Starving Time in Virginia

In December 1606, the Virginia Company sent three ships to Virginia with 144 colonists, only 105 of whom actually disembarked at Jamestown the following May. The site the settlers chose was on the James River, away from the danger of the Spanish but adjacent to malarial swamps. The natives of the area were of the Pamunkey tribe, whose sachem, or headman, was Powhatan. The settlement struggled for its first decade, in part due to the nature of the colony: as a business enterprise, the colonists were employees of the Virginia Company, not landowners. The Company, seeking to satisfy its investors, had selected colonists who wanted to search for gold and a passage to Asia; growing crops was not on their list of priorities. Especially troubling were many “gentlemen” unwilling to do manual labor. Of the professions listed by the colonists, there were goldsmiths and personal servants and some laborers, but none listed themselves as farmers—obviously a poor omen. When no gold was found and no passage to Asia discovered, the settlers drifted into aimlessness. Like the grasshopper in the fable about the Grasshopper and the Ant, the colonists expected the Virginia company or the neighboring Indians to feed them, rather than prepare for the coming winter. The result was that they starved during the winter of 1607-8.

One of the young leaders among them who then asserted control of the colony was Captain John Smith, a soldier-adventurer and promoter of the company, who became its chief historian. He had an especially resourceful spirit, and he saved the colony from starvation during the winter of 1608-1609 by obtaining corn from the Indians be had befriended. On an expedition to discover the source of the Chickahominy River, Captain Smith was captured by the Indians and was to be executed. As the controversial legend holds, Pocahontas saved his life by throwing herself upon him and entreating her father, Powhatan, to spare Smith. Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia, an indispensable–though at times unreliable–work, is reprinted here in part. The selection deals with the events of 1607-1614 and is actually a series of reports or accounts by various persons with interpolations by Smith himself. Thus, part of the narrative covers an interval when he had “turned temporarily to England.”

As you read, answer the following questions:
1. Who does Smith blame for the settlers’ early troubles in having enough food?
2. How does Smith get captured?
3. Why does Smith think the Indians are feeding him so well?

Starving Time in Virginia, 1607-1614
Captain John Smith

1607. 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 pilfer to sell, give, or exchange with us for money, sassafras, furs, or [friendship]. 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 [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 incontradictable 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.

But our comedies never endured long without a tragedy; some idle exceptions being muttered against Captain Smith for not discovering the head of the Chickahamania [Chickahominy] River, and taxed by the Council to be too slow in so worthy an attempt. The next voyage he proceeded so far that with much labor by cutting of trees asunder he made his passage; but when his barge could pass no farther, he left her in a broad bay out of danger of shot, commanding none should go ashore till his return. Himself, with two English and two savages, went up higher in a canoe; but he was not long absent but his men went ashore, whose want of government gave both occasion and opportunity to the savages to surprise one George Cassen, whom they slew, and much failed not to have cut off the boat and all the rest.
Smith, little dreaming of that accident, being got to the marshes at the river’s head, twenty miles in the desert, had his two men slain (as is supposed) sleeping by the canoe, while himself, by fowling, sought them victual. Finding he was beset with 200 savages, two of them he slew still defending himself with the aid of a savage, his guide, whom he bound to his arm with his garters, and used him as a buckler, yet he was shot in his thigh a little, and had many arrows that stuck in his clothes; but no great hurt, till at last they took him prisoner. When this news came to Jamestown, much was their sorrow for his loss, few expecting what ensued.

Six or seven weeks those barbarians kept him prisoner, many strange triumphs and conjurations they made of him, yet he so demeaned himself among them as he not only diverted them from surprising the fort but procured his own liberty, and got himself and his company such estimation among them that those savages admired him more than their own quiyouckosucks [gods].

