Starving Jamestown settlers ate 14-year-old girl’s brains

The Smithsonian revealed that there is finally hard evidence that the settlers at Jamestown, England’s first permanent settlement in America, practiced cannibalism during a particularly bad famine in their first few years upon arriving in the new world.

I remember the story of Jamestown, of course, from school, but not the details.  They lived through a horrible first couple of years, plagued by famine.

From Wikipedia:

On May 14, 1607, Captain Edward Maria Wingfield, elected president of the governing council on April 25, selected a piece of land on a large peninsula, some 40 miles (64 km) inland from the Atlantic Ocean, as a prime location for a fortified settlement. The Peninsula was surrounded by the York river in the north, the James river in the south and the Chesapeake bay in the east of the peninsula. The piece of land had deep water, making it a navigable and defensible strategic point. Perhaps the best thing about it, from an English point of view, was that it was not inhabited by nearby Virginia Indian tribes, who regarded the site as too poor and remote for agriculture. However, the island was swampy, isolated, offered limited space and was plagued by mosquitoes and brackish tidal river water unsuitable for drinking.

The Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, re-creations of the three ships that brought English colonists to Virginia in 1607, sailing down the James River on May 12, 2007. spirit of america / Shutterstock.com

The Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, re-creations of the three ships that brought English colonists to Virginia in 1607, sailing down the James River on May 12, 2007. spirit of america / Shutterstock.com

In addition to the malarial swamp the settlers arrived too late in the year to get crops planted. Many in the group were gentlemen unused to work, or their manservants, equally unaccustomed to the hard labor demanded by the harsh task of carving out a viable colony. One of these was Robert Hunt, a former vicar of Reculver, England, who “probably celebrated the first known service of holy communion in what is today the United States of America [at Jamestown, on June 21 1607].” In a few months, fifty-one of the party were dead; some of the survivors were deserting to the Indians whose land they had colonized. In the “starving time” of 1609–1610, the Jamestown settlers were in even worse straits. Only 61 of the 500 colonists survived the period.

Many of the settlers were “gentlemen unused to work”?  What kind of nut moves to an uninhabited (for all they knew) part of the word, expecting life to be free of “work”?

And the death rate was just horrendous.

Oh yeah, and while initially having good relations with the local natives, the settlers killed them off within the first three years.  Big mistake.

As the Smithsonian now notes, we finally know that in fact there was some cannibalism at Jamestown:

The harsh winter of 1609 in Virginia’s Jamestown Colony forced residents to do the unthinkable. A recent excavation at the historic site discovered the carcasses of dogs, cats and horses consumed during the season commonly called the “Starving Time.” But a few other newly discovered bones in particular, though, tell a far more gruesome story: the dismemberment and cannibalization of a 14-year-old English girl.

“The chops to the forehead are very tentative, very incomplete,” says Douglas Owsley, the Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who analyzed the bones after they were found by archaeologists from Preservation Virginia. “Then, the body was turned over, and there were four strikes to the back of the head, one of which was the strongest and split the skull in half. A penetrating wound was then made to the left temple, probably by a single-sided knife, which was used to pry open the head and remove the brain.”…

Owsley says the cut marks on the jaw, face and forehead of the skull, along with those on the shinbone, are telltale signs of cannibalism. “The clear intent was to remove the facial tissue and the brain for consumption. These people were in dire circumstances. So any flesh that was available would have been used,” says Owsley. “The person that was doing this was not experienced and did not know how to butcher an animal. Instead, we see hesitancy, trial, tentativeness and a total lack of experience.”…

It appears that her brain, tongue, cheeks and leg muscles were eaten, with the brain likely eaten first, because it decomposes so quickly after death. There’s no evidence of murder, and Owsley suspects that this was a case in which hungry colonists simply ate the one remaining food available to them, despite cultural taboos. “I don’t think that they killed her, by any stretch,” he says. “It’s just that they were so desperate, and so hard-pressed, that out of necessity this is what they resorted to.”

