Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s The Jamestown Project is hard to put down. She’s a good storyteller and doesn’t waste any time getting into the story.

English colonization of North America was pretty much all private enterprise. Investors got in hoping to get rich quick like the plundering Spaniards had; they didn’t, but they did waste a lot of time pestering colonists for immediate results.

The local Indians understood the English colonists better than the colonists understood them, having sheltered numerous shipwrecks and refugees in preceding years.

Jamestown was just one of dozens of attempts, most of which failed. Partly because the company allowed lots of small investors to get in, it managed to last long enough to learn the key lessons that later colonies in New England and elsewhere followed: “widespread ownership of land, control of taxation for public obligations through a representative assembly, the institution of a normal society through the inclusion of women, and development of a product that could be marketed profitably to sustain the economy.”

One of the things that didn’t work was putting the colony under an all-powerful Commander in Chief.

Going beyond Jamestown, I’d never quite realized just how the discovery of an inhabited New World forced people to think for themselves. It showed that tradition could be plain wrong. Of course, the biggie was that the Bible doesn’t mention the New World and its inhabitants. But lesser beliefs took a whacking too, like the idea that climate had to be the same at the same latitude worldwide.