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Rolfe himself barely made it to Virginia. Almost a year before—June 1609—nine ships had left England, carrying 500 new colonists, Rolfe among them. Not far from landfall, a hurricane slammed into the expedition. Rolfe's vessel twisted so much in the waves that the caulking popped from its seams. For three straight days every man aboard, many "stripped naked as men in galleys," worked pumps and bucket chains. The voyagers were near collapse when the ship ran aground on an unpeopled island in the Bermudas. For nine months, Rolfe and the other survivors recovered on the island, catching fish, wild hogs, and sea turtles and assembling two small boats from the wreckage of their ship. They staggered into Jamestown on May 24, 1610, a year after leaving London.

Appalled by what they found and with limited supplies, Rolfe's group quickly decided to abandon Jamestown. They loaded the skeleton-like survivors into boats, intending to set off for Newfoundland, where they would beg a ride home from fishing vessels that plied the Grand Banks. As they waited for the tide to turn for their departure, they saw three ships approaching. It was yet another convoy, this one amply supplied and containing a replacement governor and 150 more colonists. The old colonists, despondent, returned to the task of figuring out how to survive.

It wasn't easy. At least 6,000 people came to Virginia from England between 1607 and 1624. More than three out of four died.

The central mystery of Jamestown is why the badly led, often starving colonists were eventually able to prevail over the bigger, better-organized forces of the Powhatan empire. In other parts of the Americas, colonizers had their way smoothed for them, so to speak, because they landed in places that already had been devastated by Eurasian illnesses like smallpox, measles, and typhoid—diseases that had not existed in the Americas. When the Pilgrims came to Massachusetts in 1620, for instance, they established Plymouth village literally on top of an Indian village that had been emptied two years before by an epidemic (apparently spread by survivors of a French vessel that shipwrecked on Cape Cod). In Virginia, despite previous contact with Europeans, the Powhatan had somehow avoided any epidemics and were going strong when the Jamestown colonists arrived. Yet by the late 17th century, the Powhatan too had lost control of their land. What happened?

One answer emerging points to what historian Alfred Crosby calls "ecological imperialism." The tassantassas replaced or degraded so much of the native ecosystem that they made it harder and harder for the Indians to survive in their native lands. As the colonists bitterly came to realize that Virginia had no gold and that the Indians weren't going to selflessly provide them with all the food they needed, they began to mold the land to their needs. Unable to adapt to this foreign landscape, they transformed it into a place they could understand. In doing so, they unleashed what would become a multilevel ecological assault on North America. Their unlikely weapons in this initial phase of the campaign: tobacco, honeybees, and domestic animals.

Most historians think it unlikely that Pocahontas saved John Smith's life. Smith was sent off to explore the headwaters of the Chickahominy River in December 1607, in a canoe with two English companions and two Indian guides. One hope was that the river might be the entrance to the long-rumored passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The expedition was intercepted by a force led by Opechancanough, Powhatan's powerful brother.

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