The Smithsonian points to a manuscript of the president of the colony during the “starving time,” George Percy.  It’s a fascinating document, in part just reading the old-spelling of English words, but at the same time having most of it still be entirely comprehensible to modern eyes, even if it is from 1625.  In that manuscript, Percy talks of cannibalism, but the Smithsonian points out that no one had any proof that it actually happened, until now.  Here’s Percy’s manuscript about the famine, and eating everything they could find:

Jamestown-famine-cannibalism

Just fyi, the first American Thanksgiving was held at Plymouth in 1621.  There was a different Thanksgiving held at Jamestown in 1610, by the 60 or so survivors of the nearly 500 who initially had settled there.  Some trace the original Thanksgiving to that feast, while others say it was Plymouth.


CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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42 Responses to “Starving Jamestown settlers ate 14-year-old girl’s brains”

  1. Nick says:

    Only if they were moaning, “Braaaaaaains” while partaking of same.

  2. “…would lie about the conditions in America”

    I didn’t know they had right-wing talk radio back then.

  3. I was under the impression they preferred Starboard with rotting fresh.

  4. Were brains considered a delicacy… for non-zombies, that is?

  5. Zombies?

  6. Naja pallida says:

    Minor nit, Jamestown was pre-pilgrims. What were considered pilgrims didn’t settle until 1620, 10 years after most of the original Jamestown colonists died, and they were resupplied and resettled, and finally became an actual functional colony. Very few Americans can trace their ancestry back to the original Jamestown settlement, while about 10% can trace ancestry back to the pilgrims.

    Those who settled in Plymouth were intending to go to Virginia Colony, but were unable to reach it due to the weather along the coast, so they just picked a spot and settled. Of course, almost half of the original Plymouth settlers died during their first winter as well, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the same kind of things happened there too. Though, they were remarkably good at keeping records. Seems likely that someone would have written something down.

    Not to detract from your overall point. Most of the pilgrim settlers were indentured servants. They had no money to be able to afford to move to a new colony, so basically sold themselves into slavery to pay for it. My own pilgrim ancestor was one of five indentured servants of the writer of the Mayflower Compact, John Carver. Who only gained his freedom upon Carver’s death. The colony wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for slavery.

  7. BeccaM says:

    I can’t see that it would be. Yesterday’s surfing perambulations brought me over to the Uruguayan air disaster of ’72, the now famous story about the rugby team that crashed into the Andes and managed to survive for months by eating their dead (of which there were plenty).

    Afterwards, the 16 remaining survivors were clearly pretty badly scarred psychologically, but in one of its more humane and charitable gestures, the Catholic Church (which most of the survivors belonged to) issued a statement saying it would have been a sin not to resort to cannibalism under the circumstances.

  8. slavdude says:

    There is also the tradition of shipwreck survivors eating their less fortunate comrades known as “the law of the sea”. It too was not illegal.

  9. BeccaM says:

    Pretty much, except for the fact most people actually get to see what they’re buying.

    In an extensive publicity campaign, the (London) Company founders among whom were Edward Maria Wingfield, Bartholomew Gosnold and few others circulated pamphlets, plays, sermons and broadsides throughout England to raise interest in New World investments. Shareholders could buy stock individually or in groups. Almost 1700 people purchased shares, including men of different occupations and classes, wealthy women, and representatives of institutions such as trade guilds, towns and cities.

    The largest single investor was Thomas West, Lord de la Warre, who served as the first governor of Virginia between 1610 and 1618.

    The business of the company was the settlement of the Virginia colony using, as the labor force, voluntary transportees under the customary indenture system whereby in exchange for seven years of labor for the company, the company provided passage, food, protection and land ownership.

    There were actually two companies — the Virginia Company of London and the Plymouth Company — both which were entirely in the business of turning a healthy profit on the New World colonies. Survival of the colonists was a secondary consideration at best.

    This is also where the slave trade got its start: They needed cheap labor as fast as it could be shipped.

  10. karmanot says:

    I was so channeling you on this one!

  11. karmanot says:

    So, this is were we get the tradition of buying retirement ‘land’ in swamp land Florida or Bum Butt Nevada.

  12. karmanot says:

    Might we assume he had a good Port to wash it down?

  13. karmanot says:

    I’ll be sure to carry some canned goods if ever in proximity to you. LOL

  14. Yeah I noticed that part too.

  15. So they were the 1600s version of modern real estate agents?

  16. I’m not sure I’d feel any differently eating someone I killed or eating someone who died :)

  17. BeccaM says:

    What I’ve noticed is the GOPers “the Founding Fathers were Gods” worship is it bears a striking resemblance to their actual religious impulses: Which is to say it serves as a handy blank slate onto which to project whatever regressive ideals they want to assert as infallible and irrefutable.

