Jamestown: What Caused the Failure of the Jamestown Colony in 1610?

Document A: John Smith's Description of the Powhatans, 1612. (Primary Source)

[Original version] Each household knoweth their owne lands and gardens, and most live of their owne labours.

For their apparell, they are some time coveredwith the skinnes of wilde beasts, which in winter are dressed with the haire, but in sommer without. The better sort use large mantels of deare skins not much differing in fashion from the Irish mantels...

Their buidings and habitations are for the most part by the rivers or not farre or distant from some fresh spring. Their houses are built like our Arbors of small young springs (saplings?) bowed and tyed, and so close covered with mats or the barkes of trees very handsomely, that not withstanding either winde raine or weather, they are as warme as stooves, but very smoaky; yet at the toppe of the house their is a hole made for the smoake to goe into right over the fire...

Their houses are in the midst of their fileds or gardens; which are smal plots ofground, some 20 (acres?), some 40, some 100. some 200. some more, some lesse. Some times 2 to 100 of these houses (are) togither, or but a little separated by groves of trees. Neare their habitations is (a) little small wood, or old trees on the ground, by reason of their burning of them for fire...

Men women and children have their severall names according to the severall humour(s) of their parents. Their women (they say) are easilie delivered of childe, yet doe they love children verie dearly. To make them hardy, in the coldest morning they wash them in the rivers, and by painting and ointments so tanne their skins that after (a) year or two, no weather will hurt them.

The men bestow their times fishing, hunting, wars, and such manlike exercises, scorning to be seen in any woman like exercise; which is the cause that the woman be verie painfull and the men often idle. The women and children do the rest of the worke. They make mats, baskets, pots, morters; pound their corne, make their bread, preapare their victuals, plant their corne, gather their corne, beare al kind of burdens, and such like...

Their fishing is much in Boats. These they make of one tree by bowing (i.e., burning) and scratching away the coles with ston(e)s and shels till they have made it in (the) form of a Trough. Some of them are an elne (i.e., an all, a unit of measure equal to 45 inches) deepe, and 40 or 50 foot in length, and some will beare 40 men; but the most ordinary are smaller, and will beare 10, 20, or 30. according to their bignes. Insteed of oares, they use paddles and sticks, with which they will row faster then our Barges...

There is yet in Virginia no place discovered to bee so Savage in which the Savages have not a religion, Deare, and Bow and Arrowes. All thinges that were able to do them hurt beyond their prevention, they adore with their kinde of divine worship; as the fire, lightening, thunder, our ordinance peeces (i.e., ordinance pieces, large guns), horses, etc.

Although the countrie people be very barbarous; yet have they amongst them such government, as that their government, as the their Magistrats for good commanding, and their people for du(e) subjection and obeying, excell many places that would be counted very civill.

The forme of their Common wealth is a monarchicall governement.

[Modern Version] Each family has its own land and gardens. They do their own work. For clothes they wear animal skins. In winter they wear skins with the fur and hair left on, but in summer they wear leather. More important people wear cloaks made of deer skins that look like the cloaks the Irish wear...They build their homes near rivers or springs. They tie long slender branches together in bundles and weave them into a frame for the house, like a giant basket. Then they lay mats or bark over this frame. The houses are warm and snug, but very smokey, even though they leave a hole above their fireplaces for smoke...Their houses are surrounded by their own fields and gardens. This farmland can be a small plot or large fields. Sometimes these houses are grouped together, separated only by groves of trees. Near their homes are piles of wood for burning in their home fires...Parents give children several names. Women have babies easily, and love them very much. To make babies strong, on the coldest mornings they wash them in rivers. They also put oils and lotions on the skin of babies to protect them against the weather.Men fish, hunt, and go to war. Women often work while the men are idle. Women and children do all the work. They make mats, baskets, pots, and grinding tools, grind corn into flour, bake bread, and do all the cooking. They also do the farming, planting, raising, and gathering of corn. Women do the hauling and all the other heavy work...

They use boats for fishing. The boats are made by burning out the center of the tree. They scrape away the burned coals with stones and shells to form a long hollow trough. These boats can be almost four feet deep and 40 or 50 feet long. Some will hold 400 men, but most are smaller, holding 10 to 30 men. They use paddles instead of oars and can travel quickly...

John Smith, A Map of Virginia. With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion...(Oxford, 1612).

Back to Case


Document B: Watercolor Drawing of Indian Village of Pomeiooc (1585-6)


Back to Case

Document C: Engraving of Indians making boats (1590)


Back to Case

Document D: Reprinted from Travels and Works of Captain John Smith, President of Virginia, and Admiral of New England, 1610. (Primary Source)

[Original version] What by their crueltie, our Governours indiscretion, and the losse of our ships, of five hundred within six moneths after Captain Smiths departure (October 1609-March 1610), there remained not past sixtie, men, women and children.

