Spotlight: Starving Time

Published:May 19, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

This week we published our entry on the Starving Time, which refers to the winter of 1609–1610, when fully three-quarters of the colonists at Jamestown died of starvation and starvation-related diseases. There were a few arrow-related deaths in there, as well, the English being at war with the Powhatans, after all. This helps to explain why the English were cooped up in the fort and not out, say, hunting or farming or trading. It also helps to explain why, in the absence of traditional food sources, the Jamestown remnant may have resorted to … well … to non-traditional sources.

Our entry is, I think, straightforward and unflinching, even on the subject of “powdered wife”:

Multiple accounts of the Starving Time allege that the colonists resorted to cannibalism. Percy reported that some people exhumed and ate the dead, while others “Licked upp the Bloode w[hi]ch hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.” Even worse, one man “murdered his wyfe Ripped the childe outt of her woambe and threw itt into the River and after chopped the Mother in pieces and salted her for his foode.” Only partway through his meal when discovered, he was tortured into a confession and then burned for his “crewell and inhumane” act. A General Assembly report, produced in 1624 […] echoed that description, adding that the man “fedd uppon her [his wife] till he had clean devoured all partes saveinge her head.” John Smith’s Generall Historie offered up a bit of black humor: “now whether shee was better roasted, boyled or carbonado’d [barbecued], I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of.” Sir Thomas Gates, however, seemed skeptical, charging that the culprit “mortally hated his Wife, and therefore secretly killed her.” The cannibalism was merely the story he told when caught; upon being searched, his house yielded “a good quantitie of Meale.”

Some historians have suggested that cannibalism at Jamestown is an unfortunate myth. My reaction to that has always been: but why would anyone—especially those who were there—want to admit to such taboo behavior? I could tell you, but I won’t. Read the entry!

IMAGE: Burial of the Dead 1609–1610 by Sidney E. King, courtesy of the National Park Service