What Was the Jamestown Settlers' Greatest Problem in the Early Years of Settlement From 1607-1616?

John Smith's presence at Jamestown helped the colonists survive.
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The initial settlers established what would be the first permanent English colony in the New World in May of 1607 as part of a joint business venture called the Virginia Company. They were 104 in number and built a wooden stockade around a small settlement on a narrow peninsula in the James River. They faced numerous serious problems, including disease and hostile Indians, but the chief threat to their existence was hunger.

1 A Hungry Winter

As soon as the ship that brought them returned to England in the summer of 1607, the colonists began to skirmish with local Algonquian tribes who far outnumbered them. At first, John Smith, the man who became the colonists’ leader, helped them trade with the Algonquians in return for food; Smith was also the man who enforced a rule among the English gentleman of the colony, who would not work: "He who does not work, does not eat." But when Smith had to return to England in 1609 after an injury, the colonists were left to their own devices and suffered through a difficult winter that became known as "the starving time," during which dozens of colonists died.

2 Worst Drought in Seven Centuries

Part of the reason the colonists were starving was because they were unable to venture outside their fort to seek food because of the threat of Indian attack. But modern scientists have discovered that the main reason for their lack of food is that they were undergoing a severe drought. Core samples taken from thousand-year old cypress trees show that between 1607 and 1612, Jamestown and the surrounding area experienced the worst drought in 700 years. Crops would have been sparse, and did the local Indians would not have much food to barter, had they been so inclined.

3 Eating Their Dead

Another indication that hunger was the primary problem at Jamestown was that all available evidence shows that colonists resorted to survival cannibalism during the starving time winter of 1609-1610. Recently, archaeologists uncovered the skull of a 14 year old girl in a dig at the site of Jamestown; the girl’s skull and forehead had knife marks consistent with her body being butchered for meat after her death. Her bones were found in a trash pit, which also contained the butchered remains of horses, cats and dogs, showing how desperate the colonists had become. (There is also some indication that colonists may have the eaten black rats that had come over with them on their ships, thus exposing themselves to bubonic plague.)

4 Saved At Last

In the spring of 1610, the colonists who remained after the harsh winter decided to flee Jamestown and head back to England. Just as they were about to do so, two ships carrying 150 new settlers and supplies arrived, helping the colonists to recover their health and remain in the New World. It would, however, be years before the Jamestown colony would begin to prosper with the help of planting tobacco as an export crop.

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.