Cannibalism at Jamestown

A gruesome relic informs a desperate history. Historic Jamestowne’s Senior Archaeological Curator Bly Straube describes the find that let scientists and historians confirm the tales of cannibalism in America’s fledgling years.

Learn more: Read Jane's Story


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. The first arrivals to the Jamestown colony in 1607 had a tough road to follow. Alongside their charter to explore the land and discover resources existed the demands of basic survival.

Scarcity of shelter, clothing and food reached dire levels in the winter of 1609, a period history has come to know as The Starving Time. Mortality soared, relations with local Indians hit bottom, and desperate colonists resorted to cannibalism to survive the harsh winter.

It’s a story that they’re telling now at Jamestown Island, and joining me now is Bly Straube, Senior Archaeological Curator at Jamestown Island. She’s here to tell us about a new angle of this story that they’re interpreting now at Jamestown Island. Bly, thank you for being here today.

Bly Straube: Well thank you for the invitation.

Harmony: Well before we dig into this story I always think it’s important to remind people what Jamestown Island is. This is the site of America’s first permanent English settlement; first landed on in 1607.

Bly: Right.

Harmony: Integral to the American story. We wouldn’t be here now if there wasn’t a Jamestown.

Bly: Exactly.

Harmony: And The Starving Time. We talked a little bit in the intro about The Starving Time this winter. What happened? How close did we come to losing our grip on the Virginia colony in this winter?

Bly: Oh, very, very close. We were just hanging by a thread by that point. Really what the tipping point was a combination of things. One was a fleet of ships, the supply fleet that was due to arrive at Jamestown in the summer of 1609 encountered a hurricane on the way over, and all the ships were in peril. They were dumping provisions overboard. People died. The Sea Venture actually got shipwrecked on Bermuda and that just happened to have all the leadership of the colony, the new leadership, the governor and everyone else aboard it so there they are shipwrecked. They don’t make it to Jamestown.

The ships that stagger in, one ship has the plague on her it says. They don’t have many provisions at all because they had to dump them overboard. They come into the fort and things had started to get very bad with the Indian population by that point as well. Powhatan had realized that he couldn’t win by using his weaponry against the English, but he knew the English weak point and that was food. So he decided to starve them out. He ordered his warriors to put the fort under siege so that happens sort of late fall/winter of 1609 when this already weakened group is in the fort, including women now and children.

So it was really that siege of the fort that confined people in this small area of land, one acre of land, and they resorted to eating whatever they could. If they could venture out from the fort they chanced to get shot. Ones who did were able to find, like, mushrooms and snakes and toads. They say they had to eat their dogs that they had. One context that we found that dates to that time period is a well actually had 19 dogs represented in that one feature.

They had to eat their horses that had brought over with that 1609 fleet. There were seven horses, and we have found their remains as well. And snakes and shoe leather and then they do say, you know, finally they had to resort to survival cannibalism.

Harmony: So everything is going wrong in the Jamestown colony at this point. We’ve known from the documentary record, we’ve known from the excavations that archeologists have been doing for years at Jamestown Island about some of the things that colonists resorted to during The Starving Time. You mentioned the shoe leather, snakes, their dogs, their horses.

For years, I think we’ve kind of been skirting around the question of cannibalism, because while some references to it existed in some diaries of the period we didn’t really tell the story, so why now?

Bly: Well, actually back in the time it was hotly debated whether it was real or not because there was a lot of factionalism and fighting between political groups trying to gain control of the colony. The CEO, Sir Thomas Smythe of the Virginia Company of London, denied it. He was saying, “No, this is nonsense.” Because there was one very famous case where the man was actually executed for his deeds.

He is said to have murdered his wife and then proceeded to slowly sort of eat parts of her, which he claimed was because he was hungry. And then the court records say that a subsequent investigation showed that his larder was full of wheat and peas and corn and, you know, that he had plenty of food and then it was just blatant murder. So this kind of the story the Virginia Company, I think, was trying to push out that it hadn’t come to starvation and cannibalism…

Harmony: That’s bad when that’s the positive spin you put on something!

