After arriving at Jamestown in the spring of 1607, the 104 original English colonists were amazed by the country’s natural abundance. Mussels and oysters “lay on the ground as thicke as stones,” George Percy wrote in an account published in 1625; “wee opened some, and found in many of them Pearles.” Yet survival in Virginia proved to be difficult. The Indians of Tsenacomoco—a paramount chiefdom of twenty-eight to thirty-two Algonquian-speaking groups in the Tidewater—alternately, sometimes simultaneously, wooed and pressured the colonists. In May, one group of Indians feasted English leaders near the falls of the James River while another attacked their settlement at Jamestown, killing two. Three months later, in August, the first of many summertime sicknesses set in, killing more than half of the colonists. By the end of the year, only about forty survived. Reinforcements helped offset the toll again taken by the so-called summer seasoning, so that by mid-December 1608 Jamestown’s population stood at about 200.
Percy wrote that he and his fellow colonists succumbed to the bloody flux (probably diarrhea), burning fevers, and swellings, in addition to wounds they received at the hands of the Indians. “For the most part,” however, “they died of meere famine.” He went on to lament that “There were never Englishmen left in a forreigne Countrey in such miserie as wee were in this new discovered Virginia.” He described his men as “feeble wretches”: “Our food was but a small Can of Barlie sod in water to five men a day, our drinke cold water taken out of the River which was at a floud verie salt, at a low tide full of slime and filth, which was the destruction of many of our men.” The colonist Ralph Hamor later blamed “misgovernment, idlenesse, and faction” for these early deaths, suggesting that “people were fedde out of the common store and labored jointly in the manuring of the ground, and planting corne.” As a result, “glad was that man that could slippe from his labor,” for he knew that he would be maintained by the communal food supply.
At the same time, Virginia was mired in a terrible drought. Tree-ring studies conducted by scientists from the University of Arkansas, who examined a bald cypress near Jamestown, discovered that the colonists arrived at the beginning of a seven-year drought (1606–1612), the driest period in 770 years. Moreover, conditions were particularly severe near Jamestown, an ecological zone (oligohaline) where the exchange between fresh and salt water is minimal. While the drought made conditions particularly unfavorable, the colonists—mostly military men and skilled laborers—showed no inclination or ability to hunt, fish, or farm, instead relying on overseas shipments or food that they could bargain, or often outright steal, from the Indians. But the residents of Tsenacomoco were feeling the drought no less than the English, and could scarcely afford these unexpected demands on their food supply.
With the coming of winter in 1608 and with Captain John Smith now president, the Indians largely refused to trade. In January, Tsenacomoco’s paramount chief, Powhatan, even attempted to have Smith killed. Meanwhile, the colonists battled, in Smith’s words, “the extremitie of sickness, mutinies, faction, ignorances, and want of victuall.” And yet during that winter, Smith “lost but 7 or 8 men.”
That they stayed alive for Smith only to die in such droves the next winter under his successor, George Percy, has led historians to wonder what changed. One of Smith’s apparent insights was that work was necessary and self-sustaining. “He that will not worke shall not eate,” he told the colonists, adding that “the labours of thirtie or fortie honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintaine a hundred and fiftie idle loyterers.” Like Hamor (and other colonist-observers), Smith worried about idleness, a condition some historians have likened to laziness, suggesting that too many of the early colonists were gentlemen and so unaccustomed to labor. Many historians now disagree. Karen Ordahl Kupperman, for instance, has countered that men suffering from malnutrition “exhibit symptoms in their early phases which appear to be purely psychological, such as loss of appetite (anorexia) and indifference.” In other words, weakness and fatigue may have looked like laziness but were in reality illness. Regardless of whether Smith recognized this fact, he found that even small amounts of work improved both the material life and health of the colonists.
