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Starvation at Jamestown


In 1606, the Virginia Company of London, a joint stock enterprise, financed a voyage to Virginia designed to establish a colony in these "new" lands. The orders given to these settlers were to ship back saleable commodities that would begin to repay the investors. In May 1607, 104 colonists, all men and boys, made landfall at Cape Henry in present-day Virginia. They soon constructed a fort alongside the James River, but these first colonists were not prepared for the harsh conditions that awaited them. It was reported as early as 1607 that

They fell into extreme want, not having anything left to sustain them save a little ill conditioned Barley, which ground to meal & pottage made thereof, one small ladle full was allowed each person for a meal, without bread or aught else whatsoever.
A report, submitted by the "Ancient Planters nowe remaining alive in Virginia,” said that had it not been for help from the Indians, the colonists "all utterlie by famine perished." Of the 104 colonists, only 38 survived. Seventy new colonists arrived in 1608, but did not bring the supplies the colony desperately needed.

In August 1609, approximately 400 new colonists arrived in Jamestown. Such a large influx of people stretched thin already insufficient food supplies. A drought had severely reduced the availability of food crops and local wildlife. The Powhatans, who were also affected by the drought, were no longer willing to share their food with the colonists. The government of the colony was rife with infighting and mismanagement. Hostilities with the Powhatans escalated, and the Powhatans eventually prevented the colonists from leaving the James Fort to gather food. To stay alive, the trapped and starving colonists were forced to eat anything they could. By the end of the winter of 1609–1610, more than 400 of the nearly 500 Jamestown colonists had perished.

In this lesson, students review the circumstances of the founding of Jamestown and the Starving Time. Then, in groups, students read a primary source quote that describes actions taken by the colonists to stay alive during the Starving Time. Finally, students explore the recent discovery of cannibalism during the Starving Time, the science behind the discovery, and what the discovery means for our understanding of early Jamestown.


In this lesson, students:

  • Review the early years of the Jamestown settlement.
  • Analyze and synthesize information from a primary source quotation.
  • Investigate the discovery of cannibalism in Jamestown and the methods used to determine its meaning.
  • Discuss the implications of this discovery.



  1. Using the information in the Introduction, set the stage by sharing with students the background to the establishment of the settlement at Jamestown. Be sure to describe the living conditions that these settlers confronted and what life was like during these early couple of years. Consult the article "We are starved" by Ivor Noël Hume for more information.
  2. Reinforce with students that the period from 1609 to 1610 in Jamestown became known as the Starving Time. Review some of these conditions that created a situation which drove colonists at Jamestown to take extreme action to stay alive.
  3. Organize the class into groups of 3 or 4 students each. Give each student a copy of the quote from George Percy, who lived through the Starving Time and describes the lengths to which the settlers went to find food in order to survive. Have them work in their groups to read the quote, discuss it, and prepare a list of the actions identified in the document.
  4. When each group has completed the task, reconvene the class and have students share their findings. Engage students in a discussion about their reaction to what they had just read. Ask questions such as: what would drive people to behave in this manner? Would you do the same in this situation? Do you think the colonists, before the Starving Time, might have answered the same way you did? Remind students that it can be hard to understand such a difficult situation without having lived it.
  5. Tell the class that historians have known for centuries of written accounts (primary sources) that describe survival cannibalism during the Starving Time. There has been a great deal of speculation whether these claims were true—perhaps people were exaggerating to make a good story? However, a discovery made at Jamestown in August 2012 confirms that colonists at Jamestown during the Starving Time did eat at least one person.
  6. Show students the video on this page: Review with students the information about Jane from the accompanying article.
  7. Divide the class into five groups. Assign each group to one of the resources about the Jamestown discovery. Give students a few minutes to read their assigned source.
  8. Have students share their findings with their classmates and take this opportunity to discuss how archaeological research and findings enable us to gain a more complete and accurate understanding of the past.
  9. Summarize for students how current research can verify or disprove historical happenings, and why and how archaeology is used in conjunction with primary sources.
  10. Tell students that the Starving Time finally ended in May 1610 when new settlers arrived in the colony with fresh supplies, just as the remaining survivors were attempting to sail back to England. The new colonists convinced the survivors to stay, and soon after, colonists begin planting tobacco, which they successfully sold in England. The colony grew and grew, inspiring others to start colonies in the New World. Despite all of the hardships, Jamestown survived and led to the United States of today. Ask students what they think might have happened if the colonists had given up, or all died. (Note to teacher: there are several possible answers.)

Lesson Extensions

  • Explore the December 2009 Teacher Gazette which contains a lesson plan, primary source, teaching resources, and a feature article about the Starving Time at Jamestown. (You will need to create a free Teacher Community account to access the Teacher Gazette archives.)

This lesson was written by Dr. William Fetsko, Williamsburg, VA.