Drought Struck First Colonists

Bad weather may have plagued the first English settlements in America. According to a new analysis of tree-ring climate data, the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke Island in North Carolina and the Jamestown colony in Virginia faced two of the worst droughts in the last 800 years. The discovery, reported in tomorrow's Science, suggests that the colonies' desperate struggles to survive had more to do with bad luck than bad planning.

All 117 settlers in the Roanoke Island colony disappeared sometime between 1587 and 1590; their fate remains uncertain. No such mystery surrounds Jamestown. The colonists there wrote of famine and bad water, and they repeatedly clashed with the neighboring Algonquian Indians. Only 38 of 104 original settlers survived the first year, and the mortality rate exceeded 50% in 3 of the first 4 years.

"The received wisdom among historians has been that these people were ill-prepared, profit-motivated, and startlingly indifferent to their own welfare," says archaeologist Dennis Blanton of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. But when he heard that climatologist David Stahle had records of tree rings taken from 800-year-old baldcypress trees in Virginia, he hounded him to figure out what the weather had been like. "We were astounded when the results came in," says Stahle.

The Roanoke Island colony coincided precisely with the worst 3-year drought in the climate record, and Jamestown coincided with the worst 7-year drought. In 1614, the year the drought ended, the mortality rate in Jamestown dropped by half, and the battles that historians term the "Anglo-Powhatan War" ended. To Blanton, the facts fit together like pieces of a puzzle. The colonists, who depended on trade with the Indians for food, were suspicious when the Indians said they didn't have enough--but the climate record suggests the Indians were telling the truth. And as the freshwater table dropped, brackish seawater would have probably filled the colonists' wells, Blanton says.

The climatic record doesn't change the fact that the English brought too many soldiers and not enough farmers or fishermen, says Frederick Fausz, a historian at the University of Missouri at St. Louis who has written about the Anglo-Indian wars. But it is time to retire the theory that they were victims only of their own foolishness, he says. "The best-laid plans couldn't have anticipated anything like this."