Saturday, 27 December 2008

The Starving Time

The holiday season of 1609-10 was anything but a celebratory occasion in Virginia. At Jamestown, the colonists referred to the winter as the "Starving Time." According to George Percy, youngest son of the eighth Earl of Northumberland and a prominent member of the original band of Jamestown settlers, the men, women, and children resorted to eating their horses and other "beastes," then came the "doggs, Catts, ratts, and myce." Some starving colonists dug up corpses. Another man killed his pregnant wife, cut out the unborn child, and ate her. Hanged by his thumbs until he confessed, he was burned alive for the crime.

What could have caused such dire circumstances? A combination of poor planning, faction fighting, and dependence on England and the native Powhatan for supplies was largely responsible.

On 2 June 1609, nine ships sailed from England for Jamestown. In late July, a hurricane separated the Sea Venture from the rest of the fleet. The ship ran aground in Bermuda, carrying most of the colony's much needed supplies with it. The shipwrecked survivors arrived in Jamestown the following spring.

In the meantime, approximately 200 colonists were already at Jamestown and barely able to feed themselves. Suddenly, they were faced with 300 hungry newcomers. With the new Lieutenant Governor Sir Thomas Gates presumed lost at sea, factions ensued. John Smith was unwilling to relinquish his role as president, and the aristocracy thought it galling to take orders from a farmer's son.

Smith sent a number of the colonists up river to the Falls, near modern-day Richmond, to fend for themselves, as well as down river to Nansemond, before being wounded by an exploding bag of gunpowder. Severely injured, he was forced to depart for England in October 1609. Soon after, George Percy took charge and sent more colonists to Point Comfort to build a fort, leaving approximately 120 colonists at Jamestown. By May 1610, only sixty survived.

According to Percy in Trewe Relacyon "some" of the colonists robbed the stores and were executed for stealing food. "Many... weare Cutt off and slayne by the Salvages," and in what seems to be ironic under the circumstances, he goes on to state, "Many of our men [during] this starveinge Tyme did Runn away unto the Salvages whome we never heard of after."

Before Smith's departure, the relationship between the Powhatan and colonists had disintegrated, and many of those sent to the Falls and Nansemond were killed during engagements. Yet, the colonists at Point Comfort did not suffer from Powhatan attacks or starvation. So why did the colonists simply not join those who were thirty miles downriver at Point Comfort?

Many of the able-bodied men were already dead. About thirty "unruly youths" had sailed for England, and the same number of colonists were at Point Comfort. The weak, the sick, the old, the young, and the women were left in Jamestown. Many historians overlook this fact. Due to culture and circumstances of the time, women were unlikely to have had any hunting or soldiering skills. All but two would have been new to Virginia's harsh climate and way of life.

At this point in colonial history, Powhatan warriors spared women and children and adopted them into their tribes. There are no records of exactly how many women were at Jamestown, but quite likely they were a large percentage of survivors during the infamous Starving Time.

Kim Murphy


Anita Davison said...

Fascinating post Kim. With the emphasis on the 'Mayflower Daughters' it makes me woner how many descendants there are of the Powhatan and settler women they adopted and saved from starvaion.

Kim Murphy said...

I'm hoping that some of the Powhatan descendants may have some of the answers in their oral histories. In any case, it's a subject that I've used in my book.