Starving Time in Jamestown

The Starving Time refers to a period of forced starvation experienced by the colonists at Jamestown during the winter of 1609 to 1610. Over the course of this winter, nearly all of the colonists perished from starvation. Only 60 of the original 500 colonists survived the winter. Only the timely arrival of additional colonists and supplies enabled Jamestown to continue.

Early Plans

Upon arrival in North America, colonists at Jamestown never intended to grow and provide all of their own food. Instead, they planned to supplement their own supplies and crops with resources obtained through trade with the local Indians. When settlers first arrived, the site of the Jamestown settlement was selected based on the ability to defend the site, rather than for access to drinking water and game hunting. While the site itself provided protection for the colonists, they faced considerable difficulty in obtaining clean water and food.

Because many of the original colonists had little or no experience with farming, the settlement was reliant upon occasional supply vessels from England and trade with local Indians. However, supply ships arrived sporadically, making it difficult for the colonists to rely on them for survival. At the same time, trade with local tribes was nearly impossible due to conflicts with local tribes.

The poor relations with local Indians impacted more than just trade. Limited farming experience posed a challenge to the Jamestown colonists. They struggled for survival. When they left the palisade of the colony, they risked being kidnapped or murdered by the Powhatan Indians. Instead, the colonists found themselves boxed in their settlement for safety, severely limiting their ability to farm, hunt or trade with other local Indians.

The initial group of settlers at Jamestown suffered from lack of food, drinkable water, Indian attacks and disease. Between the time the settlement was established and the first supply ship’s arrival, the original settlers were nearly obliterated.

Supply Ships

Captain Christopher Newport arrived in January 1608 and found only 38 of the original 104 settlers had survived. The combination of poor planning, Indian attacks, and lack of survival skills had decimated the original group of colonists. During the first supply stop, Newport delivered supplies and another group of settlers. At the same time, he oversaw fortification of the colony’s defenses, expanded fortifications, and assigned armed men to guard the colony’s crops.

When Newport arrived with the second supply in October 1608, he brought additional supplies and settlers, including the first two female settlers. With the reinforcement of the settlement and the addition of more settlers, Jamestown became more stable although the colony still needed to establish commercial relations with the local Indians.

The third supply fleet consisted of nine ships, including the Sea Venture, the flagship of the Virginia Company of London. The fleet experienced severe storms on the crossing, resulting in one ship returning to London and the Sea Venture itself grounded deliberately in Bermuda to prevent sinking. The other seven ships eventually arrived in Jamestown with several hundred new settlers but few supplies. Most of the supplies were aboard the Sea Venture, which was unable to continue the voyage. Captain Samuel Argall, pilot of one of the seven ships, returned to England with word of Jamestown’s difficulties, but additional supply ships did not arrive that year or the following spring.

Commercial Relations

Between the second and third supply fleets, Captain John Smith attempted to expand contact and relations with the local tribes. While he had enjoyed limited success with some of the groups in the area, the Powhatan Indians still refused to negotiate and trade with the settlers, instead preferring to attack and attempt to drive the settlers away. With a more stable settlement, Smith decided it was time to engage the Powhatan Confederacy directly in negotiations.

Smith succeeded in establishing trade relations with the Powhatans. Chief Powhatan was not fully aware of the conditions the settlers were living in, but Smith was able to initiate trade relations with the Indians that lasted as long as Smith remained in Jamestown. Unfortunately, as the Indians and colonists began trade relations, Chief Powhatan soon learned of the weaknesses of the colony.

Following an accident with gunpowder, Smith returned to England for medical treatment. With his departure, Chief Powhatan ended the truce and ceased trade with the colonists. John Ratcliffe attempted to reestablish relations with the Indians but was instead captured and tortured to death, leaving the colony without a strong leader. Attacks on colonists continued, making it dangerous for them to hunt, farm or attempt to trade with local Indians.

Starvation

Leading into the winter of 1609 and 1610, the Jamestown colonists found themselves in dire situations. More settlers had arrived, but adequate supplies had not. Due to a drought earlier in the growing season, the colonists did not have enough crops to feed their numbers through the winter. Between the failures of the crops, the grounding of the Sea Venture, poor relations with local Indians, and the influx of additional settlers, the colony of Jamestown entered the winter poorly equipped for survival.

The Starving Time was the period of forced starvation which occurred during this particular winter, referring to the several months of severe deprivation and starvation. While historical records are scant, evidence suggests the colonists found themselves trading valuable arms and tools for minimal food supplies from the local Indians and resorted to eating horses, dogs, cats, and rats. While not fully proven, there is even evidence the surviving colonists may have consumed the flesh of the recently deceased. While struggling to avoid starvation, colonists used their homes and fortifications as firewood and conditions in Jamestown continued to deteriorate throughout the winter.

Chief Powhatan, now aware of the true conditions of the colony, was able to hurry along the decimation of the colony by preventing significant trade and keeping the colonists isolated behind their fortifications. Colonists were unable to trade with local Indians for adequate supplies or to hunt in the area for enough game.

When the survivors from the Sea Venture finally arrived in Jamestown on May 23, 1610, they found less than 100 survivors, many of whom were sick or dying. With such poor conditions, they decided to abandon Jamestown. All remaining survivors boarded the ships on June 7, 1610 and set sail down the James River.

The few remaining survivors of the Starving Time and those recently arrived from Bermuda met a newly arriving fleet before they made it out of the river. The commander of the fleet, Thomas West, forced the survivors to return to Jamestown along with new settlers, supplies and food. While this decision was not popular with the survivors, it proved to be a turning point in the long-term success of the Jamestown colony.

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