Bly: I know! But he was the only individual recorded as having been executed for having committed cannibalism. So since we now have evidence that it did happen that is even stronger support of the fact that it was survival cannibalism. So it was condoned, if you will, by the, you know, the people who were there. It wasn’t like a crime, it was something that they were doing just to survive. We don’t think they were actually murdering people and eating them. They were just processing people who had passed on and, you know. It’s sort of a different story.

But the reason we haven’t really talked much about it is because there had been no evidence until now. And, you know, 20 years of digging, you’d think that we would have turned up something. And we’d been digging, you know, concentrating on the interior of the fort. So this was the first time.

We have encountered skeletons before in the fort. There was an earlier burial ground in the fort when especially from that first summer when a lot of people were dying and the Virginia Company had said, “Don’t let the Indians see how many of you are dying.” So they started burying them within their small confines of the fort. So it was quite an amazing find.

Harmony: Let’s talk about that. So earlier this summer, early in the summer of 2013, the big story breaks that there’s physical evidence found of cannibalism, survival cannibalism at James Fort. What was found?

Bly: We found part of a skull. So it was only really half of a skull, and it was in sort of in pieces, and part of a tibia or leg: just the upper part. And, you know, at first when we found the skull, we weren’t too surprised. As I had said, we found this kind of thing before. We did take it out in a block of earth and took it into the lab to carefully take the dirt off and we started seeing these very unusual marks right away on the front of the skull, these deep gashes. And so we always call Doug Owsley in to evaluate our skeletal human remains. So we said, "We need to bring this up to you right away. There’s something very interesting about this one."

Harmony: For people who might not be familiar with Dr. Owsley’s reputation, we should say what his specialty is.

Bly: Right. He’s a forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution. He is called in on all sorts of cases: modern cases, murder cases that occur, worldwide when there are atrocities and they find mass graves and so forth, he’s called in. He has looked at historical issues as well like Kennewick Man. He was involved with that.

He is, I would say, the most knowledgeable individual on, you know, interpreting skeletal material, human skeletal material. And especially now in our time period, because he’s looked at a lot of our individuals and built up quite a database for 17th-century English individuals and what they should look like and the kinds of maladies that occur to them.

Harmony: So what was his take on this strange skull that you had found?

Bly: Well he confirmed that it was not a case of someone being murdered or an accident. That these were purposeful marks, which are called "processing," so that is preparing someone to eat. And it was a process for him, too. They used all kinds of equipment up at the Smithsonian, especially microscopic work where you could really get in and see very closely all these scratch marks on the bone that were not so apparent to the naked eye. So these are left by the points of the knife sort of scraping the skin off along the jaw line and things like that.

So it was a process, and we had to be very cautious because this was an explosive statement to make. Since it is the only concrete evidence from the colonial period of any colonizing group, even though it’s been recorded in documents and spoken about. Even in our time, the Donner party, they’ve never found the concrete evidence of cannibalism. You know, it was written in a diary, an account, but there have been no bones that reflect the cannibalism.

Harmony: So what exactly did these markings tell Dr. Owsley when he looked at it, these processing marks? You mentioned scraping away the flesh on the jaw.

Bly: Right. I mean well he worked out a whole scenario of events. And this is from his years of experience looking at murder cases and so forth. So he believes that the individual was lying on her back at first, and that someone tried to crack the skull open. The thing was, they were trying to get at the brain. The brain has a lot of good substances in it, calories, and they would be used to eating animal brain back in England. But it’s the part of the body that will go bad very quickly so you want to get at that first.

So then there are these marks, parallel markings on the front of the skull, which also leads Dr. Owsley to believe that the individual was dead at the time that this happened because they’re just perfectly straight. The person couldn’t move or anything. It looks like those are tentative marks. The individual sort of lost heart at it. I mean just think about it, you’re looking in the face of this individual.

So then he believes, Dr. Owsley believes, that the individual was turned over, and a more forcible blow was made to the back of the skull which did succeed in cracking the skull open. So we didn’t find the entire skull, we only found really half of it. And then there were prying marks on the side near where the ear is like a sort of square-shaped tool that might have been part of a knife, the lower part of a knife, and there were then cut marks and scrapes all along the jaw line where they would be removing the skin there, getting at the cheek meat which would be good, and then removing the tongue and that sort of thing.

