Struggling to Survive
A long-forgotten cemetery reveals a colony in crisis. Young adults — normally a society's healthiest members — were dying. The few women and infants at Jamestown were dying. Gravediggers were hurrying, digging graves in all directions. The living were abandoning their burial customs.
These graves mark the Starving Time, the desperate winter of 1609-1610. When a load of new colonists landed in mid-August 1609, the situation was dire. They brought few provisions: their supply ships had run aground in Bermuda. Indians were besieging Jamestown. The colony's leader, Captain John Smith, left for England in October for treatment of a gunpowder burn. Food supplies were exhausted. The settlers feared to leave the fort to fish or hunt. By the spring, more than half the colony had perished from disease and famine.
A Cemetery's Tale
In the 1950s, archaeologists located an early unmarked cemetery. It lay under the ruins of a statehouse that was built at Jamestown in the 1660s. Now called the Statehouse Complex Burial Ground, it holds victims of the Starving Time, as well as later graves up to the 1630s.
Patterns and trends emerge in looking at an entire cemetery. One burial informs us about an individual; many burials at a single site can cast light on social conditions and customs. The Statehouse Complex Burial Ground exposes the desparate times and social disruption in the settlement's early years. Learn More
Extraordinary, Early Deaths
A cemetery reflects a community. Normally, the dead are infants or small children, or middle-aged to older adults, with roughly equal numbers of males and females.
The unusually high death rate of young adults in the Statehouse cemetery reflects both the crisis in the community and the makeup of the population of early Jamestown. The remains are mostly young adult and teenaged males. The few females were girls and young women who had come to the colony as servants or brides.
A Breakdown in Burial Customs
The standard English practice in the early 1600s was to bury the dead without clothing, wrapped in a winding-sheet or shroud. Most were placed without a coffin in a carefully dug shaft large enough to fit a body extended on its back.
The Statehouse cemetery holds a mix of traditional and haphazard burials. In some graves, the bodies were face down, on their sides, or bent to fit too small a grave shaft. At least three people were buried still clothed, as shown by buttons and personal items that might have been in a pocket.
Foods of Desperation
Bones of another sort — the remains of meals the colonists once ate — are vital clues. The colonists were frantic for food. After they ran out of provisions, they consumed meats they would never have willingly swallowed otherwise. First they slaughtered their horses. Faced with starvation, they ate dogs, cats, and rats — animals that had come to Jamestown as passengers on English ships — and even snakes.
In the fort's trash pits, many bones of once taboo foods show butchering marks. One colonist wrote that some of the starving resorted to digging up corpses for food. Evidence of this has yet to be found.
Bones can sometimes pinpoint and prove an event in history. Archaeologists also recovered remains of a particular bird species from the early trash pits at Jamestown. These birds could have come only from one place. The island of Bermuda is the only native habitat of the Bermuda petrel, or cahow.
These small petrel bones mark a crucial turning point. In May 1610, more colonists and supply ships from Bermuda landed in Jamestown. In journals written four hundred years ago, the survivng colonists credited their coming with saving the settlement from starvation and abandonment.
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