Hardships Faced by the First Germans
by Gary C. Grassl, President The German Heritage Society of Greater Washington, D.C.
The story of the Jamestown Colony's
first years is one of incredible hardships, failures, dissension, and premature death. It seems almost a miracle today that the settlement survived. The pioneer Germans were caught up in the same dire straits as their
English companions, and they shared a similar fate. The settlers, few of whom were farmers or fishermen, were constantly short of food. Instead of first becoming self sufficient, the settlers were forced to spend time
and energy in searching for precious metals or in producing products that might turn a profit for the parent Company in London.
The English traded copper and casting counters, among other things, for
Indian corn. The copper, which the natives valued highly, came from the German-run and staffed Society of the Mines Royal headquartered in Keswick, England; it held the monopoly on the production of this metal in
England. The brass-like castings counters or Rechenpfennig, many of which are still being found around Jamestown by archaeologists, bear their maker's names, such as Hans Laufer, Hans Krauwinkel and Hans Schultes zu
Nürnberg; some bear such German inscriptions as Gotes Reich Bleibt Ewick (God's Kingdom Endures Forever).
The natives were accustomed to growing just enough corn to meet their annual needs; therefore, they
had little surplus. When they refused to trade any more corn with the settlers, Smith forced them to hand over their supplies or see their villages burned.
In December 1608, Powhatan, the chief of the
neighboring tribes, promised to provide Smith with corn if he would send him guns, swords, and an English coach in addition to building him a European-style house. At this point, Smith decided to send the German house
builders to Powhatan.