First Anglo-Powhatan War
The political and military situation changed drastically during 1609, however. After more than a quarter of the colonists died of sickness during the summer, another resupply raised the population to nearly 400. (The ships’ famished passengers promptly devoured a field of corn intended to feed the colonists throughout the winter.) The resupply also brought with it news of a second charter for the Jamestown colony. In pursuit of a more aggressive policy against the Indians of Tsenacomoco, the Virginia Company of London instituted a new, more centralized government that would no longer be led by Smith but by some of his loudest critics. Although much of the new leadership (apparently) had been lost at sea on the resupply’s flagship Sea Venture, he was still weakened politically.
In an effort to ease conditions at Jamestown and possibly to distance himself from his critics, Smith sent two parties of men to live off the Indians. One group, under Francis West, traveled to the falls of the James River; another, under George Percy and John Martin, went south and attempted to meet with the Nansemond Indians. Both missions failed badly, with each group losing about half its men in fighting. When Smith sent reinforcements south, they found piles of English corpses, their mouths stuffed with bread “in Contempte and skorne,” according to Percy. The Powhatans understood that without food, the English could not continue in Tsenacomoco, and the Indians controlled the food. Meanwhile, Smith himself traveled north. On his way back to Jamestown, a gunpowder explosion injured him and forced his return to England.
These confrontations on the James marked the beginning of the First Anglo-Powhatan War. In November 1609, another party of Englishmen was ambushed and its leader, John Ratcliffe, tortured to death. Next, while trading with the Patawomecks, Francis West beheaded two warriors; a rebellion on his ship the Swallow ended with West and his men sailing to England. The remaining 240 settlers retreated to Jamestown, not counting 30, under Captain James Davis, who remained at Fort Algernon near the mouth of the James. At this point, in November 1609, Powhatan ordered a siege of Jamestown, a move that initiated, finally, the period known as the Starving Time.
The Powhatans did not need to risk casualties by directly attacking the colonists; instead, they used famine as a weapon. From November until May, they prevented settlers from leaving the fort to hunt, fish, bargain for, or steal food. The Indians also quickly slaughtered the colonists’ hogs, which, in an attempt to be more sanitary, they had penned on an island a short distance down the James. As the winter wore on, the trapped English men and women died of malnutrition caused by hunger, contaminated water, and generally unclean conditions. “A worlde of miseries ensewed,” Percy wrote. Forced to break taboo and eat horses, they were “gladd” to shift to “doggs Catts Ratts and myce” and even “Bootes shoes or any other leather some Colde come by.” When some robbed the company store, Percy ordered the offenders executed. As more and more colonists died, Percy wrote how those left living “Looked Lyke Anotamies [skeletons] Cryeinge owtt we are starved We are starved.” A man named Hugh Pryse shouted “openly into the markett place” that if there were a god, he would not tolerate such suffering. As Percy noted, however, “the Almighty was displeased with him,” for that afternoon, Pryse and a “corpulentt” butcher fled the fort only to be killed by Indians.
Multiple accounts of the Starving Time allege that the colonists resorted to cannibalism. Percy reported that some people exhumed and ate the dead, while others “Licked upp the Bloode w[hi]ch hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.” Even worse, one man “murdered his wyfe Ripped the childe outt of her woambe and threw itt into the River and after chopped the Mother in pieces and salted her for his foode.” Only partway through his meal when discovered, he was tortured into a confession and then burned for his “crewell and inhumane” act. A General Assembly report, produced in 1624 by the remaining Ancient Planters (settlers who came to Virginia before Sir Thomas Dale‘s departure in 1616, remained for a period of three years, and received the first land grants), echoed that description, adding that the man “fedd uppon her [his wife] till he had clean devoured all partes saveinge her head.” John Smith’s Generall Historie offered up a bit of black humor: “now whether shee was better roasted, boyled or carbonado’d [barbecued], I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of.” Sir Thomas Gates, however, seemed skeptical, charging that the culprit “mortally hated his Wife, and therefore secretly killed her.” The cannibalism was merely the story he told when caught; upon being searched, his house yielded “a good quantitie of Meale.”
