Jamestown is known for inaugurating the great American struggles over democracy (the colony established English America's first representative government) and slavery (it was the first English colony to use captured Africans). Rolfe's worms, as one might call them, point to another part of its history. The colonists did not come to the Americas alone. Instead they were accompanied by a great parade of insects, plants, mammals, and microorganisms. Some of the effects were almost invisible; others were enormous. Together with the newcomers' different ways of managing the land, these creatures literally changed the ground beneath the Indians' feet. Setting up camp on marshy Jamestown peninsula, the colonists were taking the first steps toward creating the American landscape we know today.
Two hundred and fifty million years ago the world contained a single landmass known to scientists as Pangaea. Geologic forces broke this vast expanse into pieces, sundering Eurasia and the Americas. Over time the two halves of the world developed wildly different suites of plants and animals. Columbus's signal accomplishment was, in the phrase of historian Alfred Crosby, to reknit the torn seams of Pangaea. After 1492, the world's ecosystems collided and mixed as European vessels carried thousands of species to new homes across the oceans. The Columbian exchange, as Crosby called it, is why there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chocolates in Switzerland, and hot peppers in Thailand. It is arguably the most important event in the history of life since the death of the dinosaurs.
For English America, Jamestown was the opening salvo in the Columbian exchange. In biological terms, it marked the point when before turns into after. And it began 400 years ago this month, on May 14, 1607, when 104 colonists disembarked on Jamestown peninsula, on the southern fringe of Chesapeake Bay.
Much of what we learned in grade school about the New World encountered by the colonists at Jamestown turns out to be wrong. In movies and textbooks the colonists are often depicted as arriving in a pristine forest of ancient trees, small bands of Indians gliding, silent as ghosts, beneath the canopy. But the idea that the English were "settlers" of land that was unsettled before they arrived is complete nonsense. In fact, three English ships landed in the middle of a small but rapidly expanding Indian empire called Tsenacomoco.
Three decades before, Tsenacomoco had been a collection of six separate chiefdoms. By the time the foreigners came from overseas, its paramount chief, Powhatan, had tripled its size to about 8,000 square miles (21,000 square kilometers) and more than 14,000 people. Wary, politically shrewd, ruthless when needed, Powhatan was probably in his 60s when the English landed—a "goodly old man, not yet shrinking" with age, according to colonist Strachey, "well beaten with many cold and stormy winters," but still "of a tall stature and clean limbs." His sphere of influence stretched from the Potomac to Cape Henry.