Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Colonial Dry Spell Volume 51 Number 5, September/October 1998
by Richard A. Grossman

Tree-ring data suggest that a prolonged drought during the early colonial period in Virginia may have caused the collapse of the so-called Lost Colony of Roanoke and the near failure of the Jamestown settlement. Studying the rings of bald cypress trees (Taxodium distichum), a team of scientists led by David W. Stahle of the University of Arkansas has analyzed the severity of droughts in Virginia and North Carolina for the past 800 years. Stahle describes the trees as "natural archives of environmental variability," which show that the periods during which the infant colonies at Roanoke and Jamestown suffered most gravely coincided with the driest spells that part of the continent had experienced in nearly a millennium.

Stahle says the shortage of water during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries must have affected the Roanoke and Jamestown settlers. Severe drought would have prevented the colonists from producing enough food to sustain themselves. Trade with native peoples would also have been futile, as drought would have devastated their food supplies as well. Lack of fresh water around the island colonies would also have contributed to malnutrition, which was a leading cause of death. The settlement at Roanoke collapsed in the late 1580s, at the height of the drought. Jamestown Colony, founded in 1607, at the beginning of the driest seven-year period in some 800 years, was almost abandoned.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America