In earlier posts there have been references to “The Starving Time.” Here is the story.
In grade school in Virginia in the 1950s we learned about John Smith, Powhatan and Pocahontas. We did not learn about Jane.
It was not, however, an oversight on the part of the school or the curriculum—Jane had not yet been discovered. But before I get to the story of Jane, here is some background.
There were no women among the first Jamestown colonists in 1607. Jamestown was a military settlement built to explore for saleable commodities and to establish England’s claim in the New World. A few women would follow on subsequent supply missions.
Then, a number of women were recorded arriving in the colony in August 1609. They left England as part of the biggest supply fleet ever sent the colony: nine vessels in all, bringing a new deputy governor and hundreds more settlers. This is the fleet that nearly foundered in a hurricane with at least one ship wrecked on Bermuda (See “Jamestown Part 2”). Of the several ships that arrived, the Blessing, carried “twenty women and children” among its passengers.
There were tensions between the Powhatan Indians and the Settlers from the time the Settlers first landed at Jamestowne. John Smith, however, was able to form a personal alliance with Chief Powhatan that allowed the Settlers to move about outside Fort James to hunt, grow food crops, tend livestock, and prospect for valuable minerals and gold.
This unsteady truce between colonists and the Indians changed as soon as John Smith left Virginia in 1609. He returned to England for treatment of an injury. Tensions almost immediately escalated into full-scale war. The colonists had established outposts or garrisons inland from Jamestowne. These posts were attacked and wiped out. One settler wrote of the Indians, they “all revolted, and did murder and spoile all they could incounter.” This forced the remaining settlers to take refuge inside the now crowded confines of James Fort.
The settlers were already short of food due a drought in the region, and the Indians believed this would be their best opportunity to drive the English settlers out of the area.
The Siege of James Fort
Powhatan’s Indians set siege to James Fort. The killed any settlers who ventured out to hunt and killed what livestock was roaming the nearby woods. The rapidly dwindling supplies and unsanitary, overcrowded conditions in the fort soon caused starvation and the spread of disease. The winter of 1609-1610 would become known as the “starving time” at Jamestown, and would be a true test of each individual’s endurance and will to live. The crisis deepened as the winter grew colder.
Desperate for food, the colony sent fifty men, under the leadership of John Ratcliffe, to essentially force Powhatan to trade for corn. Thirty-four of the group, including Ratcliffe, did not return. The remaining sixteen men escaped and returned empty-handed. Governor George Percy then sent 36 men in a small ship to trade with the Indians of the Potomac River. They were able to obtain provisions of corn, but hearing of the disease and death in Fort James, they decided to set sail for England, using the supplies for their trip.
A Grim Episode in Early American History
When faced with absolute starvation, humans will do whatever is necessary to survive, including cannibalism. The consumption of human flesh at Jamestown was neither a ritual nor medicinal. It was for survival. Prior to the excavations conducted by the Jamestown Rediscovery group, the cannibalism in the settlement was suggested only from written accounts.
Sixteen years later, in 1625, Governor George Percy wrote a letter describing the colonists’ diet during that terrible winter. “Haveinge fedd upon our horses and other beastes as longe as they Lasted, we weare gladd to make shifte with vermin as doggs Catts, Ratts and myce…as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather,” he wrote. “And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to do those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them.”
Even after nearly a century of archeological excavations, there was no physical evidence of cannibalism—until Jane.
On May 1, 2013, Dr. Bill Kelso, chief archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project issued the following announcement: “Our team has discovered partial human remains before, but the visible damage to the skull and marks on the bones and the location of the discovery immediately made us realize this finding was unusual. We approached the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History for further research because of their proven understanding of the contextual history in this part of Virginia.”
During the announcement, Dr. Douglas Owsley, Division Head of Physical Anthropology at the museum, identified “chops to the forehead and back of the cranium; knife cuts on the jaw and cheek indicating removal of the flesh; and markings indicating the head’s left side was punctured and pried apart: all physical evidence consistent with survival cannibalism.”
Detail of cut marks found on the girl’s jaw similar to cut marks found on her cranium. (Smithsonian Institution/Don Hurlbert)
Based on anatomical forensic evidence of skeletal remains, the body was that of a female, about 14 years old. Radiological isotope testing indicated she had consumed a European diet of wheat and meat. Given the archaeological context of where Jane’s remains were found in James Fort, she was likely one of the women who arrived in August, 1609. The research team named her “Jane.” (It should be noted that ships’ manifests were sketchy at best, simply stating the numbers of women and children, without listing individual names. Jane was likely among these).
Another piece of evidence as to Jane’s fate was that her remains were found in a cellar rather than a grave. According to information from the discovery, “The L-shaped cellar was 40 feet from the existing brick church tower. The cellar was about 2 1/2 feet below the present ground surface and was probably built in 1608 and later backfilled. The objects in the cellar’s backfill dirt indicated it was probably covered over as part of a general cleanup.”
Because her name was not on the ships manifest, little is known about Jane’s life before Jamestowne. It is believed she left Plymouth, England in June 1609 and arrived in August 1609. Before that winter was over, she was dead. Whether she was killed or died before the cannibalism is unknown. There were other written accounts of persons being killed and cannibalized. While these reports are not in doubt, no physical evidence has been found to confirm these reports.
Learning more about Jane’s Story
To interpret what is known about Jane’s Story, the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium museum at Historic Jamestowne has set aside a special room in which there is compelling forensic research on the remains of Jane displayed alongside similar examinations of a young man’s death from a musket ball wound. Here, visitors come face-to-face with the human stories from the beginnings of America. Along with Jane’s facial reconstruction, artifacts from the “starving time” period will provide context to understand this critical period in Jamestown’s history.
The Archaearium is a museum dedicated to preserving and interpreting that artifacts found in Jamestowne excavations.
In addition to starvation, the colonists still had to contend with the Powhatan Indians. It was important that the Indians not know how weak and ill prepared the settlers were to defend themselves. As individuals died, they were buried and their deaths concealed in unmarked graves so that Indians would not be able to estimate the number settlers and the strength of the colony.
The unmarked graves soon became unknown to the colonists who survived that winter, and new structures were often built over the graves. Touring the grounds of Fort James, there are many simple crosses that mark these forgotten graves; many discovered under later buildings.
During the siege of the “Starving Time,” corpses were buried in unmarked graves to prevent the Indians from knowing how many had died. Subsequently, new building were erected over these graves.
Jamestown is Saved
On June 7, 1610 the survivors decided to abandon Jamestowne and set sail for England. They were met near the mouth of the James River by a supply convoy with new supplies and headed by a newly appointed governor, Thomas West, Baron De La Warr. West ordered them to return to Jamestowne.
The arrival of Governor West with a substantial armed force of pilgrims filled with patriotic fervor to spread Protestantism enabled a counter-offensive against the Powhatan Confederacy that ended the Powhatan siege and resulted in the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. There was a short period of truce between the English and the Powhatan Confederacy that allowed the English to fully secure the colony’s fortifications and housing, expand its farming, develop a network of alliances with other Indian nations, and establish a series of smaller outlying settlements. The Powhatan Confederacy attempted two other wars against the English. However, each attack was met with stiff resistance, a counter-offensive, severe reprisals and eventual defeat of the Powhatan Confederacy. After almost forty years of tenuous existence surrounded by a generally hostile Indian nation, the Virginia Colony emerged victorious and effectively devastated the Powhatan nation and broke up the Confederacy by 1646.
© Jeff Richmond