By Rebecca Shaw
The winter of 1609-1610 was one that the colonists of Jamestown, Virginia hoped would be lost to history. After first being colonized only a couple years prior in 1607, the settlers were still getting used to their new home and how the woods of Virginia worked. Between dealing with the natives and learning how to work the land, life in Virginia was a struggle.
The first two years were peaceful between the colonists and the natives. The Native Americans of the Powhatan nation even assisted the colonists in learning the ways of their lands. However, when the land started experiencing a drought (which would later be known as the Seven Year Drought) it soon became Powhatan versus colonists. The natives killed two thirds of the colonists during the fighting and enforced a law that any colonist found outside of Jamestown would be killed on sight.
Between the murders by the natives and the fire that wiped out their supplies a year prior, the colonists’ numbers dwindled from five hundred to sixty. When the Virginia Company heard the news, they decided to send a fleet of new colonists and food to save the settlement. Tragically, the fleet was damaged in a hurricane, and only three hundred colonists arrived, with little supplies left.
With winter settling and their leader, John Smith, sent back to England due to injuries, the future of the settlers began to look grim. George Percy took over for Smith, but even he could not prevent the horrors that would be committed in order to survive the winter of 1609.
Food was scarce in the fort and livestock could not graze outside the walls of the settlement without fear of being slaughtered by the natives. The people of Jamestown were confined to their small village and had to survive on whatever they could find inside its walls. Soon after the livestock and their supplies were diminished the people turned to other sources. They ate their horses, their dogs and cats, even their leather shoes. On top of starvation, typhoid and dysentery were on the rise. That is when people became desperate and the atrocities were committed.
In order to avoid starvation, people began digging up the corpses of those who had died and ate whatever meat they could scrape off their bones. Cannibalism became a way to survive. Rumors spread that some even killed their family members rather than starve, though none of these cases can be confirmed.
By May of 1610, a ship from the fleet sent by the Virginia Company arrived in Jamestown finding only about sixty settlers still alive. Thomas Gates announced they would abandon the settlement before more lives were lost. However, before they could depart, a new governor arrived and insisted they stay and rebuild. Eventually, Jamestown became a successful and famous settlement in the new world, but the events of that winter, later known as “the starving time” would haunt the survivors for the rest of their lives.
“Historicjamestown.org.” Jamestown Rediscovery, 2018, historicjamestown.org/.