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November 21, 2008

Settlers arriving at Jamestown, Virginia in May of 1607.

What foods did colonists eat at Jamestown, the first English settlement in the New World, and why did they nearly starve to death in a land of plenty?

Jamestown, Virginia was settled in 1607 by a group of English adventurers who were tasked with founding a permanent English colony in the New World and finding gold as the Spanish had done in their expeditions to South and Central America and Florida. Following this mission too closely almost caused them to starve to death in a land of plenty.

When they dropped anchor in the James River on May 13, 1607, the colonists brought with them stores of dried beef, salt cured pork and fish, in addition to pigs, chickens, and cattle to serve as breeding stock. They also planned to heavily supplement these provisions by trading with the local Indian tribes as the “Lost Colony” had done during their failed attempt at settling North Carolina in 1587.  The colonists had no way of knowing it, but this plan had been torpedoed about a month before they got there.

A month before the settlers arrived, a shaman had predicted to Powhatan, the chief of the local tribe, that a mighty nation would rise up on the banks of the James River and defeat him. Needless to say, the settlers met with a cool reception, and within two weeks arrows and musket balls were flying.

Raids by the Powhatans, a late start on planting and the worst drought to hit North America in eight hundred years took their toll, and by September, nearly half of the original one hundred four colonists had died of disease, accidents or Indian attack. There was little food in the larder for the small group of survivors as the fall of 1607 faded into winter.

Archaeologists have determined that the colonists survived that first winter by eating fish (especially sturgeon), turtles, rays, gulls, snakes, herons, oysters, raccoons, and anything else they could find. When spring arrived, they were able to make an uneasy peace with the Powhatans and trade iron tools for corn and meat.

John Smith wrote that by the fall of 1608,“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.”

But another meager harvest and the arrival in August of 1609 of a second wave of ill-prepared colonists with precious few supplies brought the population of Jamestown to over two hundred and caused the colony’s food situation to reach the desperation stage.

The winter of 1609 -1610 was known as “the starving time.” Relationships with the Powhatans had deteriorated to an armed siege, and as winter fell, the colonists couldn’t leave the fort to hunt or fish without being attacked. When the colonist’s animals ran out, they ate their horses, dogs, cats, and rats. In a final act of desperation some colonists resorted to cannibalism to survive. When the next supply ship arrived in May 1610, only sixty of the colony’s two hundred fourteen original settlers were still alive.

As more settlers arrived, the Jamestown colony grew stronger, and other English settlements soon followed. By 1650, there were fifteen thousand Englishmen in Virginia, and direct Spanish influence on Southern cuisine was destined to be limited to Florida and the lower Gulf states. English foodways would be the foundation on which Southern food would evolve.


6 Comments »

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