John Smith and Jamestown

John Smith (1580-1631) was one of the leaders of Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in North America. His background was in soldiering more than managing, but his imposition of strict discipline brought stability to Jamestown in its early years.

This excerpt from Smith’s account of the founding of Jamestown and the Virginia colony describes the “Starving Time” which occurred during the winter of 1609-1610.

The Starving Time- John Smith

The day before Captaine Smith returned for England with the ships, Captain Davis arrived in a small Pinace[1], with some sixteen proper men more: To these were added a company from the James towne, under the command of Captain John Sickelmore alias Ratliffe, to inhabit Point Comfort. Captain Martin and Captain West, having lost their boats and neere halfe their men among the Salvages[2], were returned to James towne; for the Salvages no sooner understood Smith was gone, but they all revolted, and did spoile and murther[3] all they incountered. . . . Now we all found the losse of Captain Smith, yea his greatest maligners could now curse his losse: as for corne, provision and contribution from the Salvages, we had nothing but mortall wounds, with clubs and arrows; as for our Hogs, Hens, Goats, Sheepe, Horse, or what lived, our commanders, officers & Salvages daily consumed them, some small proportions sometimes we tasted, till all was devoured; then swords, armies, pieces, or any thing, wee traded with the Salvages, whose cruel fingers were so oft imbrewed in blood, that what by their crueltie, our Governours indiscretion, and the loss of our ships, of five hundred within six moneths after Captain Smiths departure, there remained not past sixty men, women, and children, most miserable and poore creatures; and those were preserved for the most part, by roots, herbes, acornes, walnuts, berries, now and then a little fish: they that had starch [courage] in these extremities, made no small use of it; yea, [eating] even the skinnes of our horses. Nay, so great was our famine, that a Salvage we slew, and buried, the poorer sort tooke him up againe and eat him, and so did divers one another boyled and stewed with roots and herbs: And one amongst the rest did kill his wife, powdered[4] her, and had eaten part of her before it was knowne, for which hee was executed, as hee well deserved; now whether shee was better roasted, boyled or carbonado’d[5], I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of. This was the time, which still to this day we called the starving time; it were too vile to say, and scarce to be beleeved, what we endured: but the occasion was our owne, for want of providence, industrie and government, and not the barrennesse and defect of the Countrie, as is generally supposed; for till then in three yeeres, for the numbers were landed us, we had never from England provision sufficient for six moneths, though it seemed by the bils of loading sufficient was sent us, such a glutton is the Sea, and such good fellowes 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 businesse, though we endured all that is said, and chiefly lived on what this good Countrie naturally afforded; yet had wee beene even in Paradice it selfe with these Governours, it would not have been much better with us; yet there was amongst us, who had they had the government as Captain Smith appointed, but that they could not maintaine it, would surely have kept us from those extremities of miseries. This in ten daies more, would have supplanted us all with death.

[1] a small boat
[2] This spelling of “savages” is Smith’s
[3] murder
[4] salted
[5] a method of broiling

Source: John Smith. 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. 203-205.

Questions to consider:

  1. To what degree do you consider Smith to be a reliable witness to these events?
  2. Which elements of this account seem less than credible?
  3. Read this article. How does the evidence it discusses relate to Smith’s account?