Starving in Virginia (1607–1610, by Captain John Smith)

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STARVING IN VIRGINIA (1607–1610, by Captain John Smith)

The colony of Jamestown, Va., represents the first successful attempt by the British to settle the North American continent. Mounted by the Virginia Company, and with the soldier and profiteer Captain John Smith among its leaders, the expedition endured a brutal four-month ocean voyage, only to discover upon its arrival that conditions in the New World were hardly more agreeable. Unable to produce a sufficient amount of food for themselves and unsuccessful at dominating the powerful confederacy of Native Americans under the leadership of Powhatan, Smith and his party flirted occasionally with abandoning Jamestown and returning home. By 1608 the situation was desperate. Hoping to avert disaster, the colonists appointed as their leader the sometimes unpopular, self-aggrandizing Smith, who immediately instituted a strict order under which those who did not work would not eat. The rule was harsh, perhaps, but Jamestown survived and flourished. Smith himself would not remain to see it, however. In 1609, injured in an accident involving gunpowder, Captain Smith was forced to seek treatment in England, where he had fallen out of favor with the Virginia Company. He never returned to the colony that he had helped rescue from the harsh realities of the New World.

Laura M.Miller,
Vanderbilt University

See also Chesapeake Colonies ; Colonial Settlements ; Starving Time .


Being thus left to our fortunes, it fortuned that within ten days scarce ten among us could either go or well stand, such extreme weakness and sickness oppressed us. And thereat none need marvel if they consider the cause and reason, which was this.

While the ships stayed, our allowance was somewhat bettered by a daily proportion of biscuits, which the sailors would pilferto sell, give, or exchange with us for money, sassafras, furs, or love. But when they departed, there remained neither tavern, beer, house, nor place of relief, but the common kettle. Had we been as free from all sins as gluttony and drunkenness, we might have been canonized for saints; but our president [Wingfield] would never have been admitted for engrossing to his private [use] oatmeal, sack, aquavitae, beef, eggs, or what not, but the kettle; that indeed he allowed equally to be distributed, and that was half a pint of wheat, and as much barley boiled with water for a man a day, and this having fried some twenty-six weeks in the ship's hold, contained as many worms as grains; so that we might truly call it rather so much bran than corn, our drink was water, our lodgings castles in the air.

With this lodging and diet, our extreme toil in bearing and planting palisades so strained and bruised us, and our continual labor in the extremity of the heat had so weakened us, as were cause sufficient to have made us as miserable in our native country, or any other place in the world.

From May to September, those that escaped lived upon sturgeon, and sea crabs. Fifty in this time we buried, the rest seeing the president's projects to escape these miseries in our pinnace by flight (who all this time had neither felt want nor sickness) so moved our dead spirits, as we deposed him, and established Ratcliffe in his place (Gosnoll being dead), Kendall deposed. Smith newly recovered, Martin and Ratcliffe was by his care preserved and relieved, and the most of the soldiers recovered with the skillful diligence of Master Thomas Wolton, our chirurgeon [surgeon] general.

But now was all our provision spent, the sturgeon gone, all helps abandoned, each hour expecting the fury of the savages; when God, the Patron of all good endeavors in that desperate extremity so changed the hearts of the savages that they brought such plenty of their fruits and provision as no man wanted.

And now where some affirmed it was ill done of the Council to send forth men so badly provided, this in contradictable reason will show them plainly they are too ill advised to nourish such ill conceits. First, the fault of our going was our own; what could be thought fitting or necessary we had; but what we should find, or want, or where we should be, we were all ignorant, and supposing to make our passage in two months, with victual to live and the advantage of the spring to work. We were at sea five months, where we both spent our victual and lost the opportunity of the time and season to plant, by the unskillful presumption of our ignorant transporters, that understood not at all what they undertook. …

And now, the winter approaching, the rivers became so covered with swans, geese, ducks, and cranes that we daily feasted with good bread, Virginia peas, pumpions [pumpkins], and putchamins [persimmons], fish, fowl, and diverse sorts of wild beasts as fat as we could eat them; so that none of our tuftaffety humorists desired to go for England.…


The day before Captain Smith returned for England with the ships, Captain Davis arrived in a small pinnace, with some sixteen proper men more. To these were added a company from Jamestown, under the command of Captain John Sickelmore, alias Ratcliffe, to inhabit Point Comfort. Captain Martin and Captain West, having lost their boats and near half their men among the savages, were returned to Jamestown; for the savages no sooner understood Smith was gone but they all revolted, and did spoil and murder all they encountered.

Now we were all constrained to live only on that Smith had only for his own company, for the rest had consumed their proportions. And now they had twenty residents with all their appurtenances. Master Piercie, our new president, was so sick he could neither go nor stand. But ere all was consumed, Captain West and Captain Sickelmore, each with a small ship and thirty or forty men well appointed, sought abroad to trade. Sickelmore, upon the confidence of Powhatan, with about thirty others as careless as himself, were all slain; only Jeffrey Short ridge escaped; and Pocahontas, the king's daughter, saved a boy called Henry Spilman, that lived many years after, by her means, among the Patawomekes. Powhatan still, as he found means, cut off their boats, denied them trade; so that Captain West set sail for England.

Now we all found the loss of Captain Smith; yea, his greatest maligners could now curse his loss. As for corn provision and contribution from the savages, we had nothing but mortal wounds, with clubs and arrows. As for our hogs, hens, goats, sheep, horses, or what lived, our commanders, officers, and savages daily consumed them; some small proportions sometimes we tasted, till all was devoured. Then swords, arms, pieces, or anything we traded with the savages, whose cruel fingers were so oft imbrued in our blood, that what by their cruelty, our governor's indiscretion, and the loss of our ships, of 500 within six months after Captain Smith's departure there remained not past 60 men, women, and children—most miserable and poor creatures. And those were preserved for the most part by roots, herbs, acorns, walnuts, berries, now and then a little fish. They that had starch in these extremities made no small use of it; 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 with roots and herbs. And one among the rest did kill his wife, powdered [salted] her, and had eaten part of her before it was known; for which he was executed, as he well deserved. Now, whether she was better roasted, boiled, or carbonadoed [broiled] I know not; but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard.

This was that time, which still to this day, we called the starving time. It were too vile to say, and scarce to be believed, what we endured; but the occasion was our own for want of providence, industry, and government, and not the barrenness and defect of the country, as is generally supposed. For till then in three years, for the numbers were landed us, we had never from England provision sufficient for six months, though it seemed by the bills of lading sufficient was sent us, such a glutton is the sea, and such good fellows the mariners. We as little tasted of the great proportion sent us as they of our want and miseries, yet, notwithstanding, they ever over swayed and ruled the business, though we endured all that is said, and chiefly lived on what this good country naturally afforded. Yet had we been even in Paradise itself with these governors, it would not have been much better with us; yet there was among us, who, had they had the government as Captain Smith appointed, but that they could not maintain it, would surely have kept us from those extremities of miseries. This in ten days more would have supplanted us all with death.


But God, that would not this country should be unplanted, sent Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Sommers with 150 people most happily preserved by the Bermudas to preserve us. Strange it is to say how miraculously they were preserved in a leaking ship.…

SOURCE: Smith, John. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles: Together with The True Travels, Adventures and Observations and A Sea Grammar. Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1907.