The manner how they used and delivered him is as follows:
The savages, having drawn from George Cassen whether Captain Smith was gone, prosecuting that opportunity, they followed him with 300 bowmen, conducted by the king of Pamaunkee, who, in divisions, searching the turnings of the river, found Robinson and Emry by the far side. Those they shot full of arrows and slew. Then finding the captain … yet, dared they not come to him till, being near dead with cold, he threw away his arms. Then…they drew him forth and led him to the fire, where his men were slain. Diligently, they chafed his benumbed limbs.

He demanding for their captain, they showed him Opechancanough, king of Pamaunkee, to whom he gave a round, ivory double compass dial. Much they marveled at the playing of the fly and needle, which they could see so plainly and yet not touch it because of the glass that covered them. But when he demonstrated by that globelike jewel the roundness of the earth and skies, the sphere of the sun, moon, and stars, and how the sun did chase the night round about the world continually; the greatness of the land and sea, the diversity of nations, variety of complexions, and how we were to them antipodes, and many other suchlike matters, they all stood as amazed with admiration. Notwithstanding, within an hour after they tied him to a tree, and as many as could stand about him prepared to shoot him; but the king, holding up the compass in his hand, they all laid down their bows and arrows, and in a triumphant manner led him to [the town of] Orapaks, where he was after their manner kindly feasted and well used.

Their order in conducting him was thus: Drawing themselves all in file, the king in the middle had all their pieces and swords borne before him. Captain Smith was led after him by three great savages, holding him fast by each arm; and on each side, six went in file with their arrows nocked. But arriving at the town (which was but only thirty or forty hunting houses made of mats, which they remove as they please, as we our tents), all the women and children staring to behold him, the soldiers first, all in file and on each flank, officers… to see them keep their orders. A good time they continued this exercise, and then cast themselves in a ring, dancing in such several postures, and singing and yelling out such hellish notes and screeches; being strangely painted, everyone his quiver of arrows, and at his back a club; on his arm a fox or an otter’s skin… their heads and shoulders painted red… which scarlet-like color made an exceeding handsome show; his bow in his hand, and the skin of a bird with her wings abroad dried, tied on his head, a piece of copper, a white shell, a long feather, with a small rattle growing at the tails of their snakes tied to it, or some suchlike toy.

All this while, Smith and the king stood in the middle, guarded, as before is said; and after three dances they all departed. Smith they conducted to a long-house, where thirty or forty tall fellows did guard him; and ere long more bread and venison was brought him than would have served twenty men. I think his stomach at that time was not very good; what he left they put in baskets and tied over his head. About midnight they set the meat again before him, all this time not one of them would eat a bite with him, till the next morning they brought him as much more; and then did they eat all the old, and reserved the new as they had done the other, which made him think they would fat him to eat him. Yet in this desperate estate to defend him from the cold, one… brought him his gown, in requital of some beads and toys Smith had given him at his first arrival in Virginia.

Links for more information:
Did Pocahontas save John Smith? A historian attempts an answer
Biography of Powhatan
Powhatan Confederacy
The Grasshopper and the Ant: a retelling of Aesop’s fable

Vocabulary for this post:
sack (third definition)
antipodes (second definition)

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by "African"_Blondie on August 21, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    “That’s a special kind of dumb.”
    ~Mrs. Scoopmire on the stupidity of those who failed to eat when there was a river with fish jumping out of it.

  2. And I stand behind that assessment!

    Your memory skills astonish….

  3. Posted by asaustin on September 8, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Upon reading this for class on top of other material I was given, it comes to mind the settelers in Jamestown were very hypocritical in the way of Virginia Company wanted to establish a colony in the New World, but only truly advertised the New World to Gentalmen only. So when the colonists came none new how to farm or advace the colony in which they built. So when the winter came and they started dieing due to famine and dease, it was very much brought on by themselves. In retrospect when the Indians came to there rescue, they still did not learn to plan their own food, instead, they prefered to barter, steal, and kill for it.

    This in itself, hypocricay, we see happening repatedly throughought U.S. history from there.

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