The winter would be a crisis for men and women alike in the fort. It was to be the worst "starving time" the colony had ever known -- a harrowing test of each of the settlers' endurance and will to live.
Acting Governor George Percy sent John Ratcliffe with a fifty-man force to the Indian headman, emperor Powhatan, to trade for corn. Only 16 men made it back, empty-handed except for the report that Ratcliffe had been flayed and burnt alive by Indian women. Percy then sent 36 men in a small ship, the Swallow, to trade with the Indians of the Potomac River. After trading successfully, this team heard there was cannibalism at James Fort. Despite pleas to proceed upriver to James Fort with all possible speed, the Swallow's crew headed to sea and ate the corn on their voyage home to England.
Placed under siege by the Indians, the Jamestown colonists could not safely venture outside of the fort's walls to find food in the woods or the river.
Percy later recalled that starving settlers dug up "dead corpses outt of graves" and ate them. Others "Licked upp the Bloode w[hi]ch ha[d] fallen from their weake fellowes." One of the settlers allegedly murdered his pregnant wife "as she slept in his bosome," then "Ripped the childe out of her woambe and threw itt into the River and after chopped the Mother in pieces and salted her for his foode." The breakdown of English society in the frontier fort extended to the way Percy treated the accused. He had the prisoner hanged "by the Thumbes with weightes att his feete a quarter of an howere before he wolde Confesse the same." The man was then burned alive -- a punishment that followed no conventional penalty for murder under English law at the time, according to historian Mark Nicholls.
But the consumption of human flesh at Jamestown was neither a ritual nor medicinal. It was for survival. For centuries, the written accounts were the only proof of cannibalism at James Fort. Nineteen years of modern excavations within the fort walls had not provided any irrefutable evidence necessary to prove that colonist's accounts of cannibalism were fact. Until now.