Archaeological investigations of Jamestown have confirmed much of what Percy wrote. Artifact assemblages dating to about 1610 suggest the consumption of snakes, vipers, rats, mice, musk turtles, cats, dogs, and perhaps even raptors. Heavily butchered horses account for more than 12 percent of the total recovered biomass, while recovered cattle bones (14 percent) are missing heads and feet, suggesting that beef, not cattle, was shipped from England. (Historians have long assumed that livestock was part of the cargo of various resupply missions prior to 1611.) In 2013, archaeologists from Preservation Virginia and the Smithsonian Institution announced that they had found a skull and portions of a skeleton at Jamestown that bore evidence of cannibalism. They suspect that a fourteen-year-old English girl whom they dubbed Jane had been consumed after her death. The archaeologist William M. Kelso has written that the find, in combination with the historical record, provides “incontrovertible evidence” of cannibalism at Jamestown.
Other scholars have called for caution. The historian Rachel B. Herrmann has argued that no primary sources have cited the cannibalization of this particular girl. At the same time, the authors of the cannibalism tales all had motives to tell the stories they did. John Smith emphasized the misery of the Starving Time in order to contrast it with his time as president, when there was an abundance of food. Percy may have offered an exaggerated version of events in order to suggest that there was little he could have done to prevent the famine or its consequences. For their part, the authors of the General Assembly report were lobbying for authority in Virginia to be transferred from the company to the Crown. In the end, Herrmann writes, reasonable arguments can be made for and against cannibalism having occurred. “Without new evidence historians can get no closer to knowing exactly what happened.”
In May 1610, Powhatan’s Indians lifted the siege so that they could begin their spring planting. This allowed Percy to visit Captain Davis at Fort Algernon. There he found the outpost, which lost none of its thirty men over the winter, to be so well supplied that hogs were fed leftover crab meat. Upset that Davis’s men had “concealed their plenty from us,” Percy suggested that what at Algernon had been fit merely for hogs, at Jamestown “wold have bene a greate relefe unto us and saved many of our Lyves.” Finally, on May 24, the survivors of the Sea Venture wreck, having been marooned for the last year in Bermuda, miraculously appeared. What they found horrified them. At Jamestown, only 60 men and women, out of 240, remained alive.
Sir Thomas Gates soon decided to abandon the colony and had to restrain the weary colonists from burning their settlement to the ground. But while sailing down the James, they encountered a ship bearing the new governor, Thomas West, baron De La Warr, and a year’s worth of supplies. That evening the colonists returned, many of them unhappily, to Jamestown and to a new, stricter regime. The Starving Time, it seems, was being blamed on that old bugaboo idleness. William Strachey, who arrived with Gates and soon became the colony’s new secretary, offered one “incredible example”: Gates, he wrote, “hath seene some of them eat their fish raw, rather then they would goe a stones cast to fetch wood to dresse it.” Having castigated the lost crew of the Swallow (“Unto idlenesse you may joyne Treasons”), Strachey summarized the dysfunctions that precipitated a famine:
Cast up the reckoning together: want of government, store of idleness, their expectations frustrated by Traytos, their market spoyled by the Mariners, our Nets broken the Deere chased, our Boats lost, our Hogs killed, our trade with the Indians forbidden, some of our men fled, some murthered, and most by drinking of the brackish water of James Fort weakened and indangered, famine and sicknesse by all these meanes increased …
In the end, better discipline did help to save the colony, along with increased immigration, success in the wars against the Powhatans, and, with the cultivation of tobacco, a more stable economy. Regardless, the Starving Time, and its attendant tales of cannibalism, proved a turning point. “They enabled colonists to shift from envisioning the New World as a place of boundless abundance to one of more realistic and measured possibility,” Herrmann writes. “The Starving Time functioned as a fortunate fall that allowed leaders to reassert control over unruly settlers and to impose laws controlling food production, dissemination, and consumption.” In the meantime, what likely killed 75 percent of those at Jamestown was not idleness. Karen Ordahl Kupperman cites malnutrition that led to diseases such as pellagra, beriberi, scurvy, malaria, and dysentery, all of which “interacted with the psychological effects of isolation and despair and each intensified the other.” What appeared to be idleness was instead the extreme effects of that “sharpe pricke of hunger” that may or may not have led a man to devour his wife but that surely almost destroyed the Virginia colony.