Colonial cannibalism

While starving during the winter of 1609, residents of Jamestown, Virginia likely ate at least one person, a teenage girl. Archaeologists found her skeleton last summer and it's riddled with cut marks characteristic of a body that has been butchered after death.


  1. .. Or maybe they just chopped her up because they suspected she was a witch?  If we cut her open and her bones are made of wood, she’s a witch!

    1.  She may already have been dead. But this isn’t really news so much as additional confirmation of what was already believed based on the existing accounts.

  2. Melora Creager told us!  More than a decade ago, she told us!!!

    “For what does “settler” imply, if not the willingness to settle? To
    settle for a meal of human flesh if my thoughts on the subject are to be

  3. People often talk about moral rules (such as against eating humans) as if they are inviolable, while in reality for really bad situations they are relative.

    For example in some cases it makes moral sense for a mother to kill her healthy new born infant. Some scientists have suggested that postpartum depression evolved to give a mother the needed distance to realistically evaluate infanticide.

    1. *slow clap* The moral relativist speaks. Don”t worry, you’ll grow out it.

      1. Men do by choice what demons do by nature.
          — Tanya Huff

        Compared to the myriad atrocities that human beings perpetrate upon one another for no better reason than philosophical differences, eating people at least has practical value.

  4. It is not that unexpected. There was documentary statements to this affect from witnesses at that time. The evidence here is confirmation.

    What is interesting is that we only know of a few people who survived those years. For some settlers, like John Laydon and Anthony Gosnold, this would have been their 3rd year of starving over winter. By that point, I could easily see them doing what they felt they needed to do. 

  5. If it had been a more successful  colony, they also would have built a ship and sailed back to England to get out of the New World hell hole, like their sister colony in Popham did.  But because they were a dismal failure, they were stuck here, and got all the historical glory.  Kind of ironic.  And almost nobody knows about Popham, the real success that year.

    1. Actually, they were in the process of leaving when they were rescued by the 3rd Supply. Popham and Jamestown had about the same level of success their first year. Jamestown rightly goes down as the more successful one. When Popham died, the colony bailed. When the equivalent personality in the driver of Jamestown (Bartholomew Gosnold)  died, they kept going. 

      Jamestown always had the option of bailing. Fairly regular resupply ships could have evacuated the colony. So, I think your analysis is quite wrong. They stuck it out as a choice. It was only after the 3rd year, was Jamestown abandoned. (But, only Jamestown, Fort Algernon was still occupied even after the evacuation of Jamestown. The Virginia colony was going to stick irrespective of the town of Jamestown)

      1. That’s funny.  The 3rd Supply was a ship made by the Popham colony, sailed back to England, filled with groceries, and returned to Jamestown to rescue their sorry colony.  Popham was so successful, they saved Jamestown, and colonists later returned to Popham a little further upriver, but because they had temporarily left, they don’t get credit for being first continuous English colony.  Half of Jamestown died off that first year, but only one guy in Popham died.  Popham built a ship, traded with local Indians for furs, and gathered a cargo of valuable plants while Jamestown was festering in a swamp eating one another.

        1. That 3rd Supply was 9 total ships. 1 was shipwrecked in Bermuda. 1 turned back. The other 7 arrived with all their colonists.

          After the first resupply, Jamestown had 3 working ships, all capable of cross-Atlantic travel in 1608 and 1609. They had an additional 7 ships added in late 1609. (The cannibalism did not occur until roughly 1610).
          Once they had local mobility, they used the ships to trade with Indians located further away from the colony.

          Neither Jamestown, nor Popham were expected to cultivate their own food, particularly, the first year. (In fact, Popham left on their resupply ship, unlike Jamestown, who stayed). They were expected to trade. Popham was lucky in their selection as the only Indians in the area were on friendly terms in 1607. (In fact, the first casualty for Jamestown was from hostile fire. The Indians launched a full scale attack within 3 weeks of the initial landing, even prior to the construction of the permanent fort). Popham had a much smaller contingent, larger store of food, and arrived much later in the year, so their food supply was not as depleted.

          So, in 1608, resupply ships come to two colonies in the New World. In one colony, the group has had one total casualty over the past year. They all board ship and set sail homeward. In the other colony, 70 of 105 colonists have died. They stay. They keep going. 

          By no stretch of imagination can Popham be construed as any more successful than the Roanoke colonies, except in colonist survival.

          1. Colonist survival is pretty big.  So is ship building.  So is trading with neighbors.  So is actually filling cargo holds for the reverse trip back to England.  Jamestown gets the overall prize, but they deserve it as much as a guy who is carried through a marathon on a litter by rotating teams of runners.  (See, I can stretch my imagination.)

  6. How the hell could a winter in southern Virginia be? Was there nobody there with any hunting, fishing or trapping skills? The James River is probably full of oyster beds. 

    The monthly average temperature from Dec-Jan-Feb is over 40° F. The average high is around 50°. The average low is above freezing. How bad could even a *bad* winter be?

    Only 61 of 500 settlers survived the winter of 1609-10. Apparently things turned bad because of a bad harvest and the fact that they planned to rely on trading with the local Indians, but the Indians weren’t into that.

    This had to be the most inept bunch of people to ever get on a boat.

      1. Still, it seems like they planned for the best, not the worst. Even a half-baked plan would have accounted for unhappy locals.

      1. Not saying I’d do much better, but then again I come from an easier time. However, my plan would likely not assume the locals would be happy to see me.

    1. It was the summer that was the problem and the sudden influx of 200-300 additional mouths to feed. There was a massive drought that did not allow for much local growing. The resupply ship with the food for the colonists shipwrecked.

  7. Read this elsewhere on the webz, thought the comment “Don’t think they are going to change their Thanksgiving customs because of this” there worth to share .

    Related to ‘moral relativism’ remark: Flight 571.

  8. How do they know the settlers butchered her? Couldn’t the locals have butchered her and left the bones behind for the settlers to bury?

    1. Presumably forensics can distinguish between the tools that the locals used and the tools that the settlers used.

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