Lessons from Jamestown 1609-1610: starving in the land of plenty
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We take food and energy resources for granted in the Chesapeake watershed, worrying about pesticide residues and how expensive fish and meat have become. In spring, modern recreational boaters are fitting out their incredibly sophisticated and efficient fishing machines and grumbling about harvest restrictions or the price of gas.
But there was a time on the Chesapeake when early English colonists were unable to reap the rich potential harvest from the Bay and its watershed.
Seventeenth century English settlers were not good housekeepers, nor had the germ theory of disease been revealed. When they were done with whatever — garbage and human wastes included — out the door it went, either as far as they could throw it or into the nearest hole dug to get fill dirt.
Poor sanitation, however, has a surprising benefit: The story of the settlers’ struggle to capture unfamiliar species for food, their decline into terrible want, and the eventual emergence of societal stability and hope is logged in relict trash pits that lay within the walls of James Fort.
Discovery, or rediscovery, of the fort was made possible by an accident of history. Its ancient perimeters were long believed to have eroded into the James River over the last three centuries.
About the turn of the 20th century, Jamestown Island was acquired from two families who had farmed it for generations, to preserve the standing remains of the early colonists’ first brick church. A seawall was erected against the river in 1901.
In 1994, a team of archaeologists from the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities took another look at the site, which had been dissected with earthworks thrown up during the Civil War. They uncovered remnant post molds from the original log palisade and the semi-circular gun emplacement from one corner of the original triangular structure.
As these fascinating excavations proceeded, glimpses into the settlement’s history have been revealed, corroborating many stories recounted in first person accounts of the men who lived there in the 17th century.
APVA archeologist Eric Deetz calls the trash pit an amazing time capsule. Meanwhile, Colonial Williamsburg researchers Joann Bowen and Steve Atkins are experts on the faunal remains from that reservoir, in which layers of garbage from the colony’s fare accumulated, week upon week.
In the colony’s earliest days, the food remains were almost exclusively wild animals: squirrels, white-tailed deer and raccoon. There were muskrat, opossum and beaver, although these animals may have been captured for their pelts as well as their meat.
Deetz says there were also remains of woodpeckers, bobwhite and cormorants. The remains of the American bald eagle and other raptors, including an owl, suggests that colonists felt themselves liberated from the taboos against taking these species, which were reserved for the royal prerogative in England.
Snakes were also present, both venomous and nonvenomous varieties. The list is quite long.
From the waters of the Chesapeake came food choices surprising to us, including the bottlenose dolphin, taboo to recent generations raised on “Flipper.” The green turtle — one of five turtle species found — today a protected species with a ban on its harvest, appears to have been broiled and served on the platter of its own inverted carapace.
Fish species included sturgeon, skates, rays, herrings and garfish, the latter just one of two native freshwater predatory fish at the time of European contact. There were oyster shells, almost as a matter of course, and these shellfish would later prove to be salvation.
John Smith became president of the Jamestown Colony in the autumn of 1608 and immediately faced a host of problems that followed on the heels of previous fractious and incompetent leaders.
Historian John Lankford wrote long after the fact: “Only hard work and swift action by President Smith saved the colony from starvation and annihilation during the winter of 1608-1609.” At least it was not as hard a winter as the previous year. Smith records that: “...for 8 or 10 days of ill weather [an] other 14 days would be as summer.” We still experience these remarkable days during modern winters.
Smith’s experienced military mind moved more or less on three fronts: First, dilettante gentlemen who refused to do their share of work would not eat. Second, his men were split up in manageable groups and placed at sites along the James River where they could forage effectively and live off the land. Third, Smith advanced upriver to bargain fairly with the Indians for corn, but when they declined on the Powhatan’s orders — designed to bring the colony to its knees — he backed his offers with a force of arms.
Smith was injured seriously in a gunpowder explosion — an accident of some magnitude for the colony — and was put aboard one of the ships bound for England. His injury was such, and his agony so great, that he was not expected to survive. So Smith was neither president, nor even in Virginia, as the summer wore on.
Meanwhile, more ships from the supporting Virginia Company of London laden with supplies — and more colonists — were sent out on June 2, 1609.
The colony was to receive a new government from England. Sir Thomas Gates, aboard the flagship “Sea Venture,” which was serving as the admiral’s ship, was to become royal governor when they arrived. Because of internal politics, all three leaders of the expedition were aboard the same ship, not dispersed among other, smaller vessels in the fleet in the event of a disaster.
On July 23, they encountered an unexpected, unseasonably early “hurricano” in the Atlantic. It scattered and brutally savaged the fleet of nine ships and their precious cargo of supplies, which would be badly needed during the winter of 1609-1610 ahead.
Most of the ships survived, and weeks later limped into the Virginia capes with shattered spars and leaking hulls. The “Sea Venture” captained by Christopher Newport, with Sir George Somers [sometimes “Summers”] as admiral, and Governor-designate Gates, had been lost. Hearts sank at their presumed deaths, and consternation spread that no decisive leadership would fill the fractious vacuum left by John Smith’s return to England.
