Jamestown began in 1607, and from its very first months, the settlers had a hard time feeding themselves. There were no women among the first settlers in 1607; Jamestown was a military settlement built to explore for saleable commodities and to establish England's claim in North America. The first two English women came to Jamestown in the Second Supply fleet in October 1608. Women are next recorded arriving in the colony in August 1609. Hundreds of settlers left England as part of the biggest supply fleet ever sent the colony: seven ships and two small vessels called pinnaces. A hurricane smashed the fleet shortly before it reached Virginia. Supplies were ruined, one of the pinnaces sank, and the flagship Sea Venture wrecked upon the Bermuda reefs.
The settlers who made it to Virginia put more strain on the struggling colony: they ate through the colony's seven acres of planted corn in three days. A mysterious gunpowder explosion severely injured Captain John Smith and sent him back to London in October. Now 300 settlers crowded into James Fort and faced the coming winter with fractured leadership, insufficient provisions, and imminent war with the Powhatans who had tired of the settlers' demands and harsh tactics.
We call her Jane. Female, 14 years old, possibly from southern England.
She left Plymouth, England, in June 1609 as part of the largest fleet yet to sail for Jamestown. But a terrifying hurricane scattered the fleet, and her ship limped into Jamestown in early August. Less than a year later, she was dead.
These are the things we know about her. There is much more we do not know. Who was she? Why did she leave home? Was she the daughter of a well-to-do gentry family or the humble maidservant of a gentlewoman? What did she hope to do in America? Was she timid in the face of the unknown or was she brave? How exactly did she die?
We know so little about Jane because, like most women and children of the time, she was not recorded in the historical documents. Today she is our only tangible personification of the darkest period of the Jamestown colony -- "the starving time" -- when in the winter months of 1609 and early spring of 1610 most of James Fort's inhabitants died of sickness and starvation. A few chilling accounts tell us that in desperation the wretched survivors consumed the bodies of those who succumbed. People like Jane.
She survived a hurricane before she faced the trials of a frontier English settlement. Jane was one of the women on the largest supply fleet yet sent to the colony. A hurricane smashed the fleet; 32 people from two of the ships are said to have been buried at sea. Two women aboard the Unity reportedly gave birth during the voyage, but both newborns died. The remains of the fleet limped into Jamestown with many passengers sick or dying. The Diamond arrived with individuals suffering from the plague. But according to Gabriel Archer, who was aboard the Blessing, there was no illness on his ship that carried "twenty women and children." Given the archaeological context of where Jane's remains were found in James Fort, she was likely one of the women arriving with this battered fleet.
After Captain John Smith's sudden departure from Jamestown in October 1609, a full-scale war with the Powhatan Indians broke out. They "all revolted, and did murder and spoile all they could incounter." The Indians wiped out an English post at Nansemond and pushed the English out of their garrison by the falls of the James River. With drought continuing, this moment appeared the Powhatans' best chance for ending the English settlement in the region.
The Indians organized a siege of James Fort, killing the settlers' livestock roaming in the woods and picking off any settler who ventured outside the palisade. The rapidly dwindling supplies and unsanitary conditions of the overcrowded fort soon began to cause starvation and the spread of disease. 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 Powhatan Indians, the James Fort colonists could not safely venture outside the fort's walls to find food in the woods or river. Acting Governor George 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.