On this day in 1607, 104 British colonists founded Jamestown, the first continuous English settlement in North America. From the beginning, the colony was a disaster. Jamestown lay next to a malarial swamp; the colonists dumped their trash into a nearby river, causing an outbreak of dysentery and typhus; and they were, by all accounts, too lazy to put in crops for food during that first spring and summer they spent in America.

Disease and hunger took a heavy toll on Jamestown; by the end of the first year, approximately half of the colonists had died. Only the arrival of reinforcements, some 350 additional settlers, including Jamestown’s first women, prevented the endeavor from failing outright. And then the real problems began. The winter of 1609, long known as the “starving time,” left only 65 colonists alive in the spring of 1610. By 1616, more than 75% of the settlers who had arrived in Jamestown were dead. The Chamber of Commerce struggled to spin the carnage as opportunity.

Those who survived probably owed their lives to one of the colony’s earliest leaders, John Smith. Or so Smith would have readers of the memoirs and other histories he left behind believe. A gifted fabulist noted for his self-aggrandizing perspective, Smith insisted of the Jamestown colonists, “He that will not work, shall not eat.” And although he was injured in 1609 and forced to return to England, Smith’s imposition of military discipline took hold in Jamestown, likely insuring the colony’s survival.

The Virginia Company, Jamestown’s corporate sponsor (all settlers had to wear Virginia Co. patches on their home and away jerseys) eventually arrived at two conclusions that saved the colony. First, Jamestown’s settlers would have to spend at least some of their time growing food — rather than searching for precious metals. And second, the colony would have to attract more newcomers. As a result, in 1618, the Company instituted the “headright” system, awarding 50 acres of land to any colonist who paid for his own or another person’s voyage to Jamestown. In this way, wealthy colonists acquired huge parcels of property, paving the way for plantation agriculture and, just a year after that, the importation of slaves to work the land.

Beyond the warm embrace of starvation, the romance of pestilence, and the good cheer of slavery, there were some problems in Jamestown. When the British arrived, they labeled the area a “wilderness.” But approximately 20,000 people already lived in the region, Native Americans who looked for leadership to a man the colonists called Powhatan. Powhatan’s people quickly began trading with Jamestown’s settlers. Then, after John Smith — whose relationship with Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas (depicted below), is the stuff of legend — left for England, tensions escalated. By 1622, it was clear that the British intended to stay. Native people, led by Powhatan’s brother, Opechancanough, responded to this threat by attacking the colonists, killing perhaps 300 Virginians in one day. The remaining settlers counterattacked, quelling the uprising by razing whole villages and slaughtering an untold number of Indians.

The uprising of 1622 was pivotal for Jamestown. It shifted the balance of power from local Native people to the settlers. And it signaled to the Virginia Company that it would never make money on its colonial enterprise. So, in 1624, the Company handed Jamestown back to the crown, which then neglected the colony for years to come. Only the introduction of tobacco, brought from the West Indies, finally yielded a profit for the beleaguered colonists and brightened the settlement’s future.

So, there you have it: the taproot of American history. A story motivated by greed and marked by incompetence, punctuated by strained gender relations and the violent dispossession of Indians, and only salvaged because of the exploitation of the labor of people of African descent. Oh, and I forgot one thing: the roots of democracy. In 1619, again, the same year that traders began importing African slaves into the colony, Virginians established the House of Burgesses, the first elected assembly in colonial America. Ours is a nation founded on a series of such painful ironies.

[Author’s Note: For more information about Jamestown, you can go here, here, here, or, for fun, here. Also, given that last year was the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that a passel — perhaps a spate? — of books appeared on the topic. Reviews covering these volumes can be found here, here, and here. And now, below the fold, the big finish for which you’ve all been waiting.]