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The Starving Time refers to the winter period from December 1609 to April 1610 during which about 75% of the English colonists, who immigrated to Virginia, died of starvation. To put it quite bluntly, it was awful. But before we delve too deeply let's back up for just a minute and review just how the Jamestown colony came to be in the first place.
In 1606, English investors created the Virginia Company as a means of settling portions of the territory known as New Virginia. The endeavors of the group were quickly solidified when the Virginia Company was awarded a charter by King James I to establish a colony within the Chesapeake region. The English sent three ships which landed in what became known as Jamestown, Virginia in the spring of 1607. The location was chosen mainly for defensive purposes as there was a constant fear of invasion from both Native Americans and the rival Spanish. Unfortunately, the area offered little in the way of game or drinking water due to the vast salt deposits.
When colonists arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, in April 1607, they didn't plan on growing all of their own food. Instead, they thought they would rely on trade with the local Native Americans' Powhatan Confederacy (30 local Native American Tribes) while waiting on supply ships from England. Unfortunately, a fleet from England did not arrive until January 1608, months behind schedule, with new colonists and no food supplies.
Now when the colony was established by the Virginia Company, the idea was that food was supposed to come from two places: periodic supply ships and trade with the local Native Americans. However, there were three issues which contributed considerably to the scarcity of food. First, there was a significant lag time in between supply ships.
In January 1608, the first supply ship returned to Jamestown from England. In addition to supplies, the ship carried about 100 new settlers. The ship arrived to find that only 38 of the Jamestown settlers had survived. Christopher Newport, who captained the ship, reinforced the settlement's shelters and strengthened its defenses. Newport once again left Jamestown and didn't return with another supply ship until October. It is extremely important to remember that the average travel time by sea was roughly 6 to 8 weeks. Although the Virginia Company attempted to reinforce Jamestown with regularity, the travel time proved to be an enemy to the colonists in Virginia.
Second, those who sailed to Virginia came from one of two backgrounds: the gentlemen or the vagrant class. Those within the gentlemen class were skilled in a specialized trade, and generally refused to participate in farming because it was beneath them. Meanwhile, English vagrants simply did not understand how to farm; rather, they relied on begging or stealing to survive. Finally, conflict arose between the settlers and the Native Americans. The complications between the two groups was sparked by the colonists' abuse of trade agreements and theft of food from the natives. As a result, the local tribes targeted colonists using guerrilla warfare.
Captain John Smith was a leader of the Jamestown settlement from 1608 to 1609, and found some success in trading with nearby Native Americans. He gained knowledge of tribes in the surrounding area and even managed to broker trade deals with some of the Powhatan's enemies. Other tribes who were friendly with the Powhatan were less receptive.
John Smith also forced the colonists to either farm, or learn how to farm. Instead of allowing the gentlemen class to lounge throughout the day, Smith ordered men into the field for a 4 to 6 hour shift. For as much as he helped the colony survive in its infancy, Smith became a social pariah for his aggressive attitude. In August 1609, Captain John Smith was injured in a gunpowder accident and had to return to England for medical treatment. The colonists petitioned that he not return to Jamestown after he healed.
During the winter of 1609-1610, Jamestown was still going through a rough patch. Diminished trade with the Native Americans, the lack of available supplies, the delay in shipping and the refusal of the colonists to farm resulted in a very low amount of available food. Additionally, a supply ship captained by Smith's replacement, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Gates, and carrying hundreds of new English colonists as well as supplies was in an accident around Bermuda. In 1609, when winter set in, some of the colonists resorted to cannibalism, although this was a rare occurrence, not to mention punishable by death, while others ate horses, dogs, rats, and even snakes. It became so dire that they even resorted to eating leather boots and tree bark.
In June 1610, the weary inhabitants of Jamestown planned to abandon the struggling colony. When Gates reached Jamestown, he found the grim scene of a desperate people. The colonists boarded his ship and began to sail down the James River, but they were quickly intercepted by three English vessels captained by Thomas West, carrying roughly 300 new colonists. Encouraged, the surviving inhabitants returned to Jamestown.
While the colony continued to endure food shortages, disease and conflict with the local Native Americans, it miraculously managed to survive (statistically, only 2,000 of the 10,000 total inhabitants survived through 1622). The recovery of Jamestown can be largely attributed to stronger leadership and the mass production of tobacco; an extremely important cash crop during the period, but one that led to internal strife during the later part of the century.
In this lesson we learned about a time in American history, referred to as The Starving Time, the winter period from December 1609 - April 1610 during which about 75% of the English colonists who had immigrated to Virginia died of starvation. Three systematic problems emerged almost immediately after the founding of the Jamestown colony that significantly contributed to a lack of food: a significant lag time in between supply ships; a population of gentleman and vagrants who were unskilled in farming, resistant to learning to farm, or both; and conflict with local Native American tribes.
Although Captain John Smith made progress both in relations with local tribes and enforcing colonists to work the land, he was unpopular during his time of leadership at Jamestown and returned to England in 1609. Circumstances were so dire during The Starving Time that those colonists that did survive the winter did so by eating domestic animals, rodents, snakes, and, for some, even each other.
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Back To CourseAP US History: Tutoring Solution
29 chapters | 360 lessons