    Not only were there deep divisions between those founders — just consider the struggle between Jeffersonian vs Hamiltonian political philosophies — it’s also clear that many of the positions the GOPers try to assert as “original intent” would’ve been considered utter anathema to those ancestors of ours.

  18. MyrddinWilt says:

    That is an interesting point.

    When Republicans claim that the early settlers came to America to be free of government regulation we can now point out that they ended up practicing cannibalism as a result.

    The whole argument from authority and ancestor worship thing is bogus in any case. Jefferson was not an ideologue. The wingnuts try to settle arguments by reference to ‘the founders’ for the same reason that they cling to biblical sources: they are too fucking stupid to think for themselves. So their idea of ‘research’ is to take their ill-informed prejudices and search sacred texts to find support for them.

  19. silas1898 says:

    At this point, the Spanish had literally been hauling boatloads of gold back from the New World for over half a century. The story of just putting your hand out and getting rich was a very easy sell. Oops, sorry, not in these parts! The “get rich quick” scheme is as human as breathing.

    Good stuff. The real story is never as tidy, but is always more interesting.

  20. TheOriginalLiz says:

    Soylent Green is people!!!

  21. BeccaM says:

    LOL. Good point.

  22. MyrddinWilt says:

    I don’t much care what type of cannibal St Thomas of Jefferson was. All I care about is that when some wingnut tries to make an argument by recourse to authority, I can now point out that he wasn’t just a slaver and a rapist by modern standards, applying the logic of Ted Cruz we now have to ask if he might have been a cannibal to boot.

  23. BeccaM says:

    The former is considered ‘necro cannibalism’, while the latter is ‘homicidal cannibalism.’

    Necro cannibalism is often not considered illegal in dire circumstances. Homicidal cannibalism is illegal and condemned in nearly all cultures and countries.

    All hail Wikipedia.

  24. Bomer says:

    Small nitpick but the meaning of cannibalism is simply “the eating of human flesh by another human being.” Or, more generally, “the eating of the flesh of an animal by another animal of its own kind.” It makes no distinction between digging up a corpse and eating it, or killing a living person and eating them. Both are considered cannibalism.

  25. Papa Bear says:

    or ducks…
    8-O

  26. Sweetie says:

    The Democrats’ scam becomes more transparent
    http://www.salon.com/2010/03/12/democrats_36/

  27. Sweetie says:

    “It is clear that we must enter an era of austerity…” — Nancy Pelosi

    – In the 2008 Obama-Biden health care plan on the campaign’s website, candidate Obama promised that “any American will have the opportunity to enroll in [a] new public plan.” [2008]

    – During a speech at the American Medical Association, President
    Obama told thousands of doctors that one of the plans included in the
    new health insurance exchanges “needs to be a public option that will give people a broader range of choices and inject competition into the health care market.” [6/15/09]

    – While speaking to the nation during his weekly address, the President said that “any plan” he signs “must include…a public option.” [7/17/09]

    – During a conference call with progressive bloggers, the President said he continues “to believe that a robust public option would be the best way to go.” [7/20/09]

    – Obama told NBC’s David Gregory that a public option “should be a part of this [health care bill],” while rebuking claims that the plan was “dead.” [9/20/09]

    “I didn’t campaign on the public option,” President Obama told the Washington Post.

    “After feigning support all year for a public option, Democrats are
    now whipping against it to prevent passage”

  28. Sweetie says:

    Cannibalism is when people kill living people to eat them. That’s my definition. I think eating the corpses of people who died, as long as they didn’t die due to policies designed to kill them so they could be eaten, is not cannibalism. The English language could do with a new term for this.

    It is actually irrational and inhumane to ask other people to die rather than eat the bodies of the recently deceased. Certainly, it is not something people would choose to do if they had the option of eating normal foods.

  29. MyrddinWilt says:

    I am pretty sure they would all have been royalists back then.

