Thayer Watkins

The Starving Time in Virginia

The following is an excerpt from the report of Captain John Smith, "What happened in the first government after the alteration, in the time of Captaine George Piercie, their Governor," 1609. The spelling has been converted to the modern American form.

The Starving Time

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 Sickelmore alias Ratliffe, to inhabit Point Comfort. 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 Smith had only for his own Company, for the rest had consumed their proportions. And now they had twenty presidents with all their appurtenances: Master Piercie, on 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 Shortridge escaped; and Pocahontas the Kings daughter saved a boy called Henry Spillman, that lived many years after, by her means, amongst 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 buy mortal wounds, with clubs and arrows; as for out hogs, hens, goats, sheep, horses, or what lived, our commanders, officers and savages daily consumed them, some small portions we sometimes tasted, till all was devoured; then swords, firearms, pieces, or anything, we traded with the savages, whose cruel fingers were so often imbrewed in our blood, that what with their cruelty, our Governors indiscretion, and the loss of our ships, of five hundred within six months after Captain Smith's departure, there remained not past sixty men, women and children, most miserable and poor creatures; and those were preserved for the most part part, by roots, herbs, acorns, walnuts, berries, and 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 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 of. This was that time, which still to this day we called the starving time; it was too vile to say, and scarce to be believed, what we endured: but the occasion was own, for want of provident 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, though it seemed by the bills of lading sufficient was sent to 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 overswayed and ruled the business, though we endured all that is said, and chiefly lived on what this good country naturally affored. Yet had we been even in Paradise itself with these Governors, 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 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, set Sir Thomas Gates, and Sir George Sommers with one hundred and fifty people most happily preserved by the Bermudas to preserve us: strange it is to say how miraculous they were preserved in a leaking ship, as at large you read in the insuing history of those islands.