The Manuscript: Starving Times in Jamestown

…so great was our famine, that a Savage we slew, and buried, the poorer sort took him up againe and eat him, and so did divers one another boyled and stewed with roots and herbs.
John Smith

The Native Americans of coastal Virginia did not know what to expect when they saw the soon-to-be colonial british ships approaching their native land. The seventh century immigrants who eventually became the first british colonist in the United States had already been through their own trials and tribulations and were anxious to settle on new soil. This essay is an analysis John Smith’s document The Starving Time, a document which is a first hand account of events that transpired during the initial years of the british colonization of Jamestown, Virginia. The british colonization of what was later to be known as Jamestown, Virginia, and the impact the colonization had on the natives in that area later shaped the history of the United States relations with native tribes, as well as the economy of future colonies.

The Jamestown settlers later learned that their expectations upon their arrival to their destination were grossly overstated. The british adventurers expected to be rewarded with riches such as gold, expansive trading opportunities with the Native Americans, and a promising water route to China. Instead, they arrived to find a brackish supply water, bloodshed and kidnappings between the Native Americans and settlers, and disease. In 1609, only 60 settlers survived from the more than 900 settlers who arrived in Jamestown in 1607. Disease like dysentery and starvation were major causes of most of the deaths during that two year span. Because of this crisis, John Smith and his settlers were forced to trade with the Native Americans in the region because there was little manpower to work farms. Though they traded with the natives, the settlers viewed the natives as “savages.” John Smith documented in The Starving Time that when Captain Smith (the leader of the Jamestown settlement) returned to England, the “savages” began to murder and pillage all they could get their hands on. John Smith went on to explain how the leaders in Jamestown and Native Americans consumed all of the better items of food before any of the other settlers could, leaving the majority of colonists starving and extremely impoverished. On top of having to survive on a very scarce food supply, the settlers also had many of their everyday tools traded to the natives. This is evidenced by John Smith exclaiming that, “swords, armes, pieces, or anything, we traded with the Savages, whose cruel fingers were so oft imbrewed in our bloods”.

John Smith begins his document by saying the the country of Virginia is “so fair ”, but later in the document his outlook on the land seems to change. The diseases that the settlers faced, along with salinated water and famine seemed to shift the initial optimism they had about the land of Virginia. The famine was caused by a seven year drought that proved to be the worst drought in eight centuries. The initial optimism was in part spurned by the British empire who offered free land in the colonies after seven years of labor. That promise of land to those in the established British empire was a favorable offer that motivated many settlers to take the trip halfway across the world.

John Smith seems to use the desperation of the settlers justify cruel actions that took place in Jamestown.  There were wars between the initial settlers and the natives of the region. The constant fear of kidnappings and ambushes helped shape the view the settlers had of the Native Americans in the area. Even still, the cannibalization of dead natives was due to nothing more than supreme desperation. John smith recounts a story of a Native American being killed, buried and then exhumed to be consumed:

...so great was our famine, that a Savage we slew, and buried, the poorer sort took him up againe and eat him, and so did divers one another boyled and stewed with roots and herbs.

The atrocity of cannibalism was not only restricted to settlers eating natives. Settlers also turned on themselves and John Smith mentions an instance of a man killing his wife and eating her; an act that he was later executed for.

The settlers of Jamestown were expecting to find free land and promise, but were instead met with death and hardship. John Smith’s document The Starving Time shed light on an era of time in which desperation overrode common sense. The first-hand documentation of the atrocities in Jamestown shows that the settlers were not favorable toward the natives, the settlers view of the reality of virginia land was different than the promises, and that the actions of the settlers were due to extreme levels of desperation.

Nash, G., & Et. al. (2010). American People Brief (Vol. 1). Prentice Hall.

Smith, J. (1624). The Starving Time. Retrieved July 27, 2015.