Jamestown Settlers Were Cannibals and More Reasons the Colony Was Hell

From cannibalism to the lack of women, Nina Strochlic on why life for the Virginia settlers was horrific.

Hulton Archive/Getty,Hulton Archive

Were our esteemed forebears actually cannibals? New archeological evidence indicates a firm yes. According to Smithsonian magazine, a recent excavation in the Jamestown Colony in Virginia finally turned up evidence of what’s long been hinted at. During particularly harsh beginnings upon landing in the New World, desperate colonists resorted to human flesh for sustenance. But that’s not the only malady that befell early settlers. Here are some reasons to be thankful you arrived on this continent in the four centuries since.

It Was Originally All Men

Three shiploads of men docked at Chesapeake Bay on April 26, 1607. Three weeks later, they had settled Jamestown, an unused bit of land the Native Americans had deemed undesirable. The next year, two brave women set foot in the colony, but then it took another 13 years for a crop of young unmarried or widowed women to arrive.

And They Couldn’t Get Along

The crop of men landing at Jamestown were soldiers by trade, and all were accustomed to leadership roles. Soon everyone was butting heads. The famous John Smith barely escaped a sentence to hang, others were accused of hoarding food, some were blamed for an escape attempt, and still others admitted knowledge of spies and plans of rebellion. Within three months, one of the original six councilors was charged with mutiny and executed. The discontent prompted Smith to write a long missive lamenting the mismanagement and corruption within the colony.

Then There Was No Food

The Jamestown settlers were hardly farmers. In 1609, two years after landing and settling on the tough piece of land, the pioneers faced a brutal famine, bluntly dubbed “The Starving Time.”

Or Water

The colonists had seriously bad timing. Landing in spring of 1607, they entered at the beginning of a seven-year drought, which turned out to be the driest period the region experienced in 770 years.

And Everyone Was Dying

Within the first nine months of life in Jamestown, the original 104 ship passengers had dwindled down to 38. A ship stocked with supplies was lost at sea, and the colony’s remaining inhabitants grew desperate. Only a week into their arrival, things began to go awry. Men died “of the boudie Flixe,” “of the swelling,” “of a wound given by the Savages,” and sometimes just “suddenly,” wrote George Percy, who was later president of the colony. Ships of men, 800 in all, set sail to Jamestown in the summer of 1609, but when the last ships arrived less than a year later, there were only 90 colonists left who had survived drought, famine, attacks, and widespread disease.

So They Ate Each Other

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

From documents written during and after the time, historians gleaned that the desperate settlers may have engaged in cannibalism. “And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them,” Percy wrote. “And some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.” Another testimony describes a man who killed, salted, and ate his wife, and later was executed for the crime.

The recent archeological discovery is the first confirmation of these written reports. “Given these bones in a trash pit, all cut and chopped up, it’s clear that this body was dismembered for consumption,” Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley says of the recent findings. The child was a girl, possibly around 14 years of age, and probably either a maid or daughter of a man arriving on a resupply ship. The bones showed signs of “tentative” blows, but Owsley doesn’t believe she was murdered for food. “It appears that her brain, tongue, cheeks and leg muscles were eaten, with the brain likely eaten first, because it decomposes so quickly after death,” Smithsonian writes.

And There Were Constant Attacks

Within hours of disembarking their ships, a few dozen of the new colonists were attacked by Native Americans. In those first few months, the attacks didn’t lessen. By November 1610, the Native Americans surrounded the fort and blocked any food supplies from getting in. They were successful—only 60 of the 240 in the fort had survived. And as anyone with the briefest grasp of American colonial history knows, this was just the beginning of years of settler vs. natives brutality on both sides. For the Jamestown settlers, things didn’t get easier for a while. In 1622, just months after “the first Thanksgiving,” 347 colonists were killed in an attack by Powhatan Indians.