The early Chesapeake was a deathtrap, with mortality rates exceeding 40 percent, on average, during the seventeenth century. The humid climate and
the marshy terrain that surrounded Jamestown were conducive to disease and bred malaria, fevers, and dysentery. Especially in summer, streams and
shallow wells ran low, and the brackish water, when consumed, caused the proliferation of the microbes that bring dysentery and typhoid fever.
Out of the initial 104 settlers who came to Jamestown in 1607, only thirty-eight survived after the fevers, dysentery, and starvation took their toll. There
were no farmers among the original group, as the settlers assumed that nature and servile native peoples would feed them. Expecting to find gold, the
gentleman adventurers of Jamestown instead found mostly misery and death.
During the starving time of the winter of 16091610, things became so desperate that at least one man resorted to cannibalism, killing his wife and using
her as a source of food. John Smith, by this time safely in England, quipped darkly, A dish such as salted wife I have never heard of. Authorities in the
colony burned the offending husband at the stake. Another man, found guilty of stealing food, was chained in public and left to starve to death as a lesson
One English writer compared Jamestown to a slaughterhouse. If it was, then the Virginia Company continuously fed it new victims. The company
transported 10,000 settlers to the colony between 1607 and 1622, of which only 20 percent were still living by 1623. Only dreams of tobacco fortunes and
headright land grants kept the colony afloat by attracting new immigrants. (A headright was a grant of 50 acres of land given to every colonist residing in
Virginia most were given two headrights as well as to new settlers paying their way to Virginia and to wealthy landholders in Virginia who paid the way
for impoverished immigrants.)
Gradually, the population of Virginia grew healthier. The early months of a new immigrant’s stay in the colony were a time of seasoning, when the local
diseases attacked the body of the newcomer en masse. After a month or so of prostration, if he or she survived, the new Virginian acquired a level of
immunity and passed this advantage on to his or her offspring. The population of the colony was also expanding inland to healthier locales, where there
were running streams rather than stagnant swamps. By the end of the seventeenth century, the population was increasing through natural growth rather
Mortality still remained exceedingly high in the Southern colonies throughout the colonial era. This was especially the case in the lowcountry regions of
Georgia and South Carolina, where planters fled the unhealthy rice lands, with its hosts of mosquitoes, for the comforts of Charles Town in the summer
months. African slaves, who had no such escape, were hit especially hard during acclimation. One quarter typically died within their first year in America.
As a consequence of the great frequency of death, families in the Southern colonies were sundered more often than in either England or New England.
Households commonly consisted of children from two or more unions. Very few children reached adulthood with both birth parents still living. Children who
grew up facing the likelihood that they would be separated from parents by death developed a hardened worldview. Parents, realizing they might not
always be around for their offspring, encouraged children (at least male children) to develop independent, self-reliant outlooks and strong-willed,
Although undoubtedly fatalistic, white Virginians in the colonial period were less preoccupied with death than their New England cousins, who commonly
used the fear of death as an inducement to greater religious devotion and frightened their children into obedience to God with assurances of death’s
inevitability. Thoughts of death and dying and the morbid fears in which Puritans seemed to revel were noticeably absent from the correspondence and
journals of Chesapeake planters.
In a region where the Anglican Church was dominant, Southerners were less devout and more worldly, for many of their religious duties consisted of
outward conformity to a ritualistic faith. They read from the prayer book on Sunday, but during the week, they engaged in worldly pursuits such as card
playing, dancing jigs, and gambling on horse races activities the pious Puritans would condemn. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die might
have been their motto.
For the Virginia Anglican, death was inevitable, but the loss of a loved one, or indeed the prospect of dying oneself, was something to be contemplated
with stoic reserve rather than morbid brooding. Southerners mourned and grieved their loss, but, at least before the Great Awakening, they engaged in
little introspection about death and its meaning for the future of their own soul. With the coming of revivalist religion, and its emphasis on salvation and the
afterlife, Southerners, particularly the yeoman farmers who joined New Light churches, became more preoccupied with such matters.
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