Two of every three Jamestown colonists died during the “starving time” in the winter of 1609 and spring of 1610. At the outset, more than 250 colonists had huddled under the protection of James Fort. Most of these individuals had just arrived in the colony a few months before after a harrowing sea voyage through a hurricane that sickened many and caused the loss of their provisions. As winter set in, Chief Powhatan ordered his warriors to place the settlement under siege. The Virginia Indians were no longer willing to trade for food and it was not safe for the colonists to venture outside of the fort to do their own foraging.
The survivors recorded that they had to eat rats, cats, dogs, snakes, horses, and even their shoe leather to sustain themselves. When the Powhatan Indians finally lifted their siege of James Fort to prepare for their spring plantings, only 60 settlers remained.
Then the situation worsened. Over 100 settlers, including Governor Thomas Gates, arrived at the fort in late May 1609 after being shipwrecked on Bermuda for almost 10 months. They found the starving colonists “Lamentable to behowlde” and the Bermudan turtles, birds, and fish they brought with them would not feed everyone. Gates decided to abandon the colony. After preparing provisions, burying the cannon before the front gate of the fort, and readying the four small ships at hand, the survivors sailed down the James River hoping to reach English fishing vessels near Newfoundland.
Gates and the settlers got no further than 12 miles downriver when they were met by the new governor, Lord De La Warr, and his relief expedition of 3 ships, 150 new colonists, and plentiful provisions. Jamestown had survived.