Harmony: It’s such a grizzly story, and it’s such a pathetic story. It really tells you how rock-bottom terrible things were at James Fort at this time. That there was survival cannibalism, as you mentioned. They’re eating people who have died, and you have to think that you must have exhausted every other possibility at that point.

Bly: Exactly, and for me the fact that this skeleton turned out to be that of a 14 year old girl, or young woman. And for me, that is probably the most fantastic representation of this dire time there could have been, because this is someone who’s been brought to Jamestown probably as part of a gentleman’s family. She’s not a soldier. She didn’t sign on for this.

Soldiers know that they’re going into dangerous areas, and they expect this kind of thing to happen. But here’s this sort of hope of the future, this young, young woman coming to this New World and here she is representing this desperate time period for us.

Harmony: It’s truly tragic. When you tell this story, I think what’s so important about it, in some of the reconstructions, is that you’ve given her a name and you’ve given her a face.

Bly: Yes.

Harmony: Talk about the decisions to really personalize that story.

Bly: Well we did. We wanted to sort of reinstitute her dignity. I mean, her she was, the way she was found, actually the context was a fort cellar that had been, we believe, finally backfilled in the spring of 1610 when the Lord De La Warr arrives and really sort of brings in all new men and new provisions and we’re off to a new start then. So the fort gets cleaned up and built over. So she is in the refuse of this cellar. I mean it’s full of butchered dog and sturgeon bones and broken pots, you know, all this discarded stuff from everyday life.

So, you know, we wanted to give her a name. We thought about that, what it should be. We selected "Jane," because it’s kind of alliterative with Jamestown. Also it’s a name that was used in the 17th century, and its sort of like Jane Doe too, you know, plays into all of that.

And we also wanted to give her back her personage, so we decided to do a facial reconstruction based upon the bones that we had found. And that was quite an interesting process. We’ve come a long way now at being able to do that with all the sort of CSI things and forensic work that goes on.

We actually enlisted an individual working with Dr. Owsley who has helped many soldiers coming back from the wars in the Middle East who have lost parts of their head, or maybe an eye socket or something. And he does a lot of this reconstructive work and rebuilds their skulls. So we were able to complete her skull using his techniques, which is basically using the computer to do that.

So now we can actually look her in the eye. I mean she’s a lovely, really lovely young woman. I think it makes it more real for the visitor. You know it’s not just a clinical sort of case. This is a person who was at Jamestown, you know, back then and this is her story.

Harmony: Where’s Jane now? Are her remains reinterred?

Bly: No, she is on exhibit in the archaearium, which is our archeological museum on Jamestown Island, Historic Jamestowne. We have her displayed there because we didn’t want to be elitist so that only a handful of people would be allowed to actually see this very important evidence. We wanted to present it to the American people so that they could see for themselves.

And what we did was, we have her in what’s called the "People Room," or, "The Dead Inform the Living." It’s kind of that idea. And we have a number of other individuals sort of displayed there. We concentrated on her story with telling how we know what we know so there’s a huge graphic panel that describes each of the marks we saw and what that means and we thought that was really important to bring the science into it.

And then the rest of the sort of interpretive panels surrounding her talk about the circumstances; her context, how difficult it was sort of leading up to the Starving Time and that kind of thing. And then we wanted to end on a sort of a positive note, so it was sort of the coming of De La Warr and getting off to a new start and bringing in women and children, which is really serving to stabilize the whole colony.

Harmony: Like so many other stories coming out of Historic Jamestowne it's fascinating, it’s tragic; it’s as griping as any drama you might see on the page or on the screen.

We want to encourage everybody to visit Jamestowne Island, Historic Jamestowne in person or if they can’t get there in person this year to visit your website. What’s the website?

Bly: It would be Historic Jamestowne and Jamestowne is with an “E” on the end.

Harmony: So we want to encourage everybody to get down there and visit and see this amazing exhibit, meet Jane and hear the story she has to tell us. Bly, thank you so much for being our guest today.

Bly: Oh, you’re welcome.

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