An Icy Conquest

Sarin Image/Granger
Captain John Smith taken captive by the Powhatan Native Americans; color engraving from Captain Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia, 1624

“We are starved! We are starved!” the sixty skeletal members of the English colony of Jamestown cried out in desperation as two ships arrived with provisions in June 1610. Of the roughly 240 people who were in Jamestown at the start of the winter of 1609–1610, they were the only ones left alive. They suffered from exhaustion, starvation, and malnutrition as well as from a strange sickness that “caused all our skinns to peele off, from head to foote, as if we had beene flayed.” Zooarchaeological evidence shows that during those pitiless months of “starving time” they turned to eating dogs, cats, rats, mice, venomous snakes, and other famine foods: mushrooms, toadstools, “or what els we founde growing upon the grounde that would fill either mouth or belly.” Some of the settlers reportedly ingested excrement and chewed the leather of their boots. Recent discoveries of human skeletons confirm the revelation of the colony’s president, George Percy, that they also resorted to cannibalism: “Some adventuringe to seeke releife in the woods, dyed as they sought it, and weare eaten by others who found them dead.” When one man confessed under torture to having murdered and eaten his wife, Percy ordered his execution.

That happened a mere three years after the first adventurous group of Englishmen arrived in Jamestown. From the beginning, it was a struggle for subsistence. Most of the settlers fell ill only a few weeks after landfall in May 1607. One colonist recalled that “scarse ten amongst us coulde either goe, or well stand, such extreame weaknes and sicknes oppressed us.” The corn withered in the summer drought, and as the flow of the James River waned in the unrelenting heat, salt water encroached from the sea, depriving the settlers of their main source of fresh water. Nor was divine assistance forthcoming. The Quiyoughcohannock Indians, scarcely better off, beseeched the Englishmen to intercede and ask their powerful God for supernatural intervention. But when the colonists’ prayers seemed to bring only more suffering instead of rain to Jamestown, the natives concluded that the Christian god must be a vindictive one, and their relations with the colonists deteriorated.

By September 1607, half the colony’s members were dead. “Our men were destroyed with cruell diseases as Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers, and by warres, and some departed suddenly,” Percy later recalled, “but for the most part they died of meere famine.” The next winter months would prove equally deadly. “It got so very cold and the frost so sharp that I and many others suffered frozen feet,” another witness wrote, adding that the cold was so severe that “the river at our fort froze almost all the way across.”

Fresh groups of colonists arrived in 1608 and 1609,…

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