The ensuing winter was the worst imaginable for the struggling Virginia Colony. Careless trading with the native Americans had so debased the colonists’ trade beads and copper “currency” that what would formerly load a canoe with corn would now grudgingly fetch a half gallon scoopful. Winter closed down on what what would come to be known as the “starving time.”
William Simmons, doctor of divinity, wrote: “For the savages no sooner understood Smith was gone but they all revolted and did spoil and murther all they encountered. .… Now we all found [felt] the loss of Captain Smith. Yea, his greatest maligners could now curse his loss…”
Hogs were allowed to run feral in the forests so they might undergo natural increase, and the intent was to slaughter them judiciously, allowing the herd to grow. Native American hunters found them as tasty as the English did, and the two groups soon exterminated them. It was reported that the commanders and officers consumed more than their fair share of the domestic animals.
“Some small proportions sometimes we (run of mill colonists) tasted till all was devoured,” Simmons lamented.
The colonists grubbed roots and herbs; in the autumn they gathered acorns and walnuts. Those who had finer clothes from England even boiled out the starch from their lace and stiff collars. But roots, berries and laundry starch could not feed 500.
The trash pit bears eloquent, though mute testimony to their suffering and desperation. The bones of rats appear as a possible food item. There were also the remains of the colonists’ dogs. These included at least one mastiff, brought over for hunting, as well as to startle the savages.
George Percy wrote, “Now all of us at Jamestown beginning to feel the sharp prick of hunger, which no man truly describe but which he hath tasted the bitterness thereof. … All were glad to make shift with vermin, as dogs, cats, rats and mice.”
There are also the butchered remains of horses, animals greatly valued for communication among far-flung settlements.
“Yea, even the very skins of our horses — nay so great was our famine that a savage we slew and buried, the poorer sort took him up again and ate him, and so did diverse one another boiled and stewed up with roots and herbs.”
There was an accusation of one colonist killing and eating his wife, his confession extracted under torture by George Percy after “having hung by the thumbs with weights at his feet a quarter of an hour, before he would confess the same.” He was put to death for the deed which later appeared to have simply been a matter of butchering her body and dispersing the parts to hide them from discovery. Even if all accounts are disputed, the trash pit contains fragments from a human cranium, source and mode of arrival unknown.
Dr. Simmons again reported: “...of five hundred, within six months after Captain Smith’s departure there remained not past sixty men, women and children (most miserable and poor creatures).” The stories go on, and from a variety of sources.
Meanwhile, aboard the presumed lost “Sea Venture” there was also despair. All capable hands, about 140 people, were exhausted after ceaselessly pumping the storm-wracked ship. William Strachey calculated that every four hours, day and night, they freed the ship of 100 tons of water. In their final three days — despite a herculean effort that removed a total of 2,000 tons,— the best they could do was lower the water in her hold to 10 feet. They were at their wits’ end when Sir George Somers spotted land.
The “Sea Venture” was run ashore, jammed upright between two rock outcrops, within three-quarters of a mile of shore. Every man, woman and child was brought safe to the island before nightfall.
They had run upon, what one writer called, “The Bermoothawes,” a place much feared: “...because they be so terrible to all that ever touched on them, and such tempests, thunders and other fearful objects are seen and heard about them that they be commonly called ‘the Devil’s Islands’, and are feared and avoided of all sea travelers alive above any place in the world. Yet it pleased our merciful God to make even this hideous and hated place both the place of our safety and means of our deliverance.”
Strachey and fellow shipmate Sylvester Jourdain’s graphic accounts of the storm and shipwreck are widely believed to have provided William Shakespeare with his foundation for, and several incidents in, his play, “The Tempest.”
They soon developed a quite positive opinion of the Bermuda archipelago. Years before, perhaps in 1515, other explorers had cast ashore hogs, which had run wild and reproduced until there were thousands. These, when captured, provided significant foodstuffs. But as the year waned, so did the island’s vegetation and the hogs lost weight.
To the colonist’s surprise: “A kind of web-footed fowl there is, of the bigness of an .… sea mew, which all the summer we saw not, and in the darkest nights of November and December … they would come forth … and hovering in the air and over the sea, made a strange hollo and harsh howling. … These gather themselves together and breed in those islands, which are high and so far alone into the sea that the wild hogs cannot swim over (to) them.”
They called the birds cahow after their cries; today’s ornithologists know them as the Bermuda petrel, Pterodroma cahow.
