The Starving Time in Jamestown: Definition & John Smith's Role

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  • 0:00 The Starving Time
  • 1:37 Systematic Problems in…
  • 3:15 The Role of John Smith
  • 4:09 The Winter of 1609-1610
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Brian Muhammad
What is your favorite food or dish? Imagine that you can no longer have your favorite dish because of a food shortage! Learn more about the Starving Time in Jamestown, the role of John Smith, and test your knowledge with a quiz.

The Starving Time

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.

Systematic Problems in Food Supply

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.

Early Jamestown Settlement

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.

The Role of John Smith

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.

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