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April 25, 1998
The Tampa Tribune

Droughts May Have Killed 1st Colonists, Study Shows

The worst droughts in the Southeast in 800 years coincided with the "Lost Colony" of 1587 and mass starvations at Jamestown in the early 1600s.

By Joby Warrick
The Washington Post

Two of the most ferocious droughts of the millennium may have triggered the mass starvation at America's first English settlement at Jamestown and also sealed the fate of the 120 inhabitants of the "Lost Colony" on Roanoke Island, whose disappearance 20 years earlier remains one of the most enduring mysteries of the colonial period.

New research reported Thursday appears to confirm the existence of the back-to-back famines, shedding new light on the extraordinary hardships faced by early colonists as they struggled to gain a foothold in the New World.

"It wasn't just a drought, it was an amazing drought," said Dennis Blanton, director of the Center for Archaeological Research at the College of William and Mary, who used tree rings to reconstruct weather patterns in the tidewater region of Virginia and North Carolina dating back nearly 1,000 years.

In a case of monumentally bad timing, both the Jamestown colony and the ill-fated earlier settlement at Roanoke, off the North Carolina coast, were founded precisely as epic dry spells were parching large swaths of the Southeast, according to the report in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

Rainfall data gleaned from ancient cypress trees shows that the region's worst three-year drought in 800 years peaked in 1587, the year the 120 men, women and children of the Roanoke colony were last seen by Europeans. Sir Walter Raleigh, the founder of North America's aborted first English settlement, left his fellow colonists behind that year to sail to England for fresh supplies. His return three years later found no trace of the settlers, including young Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World. The sole, tantalizing clue about their whereabouts was a single word, "Croatoan," which was found carved into a tree near the abandoned fort.

Historians have long debated what became of the colonists, but the discovery of the previously unknown drought presents a new set of possibilities, Blanton said. Perhaps famine forced them to seek refuge with the Croatoan Indians, one of the indigenous tribes.

STUDY/Drought may have killed colonists

"We're introducing drought as a significant factor that people have to consider," he said. "We're still not in a position to explain the mystery of the famous disappearance, but we may know more about the situation that led to it."

The tree-ring data also may help explain the dire conditions at Jamestown 20 years later, when nearly half of the 350 colonists alive in June 1610 died by the end of the summer. The period from 1609 to 1610 is known historically as "the starving time," a calamity that Blanton says that appears likely to have been caused by a prolonged famine. The dry spell lasted from 1606, the year before Jamestown was founded, until 1612, and ranks as the worst seven-year drought in 770 years, the report says.

The scant historical record from the time refers to shortages of food and potable water in the colony. Jamestown's most famous resident, Capt. John Smith, wrote of local Indians refusing to share food with the struggling colonists because of concerns about their own food supply. But until now there was little direct evidence of the profoundly grim conditions facing both the colonists and the Powhatan Indians who initially aided the settlers.

"The Roanoke and Jamestown colonies have both been criticized for poor planning, poor support, and for a startling indifference to their own subsistence," wrote Blanton and co-author David Stahle, a University of Arkansas climatologist, in their report. "But tree-ring reconstruction indicates that even the best planned and supported colony would have been supremely challenged by the climactic conditions."

Scientists have only recently begun to appreciate the rich trove of environmental and climatological information contained in the bald cypress trees native to the Tidewater region. The trees are not only long-lived but they also contain an unusually sharp climate map in the fluctuating patterns of growth rings on their trunks. The record studied by Blanton and Stahle covers a period nearly 1,000 years.

The scientists found corroboration for their findings in recent meteorological data as well as circumstantial evidence in the historical record.

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