    Just saying…

  30. MyrddinWilt says:

    Just wondering here, any chance we could drop the notion that the United States was settled by the most perfect men ever to walk the earth and that the constitution handed down on tablets of stone?

    The constitution was written by a gang of slavers and the pilgrim fathers now turn out to have been cannibals. Now times were different then and it would be unfair to judge everyone by the behavior of a few. But isn’t that also a reason why we should feel free to question their ideas just like everyone else?

    Instead the folk on the right start yapping when people question the idea that protecting the ‘right’ of states to maintain a militia to round up runaway slaves in the 1790s means that two centuries later we must recognize the unrestricted ‘right’ to collect automatic weapons for the express purpose of organizing to overthrow the government.

    One of the most stupid, dangerous ideas in US politics is American exceptionalism, this crazy racist notion that Americans are somehow better than everyone else on the planet simply by being american. The idea that americans have moral values and presumably everyone else does not. Well now it turns out that your ancestors were cannibals.

  31. BeccaM says:

    Actually, no. Jamestown was an early victim of unregulated capitalism in that it was chartered by an English joint stock venture called the ‘Virginia Company of London.’ It was funded primarily by wealthy merchants who expected to make a killing in the New World via these new crops they’d heard about — namely tobacco and potatoes, but also timber and other natural resources and exports.

    The bulk of the laborers were indentured servants, while the wealthy men were those who felt they could become richer faster if they were in America to oversee it. The first iteration of Jamestown was entirely a ‘company town’ and part of their trouble is they were under extreme pressure to show a profit, as opposed to dealing with survival.

    The propaganda and advertisements in England about the riches to be had just by putting your hand out and picking up the gold in the New World put to shame the floating ‘Offworld Colonies’ blimps in Blade Runner.

    Anyway, the wiki article on the London Company makes for fascinating reading.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Company_of_London

  32. BeccaM says:

    The ‘New World’ was an expensive proposition, even just to visit, and it took a great deal of money to fund these new colonies. So the various organizers — who fully expected to make a handsome profit off this sensational new frontier — would lie about the conditions in America. Made it sound like paradise.

    It was said to be wild and untamed, but with untold riches and a life so easy that the indigenous peoples barely engaged in any agriculture whatsoever. They glossed over the nasty weather, or the fact the only places available for settlement close to the eastern coast were the lands the Native Americans didn’t want.

    The other detail the colony promoters left out was the fact the non-agricultural Native Americans often would not stay in one spot for long. As soon as a given area was hunted out, they’d move on to new grounds. They also would move to stick with clement weather.

    The English plunked themselves down in a swamp, killed the local wildlife, had no idea how to grow anything for themselves and what seed crops they did bring with them were totally unsuited to coastal Virginia, and as the food ran out, they hunkered down rather than leaving or at least considering moving to a better location. That is, before the weakness of starvation removed any such choice.

  33. d3clark says:

    Note that they brought servants who were supposed to work to feed their masters. They hated and killed the natives. Immediately tried to expand their territory. Used torture and killed their own weak then propounded how religious they were as they practiced cannibalism. Sounds like early Republicans

  34. karmanot says:

    Waaaaaaaa Waaaaaaa They survived the winter by burning witches

  35. karmanot says:

    Moderator, this spamhole is still at it.

  36. nicho says:

    My roommate’s step-sister makes $100 an hour on the pole. More, if she gives private lap dances.

  37. xodimifejuj says:

    my roomate’s step-sister makes $80 an hour on the computer. She has been laid off for five months but last month her paycheck was $17201 just working on the computer for a few hours. Read more on  Zap22.c­om

  38. nicho says:

    Many of the settlers were “gentlemen unused to work”? What kind of nut moves to an uninhabited (for all they knew) part of the word, expecting life to be free of “work”?

    But the brochures said. . . . .

  39. pappyvet says:

    What,no Fava beans !

  40. cole3244 says:

    the cons are as barbaric today as they were then!

  41. Sassifras says:

    They didn’t travel across an ocean expecting life to be free of work. They came to a relatively unknown land, inexperienced and ill-equipped for what they were getting themselves into.

  42. nicho says:

    And they tortured a guy into giving them the confession they wanted from him. So, we’re just getting back to our roots. Is cannibalism next? Maybe that’s what the Catfood Commission has in mind.

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