Segment from Tapped Out

Bitter Waters

Historian Julie Richter speaks with host Peter Onuf about the early colonists at Jamestown, whose main source of “sweet,” fresh water began to slowly poison them.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

*** The following transcript reflects an earlier broadcast of this episode. Some language may differ from the rebroadcast version. ***

PETER ONUF: When English colonists arrived in Virginia in May 1607, one of their priorities was to find the best location for a new settlement. They ultimately chose a spot they would call Jamestown Island, 60 miles inland from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

There was a deep channel in the James River there that allowed English ships access to the fort, plus the site seemed easy to defend from both the enemy Spanish and any hostile Native Americans. And on top of that, the colonists had access to the James for drinking water.

When they arrived in the spring, the water was “sweet,” the term then used for fresh water.

JULIE RICHTER: So on paper, it was perfect.

PETER ONUF: This is Julie Richter from the College of William and Mary. She’s a historical consultant for a geological survey exploring the water quality in early Jamestown. And she says that within a few months of arrival, that sweet water, well, it wasn’t so sweet anymore.

JULIE RICHTER: It was probably early July when people started to feel sick, certainly not as healthy as they had felt. And during the rest of July, August, and into September, a majority of the colonists died from disease. They called it the “bloody flux,” which doesn’t sound very appealing.

PETER ONUF: Julie, hold on. “Bloody flux?”


PETER ONUF: And so they had a pretty good idea that it was what they were drinking, then, because the bloody flux was not something new for them.

JULIE RICHTER: That’s true.

PETER ONUF: So Julie, tell us, where did they get their water?

JULIE RICHTER: Well, I think that largest source of water the first year would have been out of the James River. From what we can tell, there isn’t a well until the following year, 1608. And George Percy does comment on how bad the water is. “It’s full of slime and filth.”

PETER ONUF: Ew. Now, rivers are famous for flowing. Why doesn’t this river flow through and, in effect, flush out the slime and filth?

JULIE RICHTER: It’s the structure of the James River, and the way the currents run during July and certainly through August. And even, as the geologists have found, part way into September, the way the current runs, it 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.

PETER ONUF: Yeah. So wrong time, wrong place.

JULIE RICHTER: Yeah. They settled in one of the worst places they could have chosen, in terms of being healthy. Great for defense, but that’s unfortunately what proved to be true for them.

PETER ONUF: And almost end of story, but Jamestown did survive.

JULIE RICHTER: Very close to it. Yes, very close to the end of it.

PETER ONUF: So these enterprising guys realize that they need another source of water. They dig a well. That’s what we do to get water. Does that work out for them?

JULIE RICHTER: It turns out that it doesn’t work out for them. And this is where the geologists and their expertise have really added to what we know about life inside the fort, is that the way water works on the island, it comes from an aquifer. And any dirty water, any waste-water dumped inside the fort will carry its germs down into the aquifer, and that goes right into the well.

PETER ONUF: So tell us a little bit about the adjustment over the long term to dirty water. This is an interesting angle on the history of early Jamestown.

JULIE RICHTER: They have two ways of dealing with where they’re living. And the first is to be amazingly, continually dependent on imported beer, wine, and alcohol. That when those supply ships show up, everybody’s very happy.

PETER ONUF: So they get drunk and they live.

JULIE RICHTER: They get drunk, and they drink something without germs on it. So the people at the top of the social order, the governor and the council, are going to have more alcohol and better alcohol. And they probably aren’t as sick as everybody else, as they can drink their imported alcohol longer into the year.

And my colleague at William and Mary, Jim Whittenberg and I are piecing together the influence of women on the settlement. There aren’t large numbers of women in the colony until the early 1620s.

And we think this is very important for life in early Jamestown, and I’d say any other settlement in the colony, is that 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.

PETER ONUF: That would have been degrading in some sense.


PETER ONUF: Yeah, so these man probably deserved to die, since they weren’t willing.

JULIE RICHTER: Well, I won’t go quite that far.

PETER ONUF: So you’ve established that the population did stabilize in the 1620s? So there’s a strong correlation, as you see it, between the presence of brewing women and a stable population.

JULIE RICHTER: Yeah, and it takes a good part of the 17th century for that to happen.

PETER ONUF: Julie Richter is a historian at the College of William and Mary. She’s a consultant on a geology project investigating water quality in the Jamestown Colony. Thanks so much. I really enjoyed talking with you.

JULIE RICHTER: You’re very welcome.

ED AYERS: It’s time for another short break. When we get back, we’ll wade into the troubled waters of early American swimming pools.

BRIAN BALOGH: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.