Alas, there was a reason no Indians lived at Jamestown: It was not a good place to live. The English were like the last people moving into a subdivision—they ended up with the least desirable property. Their chosen site was marshy, mosquito-ridden, and without fresh water. Buckets could be dipped into the James, of course, but the water was potable only part of the year. During the summer, the river falls as much as 15 feet (5 meters). No longer pushed back by a big flow of fresh water, the salty water of the estuary spreads upstream, stopping right around Jamestown. Worse, sediments and organic wastes from the head of the river get trapped at the saltwater boundary. The colonists were drinking some of the dirtiest water in the James—"full of slime and filth," complained Jamestown president George Percy.
By the end of September, nearly half of the original 104 colonists had died. Percy attributed most of the deaths to "mere famine," but he was wrong, in the view of the late historical geographer Carville Earle. The river teemed with fish in the summer—especially big, meaty Atlantic sturgeon—and the English caught and ate them. (Archaeologists at Jamestown have uncovered remains from a sturgeon as long as 14 feet [4 meters].) Instead, Earle argued, the colonists were killed by "typhoid, dysentery, and perhaps salt poisoning." All are associated with contaminated water. During winter the water would have cleared, but not in time to help the tassantassas. Many had been too sick that summer to tend the company gardens. Initially the strangers hoped to trade with the Indians for food while they spent their days hunting for gold, but the region was deep into a multiyear drought, and the Indians did not want to part with what little food they had. By January, only 38 colonists were alive—barely.
Within months, John Smith took charge of Jamestown. His wily, sometimes brutal diplomacy allowed the foreigners to extract enough food from Tsenacomoco villages to survive the next winter. This was quite a feat—with the arrival of two more convoys, the number of mouths at Jamestown had risen, even with all the deaths, to about 200. Despite his successes, Smith, a yeoman's son, managed constantly to irritate his social betters in the Virginia Company's leadership. Worse for the colony, he left for medical treatment in England in the fall of 1609. He had suffered terrible burns when a bag of gunpowder he had fastened around his waist accidentally ignited. In his absence, things deteriorated. That winter, the death toll again was high.
Although Jamestown was nearly defenseless, Powhatan didn't attack. For the first year or two of the colony's existence, he seems to have decided that the foreigners' trade goods—guns, axes, glass beads, and copper sheets, which the Indians prized much the way Europeans prized gold ingots—were worth giving up some not-very-valuable real estate. In addition, Powhatan was probably convinced that the tassantassas would die off without his assistance, suggests Helen Rountree, an emerita anthropologist at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, and the most prominent historian of Tsenacomoco. He could sit back and wait; the invasion from abroad would end itself.
Things would get ugly before Powhatan was proved wrong. By the beginning of 1610, the settlers at Jamestown were dining on "dogs, cats, rats, and mice," Percy wrote, as well as the starch for their Elizabethan ruffs, which could be cooked into a kind of porridge. With famine "ghastly and pale in every face," some colonists stirred themselves to "dig up dead corpse[s] out of graves and to eat them." One man murdered his pregnant wife and "salted her for his food." When John Rolfe arrived that spring, only about 60 people at Jamestown had survived what was called "the starving time."