Saturday, January 25, 2014

Three Hundred More Mouths to Feed

In August 1609 the ships that weathered the hurricane came wallowing up the James River, one by one. And there were women aboard at least some of them. Anne Laydon must have been overjoyed. Some of these women would have been near her own age. One of them would have been the fourteen-year-old girl whose cannibalized bones were recently found.
Go to this link to see more:                       
            Some day we may know who this young girl was, but we already know the identities of a precious few of these women: Temperance Yeardley, Joan Pierce and her four-year-old daughter, Jane; and Thomasine Causey. Temperance and Joan had husbands they feared lost aboard the Sea Venture, but Thomasine’s husband was already at Jamestown, waiting to greet her. She and her husband, Nathaniel, rejoiced. The other women did not.

The nine ships in the largest expedition yet sent to Virginia supposedly contained " 500 men and 100 women,” but those numbers may have been inflated. Subtracting the 150 Sea Venture passengers and allowing for deaths on board the other ships, about 300 to 350 newcomers (including an unknown number of women) arrived at Jamestown that summer. At least two of the women had given birth to infants who died at sea. All had been at sea for three or four weeks. Their food aboard ship had nearly run out. Many people were sick, suffering from the tropical malady known as the “calenture,” or wracked by fever and chills from typhus,            
            And now John Smith, who did not have enough food for the two hundred colonists already there, had three hundred more mouths to feed--if they lived that long.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

"What nature afforded" --which was not enough to live on.

In the summer of 1609 there was plenty of food at Jamestown: forty acres of corn would be ripe by autumn, and the storehouse inside the fort was stacked with bushels of corn to last till then. There were sows with large litters of piglets, and “neer 500 chickings.” Thanks to Pocahontas, the Indians outside the fort were friendly--or pretended to be. The Jamestown colonists were full of hope. But not for long.
            One hot midsummer day, they discovered that the corn in the storehouse had rotted. What damp and heat had not ruined, rats had devoured. “This did drive us all to our wits end,” John Smith wrote, “for there was nothing in the country but what nature afforded.”
            Supplies were supposed to come from England, but no one knew when.              
            No one at Jamestown knew that in May the Virginia Company in London had sent out a fleet of nine ships laden with supplies and more settlers, and that  in July a hurricane had scattered the fleet and driven the flagship Sea Venture on the coast of Bermuda. (This inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest--but that is another story.)
            The Indians had no food to spare. Virginia was suffering a severe drought, and corn crops were spindly. John Smith, then President of the colony, sent some of his men to dig for oysters downriver, and others upriver to hunt rabbits and squirrels. But it was not enough.
            People went to bed hungry--and angry.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A "tragical history"

In London, the Virginia Company’s spin doctors did their best with the grim news from Jamestown. The investors in this joint-stock venture had yet to see a profit. In November 1610, the Company published A True Declaration of the estate of the colony in Virginia, with a confutation of such scandalous reports as have tended to the disgrace of so worthy an enterprise.

            This booklet had its own version of the “tragical history of the man eating his dead wife,” during the Starving Time, supplied by Sir Thomas Gates, former governor of Bermuda and Virginia councillor (who was not in Virginia during the Starving Time). Gates appeared before the Virginia Company Council in London to set the record straight, and his version was published.

            According to Gates, the truth was that the unfortunate husband at Jamestown had “mortally hated his wife.” He had “secretly killed her, then cut her into pieces and hid her remains in divers parts of his house.” Then he “daily fed upon her,” although, Gates declared, he was far from starving. Jamestown had plenty to eat (so said Gates) and the wife-killer’s house contained “a good quantity to meal, oatmeal, beans, and peas.”

            Such a well-stocked larder would have been news to the starving inhabitants of Jamestown in the winter of 1609-10.

            I wrote a novel about what happened at Jamestown because I wanted to read it.  Look for JAMESTOWN: THE NOVEL, to be published early in 2014.


Saturday, January 4, 2014

Cannibalism at Jamestown: Another Victim

This is a story about a woman whose death is one of the grisliest in American history. She, like the teenage girl whose bones were recently discovered at Jamestown, was a victim of cannibalism--perhaps the first one. Actually, there were two victims in this story: this woman was pregnant.

            George Percy (who was there) tells us what happened: In the terrible winter of 1609-10, people inside the Jamestown fort were reduced to food rations of “Halfe a can of meal for a man a day. ” How much was that? A “can” was a tin receptacle holding about 4 to 8 ounces. Let us say the “meal” was like oatmeal. How many calories in half a cup of oatmeal? About 150. The average adult needs 1500 to 2000 calories per day to maintain a healthy body weight,
            How long could you last on a diet of 150 calories a day?
            One man, crazed and starving,  “murdered his wife Ripped the childe out of her womb and threw it into the River and after chopped the Mother in pieces and salted her for his food.”
            Her partially consumed remains were discovered in a wooden chest in the couple’s house. George Percy, who was then president of the colony, ordered the husband hanged by his thumbs with weights on his feet until he confessed what he had done. Then he was executed.

            Poor wife. Poor husband. Poor Jamestown.