Cahows were totally without land-based predators and extraordinarily vulnerable to colonists’ depredations. One could literally stand in the colony shouting and waving one’s arms and the curious, innocent cahows would come over to investigate and literally perch “upon the very arms and head of him that so cried … answering the noise themselves; by which our men would weigh them with their hand, and which weighed the heaviest they took for the best and let the others alone. And so our men would take twenty dozen in two hours of the chiefest of them…”
Strachey also wrote: “I have been at the taking of 300 in an hour, and we might have laden our boats. … In January we had a great store of their eggs, which are as great as an hen’s egg.” He goes on, stating that the resource was assumed inextinguishable, and that the entire company could be fed with them on two hours’ notice.
All the while, the ruins of the “Sea Venture” were gleaned for salvageable materials, and over the ensuing 11 months, craftsmen built two new, though smaller sailing pinnaces. The pinnaces were provisioned to support 150 persons for their voyage to Virginia, and launched May 10.
After a few dramatic misadventures, which nearly saw one pinnace wrecked and the whole venture set to ground zero again, they eventually arrived outside the Virginia Capes at what we call the Nautilus Shoal. They were excited to approach what they assumed would be their salvation at Jamestown.
“… The wind coming southwest a loom gale about eleven (a.m.) we set sail again and, having got over the bar, bore in for the Cape. This is the famous Chesapeake bay, ... Indeed it is a goodly bay and a fairer not easily to be found.”
It was May 21 when they heard the warning gun, fired from the little downriver guard fort at Point Comfort, where ill omens about the colony were first heard. They spent two more days riding the tide upriver to Jamestown in flat calm. Gates was deeply grieved at the condition of the colony, starved mostly to death, the fortification and buildings in ruins, beset from without by hostile Powhatans and from within by dissension and ineptitude.
Gates made a speech to hearten the Jamestown colonists. Although he had brought still more mouths to feed, fully anticipating plenty at the conclusion of his voyage, all would share equally the remaining provisions brought from Bermuda. Strachey wrote that there was only enough to keep them alive another 10 to 16 days. This act of sharing would, centuries later, result in the remains of Bermuda petrels being found in trash pits excavated at James’ Fort.
Despite the bravery and ingenuity of Gates and his colleagues, there was no way that, in spring, months before crops would come in, that the colony could be fed. They determined to abandon the venture, and burying their cannons inside the fort, gathered their possessions outside. It was only by force of personality that the leaders prevented the firing of the houses and even the fort itself. They boarded every ship at hand and at noon on June 9, went downriver with the tide to the Isle of Hogs and the next morning onto Mulberry Point.
A miracle occurred — at that very moment — came a longboat signaling the arrival of Lord De La Warr and his ships from England, freighted with more supplies, equipment and colonists. With what must have been a mixture of joy and foreboding, the abandoning colonists joined the new and returned to Jamestown, never to leave.
Before long, Sir George Somers headed back to Bermuda in one of the pinnaces built there, his mission being to procure hogs (and perhaps cahows) to support the troubled Virginians. He died shortly after reaching the island but the cargo that returned to Jamestown helped the colony to survive. Remains, likely of those very hogs raised on the rough grasses and berries of Bermuda, must be in the trash pits at James’ Fort, and archaeologists are looking for evidence in their teeth to confirm their “offshore” origins.
The remains of New England cod show up in the pits as well, evidence of yet another expedition sent far afield for resources.
Investigator Eric Deetz says that as the colony stood on firmer ground, the proportion of wild food sources in the trash pits dwindled and diet items reflect an increasing reliance on domestic animals for food. Jamestown began to look more like a New World farm community and less like the desperate and struggling frontier. This also reflected the increasing consumption of land, the destruction of wild places and the eventual overexploitation of the Bay’s fishery resources, problems which threaten the watershed today.
I would like to end this account by closing a loop of significance to our environmentally abusive modern society, where we see several species made extinct each and every day.
Bermuda, too, was colonized and parceled into small farms by the English. Their hunger and greed equaled ours in the United States, and by 1614, the governor was trying control the killing of the poor cahows. His attempts failed and the unfortunate species completely disappeared.
After an absence of almost 300 years, a few individuals of Pterodroma cahow returned to a rocky islet off Bermuda. The heartwarming significance of this was not lost on birders, and several individuals made it their mission to bring the cahow back from the brink.
I attempted to contact one of these laudable persons, naturalist David Wingate, soon to be retiring from Bermuda’s Government Conservation Office. He was, however, as his office staff had predicted, as “elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel”; elusive as the cahow had been for centuries! Dr. Wolfgang Sterrer, director of The Bermuda Aquarium and Natural History Museum, informed me that about 6,000-7,000 breeding pairs of Bermuda petrel return each year to their ancestral seat.
Perhaps the long-lost cahow, like the Virginia colony, has been saved. Let us do at least as well for the Chesapeake Bay.
Edward Wright Haile, 1998. “Jamestown Narratives” Roundhouse, Champlain, VA. 946 pp.
William Kelso and Kelso with Nick Luccketti and Beverly Straube 1995, 96, 97, 98, 99 “Jamestown Rediscovery” Vols. I-V
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