Drought, Siege, and Starvation

Algonquian Daily Life

Algonquian daily activities centered around subsistence tasks of making canoes, fishing and hunting, growing corn, and preparing meals. As coastal Indians, they feasted upon sturgeon, oysters, and other fish. Oyster shell beds as deep as twenty-five feet have been discovered in the Chesapeake area. They constructed canoes, using burning and scraping techniques. Fishing at night by firelight in the canoe produced good results. Cooking stews and baking fish on grills were common ways of preparing food. Corn, typically planted with beans and squash, could be pounded into meal for baking or eaten as hominy. Hunting, sometimes using fire to herd deer into confined areas, for forest game usually was done in the Spring or Fall by temporary migration to hunting camps. An assortment of berries and nuts could be gathered from the forest. All of these activities required special skills learned from early childhood to survive in a wilderness environment. These techniques for subsistence and survival eventually became part of the Algonquian exchange, but not before the invaders nearly starved to death by taking them for granted.

Drought

The Jamestown settlers arrived in the midst of a drought. Unable to feed themselves, they relied upon trade with the Algonquians. Wahunsenacah encouraged the trade for about eighteen months, until the drought reduced supplies of corn to a level that threatened all Indian groups. The colony found it increasingly difficult to get the corn they needed from tribes that needed it for their own people. Supply ships from England took months to arrive. The scarcity of food reached a crisis level during the time known as “the starving winter of 1609-1610. The population of the colony dropped from 500 to 60 in six months.

But drought was not the only factor in the deteriorating condition of the settlers. By this time Wahunsenacah had come to the conclusion that the invaders were not just temporary visitors but permanent residents. Rather than attempt to destroy the fort and its occupants, he decided to try and force them to leave by cutting off their supply of food. It nearly worked.

Siege and Starvation

In July 1609, the Sea Venture, the command vessel of a nine-ship flotilla left England for Jamestown and ran into a hurricane (the voyage to later become the basis of William Shakespeare’s Tempest). Seven ships made it to Virginia, but the flagship and another vessel ran aground off the coast of Bermuda. When the ships arrived in Jamestown, they found a pitiful bank of gaunt-faced, skin and bones figures huddled in the fort near starvation. William Strachey attributed the conditions to “sloth, riot, and vanity. Although there was enough of these traits to go around, the real problem was Wahunsenacah’s siege. His men surrounded the fort and houses, dared anyone to come outside, and killed those who did. Inside, the men had resorted to robbing their own warehouses until George Percy resorted to executions to stop the looting. Men ate their horses, dogs, cats, rats, and mice. Nearly insane from hunger, the men robbed graves and descended into cannibalism. Such was the desperation that they packed up and deserted the fort. They headed up the James River, met a supply ship, and returned to the fort.

Burying the Dead

Myth

The starving winter was caused by laziness, refusal of the men to work, and the overpopulation of gentry unused to labor among the settlers.

Reality

The starving winter was the result of prior poor treatment of the Algonquians, encroachment upon their hunting, fishing, and agricultural lands, and in the end Wahunsenacah’s placing of the settlers under siege.