcohol wouldn’t give them dysentery, but it wasn’t easy to get ahold of either. As a result, the people at the top of colonial society were the ones able to afford to drink more (and better) alcohol, and therefore stay healthier throughout the year.


But it’s the arrival of more women in the early 1620’s was what really saved the colony, Richter explains.


“In England, women were the ones who brewed beer and made cider. So they’re the ones who produce the alcohol that is safer to drink. And we think it’s unlikely that many of the men would have done this woman’s work in the first years of the colony.”


With more women in Jamestown to brew alcohol, it was easier for the colonists to avoid both thirst and waterborne disease. The colony’s population stabilized in the 1620’s, thanks in no small part to those unsung heroes: the women brewers

Not enough fresh water facts for you? You can listen to our episode on fresh water here.


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