This was the time, which still to this day (1624) we call this the starving time; if it were too vile to say, and scarce to be believed, what we endured; but the occasion our owne, for want of providence industrie and government, and not the barrennesse and defect of the Countrie, as is generously supposed;"

[Modern Version] Six months after Captain Smith left, the cruelty of the [Powhatans], the stupidity of our leaders, and the loss of our ships [when they sailed away] caused 440 of the 500 people in Jamestown to die ...

We still call this time the "Starving Time." What we suffered was too terrible to talk about and too hard to believe. But the fault was our own. We starved because we did not plan well, work hard, or have good government. Our problems were not because the land was bad, as most people believe.

Excerpted from Travels and Works of Captain John Smith. Ed. Edward Arber, F.S.A. Vol. 2. Edinburgh; John Grant, 1910.

Back to Case

Document E: Excerpted from The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia Since Their First Beginning. By William Simmonds. Oxford, 1612. (Primary Source)

"It was the spaniards good hap to happen upon those parts where were infinite numbers of people, whoe had manured the ground with that providence that it afforded victuall at all times; and time had brought them to that perfection (that) they had the use of gold and silver, and (of) the most of such commodities as their countries affoorded; so that what the Spanaird got was only the spoile and pillage of those countrie people, and not the labours of their owne hands.

But had those fruitfull Countries beene as Salvage (i.e., savage), as barbarous, as ill-peopled, as little planted laboured and manured, as Virginia; their proper labors, it is likely would have produced as small a profit as ours."

Excerpted from The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia Since Their First Beginning. By William Simmonds. Oxford, 1612.

Back to Case

Document F: Reprinted from "George Percy's Account of the Voyage to Virginia and the Colony's First Days", 1607. (Primary Source)

[Original version] It pleased God after awhile, to send those people which were our mortal enemies to releeve us with such victuals, as Bread, Corne, Fish and Flesh in great plenty, which was the setting up of our feeble men, otherwise wee had all perished. Also we were frequented by divers Kings in the countrie, bringing us store of provision to our great comfort.

[Modern Version] Thanks to God, our deadly enemies saved us by bringing food - great amounts of bread, corn, fish, and meat. This food saved all of us weak and starving men. Otherwise we would all have died. Leaders from other tribes also brought us food and supplies which made us comfortable.

Excerpted from "George Percy's Account of the Voyage to Virginia and the Colony's First Days" Jamestown Voyages. Ed. Barbour. Vol. 1.

Back to Case

Document G: Captain John Smith Seeks Powhatan's Aid, 1910.

In January, 1609, the colony of Jamestown was starving. The famine forced Captain John Smith to seek the aid of Powhatan and his people. Relying on his firece will as much as his intelligence and experience, Captain Smith commanded the quarrelsome settlers of Jamestown, England's only colony at the time. Until he had taken charge, Jamestown had teetered on the brink of destruction. Even with his leadership, the colony's problems remained serious.

From their arrival in 1607, the settlers had always depended on the Indians of the region for food. But the unpredictable and often violent behavior of the English had caused Powhatan, the powerful chief of over two dozen tribes, to forbid his people from trading with the settlers. Although Smith desperately needed the Indians' corn, he stood this day before Powhatan not as a beggar but as someone who had been wronged by a friend. After arguing that Jamestown's settlers had been promised food by Powhatan, Smith claimed that the swords and guns the Indians wanted in exchange for food could not be spared. Then Smith ended his speech with a quiet threat, "The weapons I have can keep me from want: yet steal, or wrong you, I will not, nor dissolve that friendship we have mutally promised, unless you force me."

Powhatan's reply, as recorded by Smith, showed his subtle understanding of English intentions: "Yet, Captain Smith, some doubt I have of your coming hither, that makes me not so kindly seek to relieve you as I would: for many do inform me, your coming is not for trade, but to invade my people and possess my country. My people dare not come to bring you corn, seeing you are thus armed with your men. To clear us of this fear, leave your weapons at home; for here they are useless, we being all friends."

After long negotiations and despite Powhatan's doubts, he promised to give the English what food his people could spare. His decision profoundly affected both peoples - white and red.

Reprinted from Travels and Works of Captain John Smith, President of Virginia, and Admiral of New England, 1580-1631. Vol. 1. Ed. Edward Arber, F.S.A. Edinburgh: John Grant, 1910.

Back to Case

Document H: Excerpts from an Interview with pathologist, Frank Hancock, PBS 2004.

During the winter of 1609-1610, nearly 90 percent of the residents of the Jamestown colony perished in an episode now called "the starving time." But did the starving time actually have anything to do with starvation? A maverick pathologist says no. His theory: the deaths were result of arsenic poisoning, perhaps at the hands of an operauve of the Spanish government, which was intent on getkg rid of the English colony.

Because arsenic affects every part of the body, it could account for the wide range of symptoms experienced by Jamestown's settlers, Hancock says. He has pored through the historical accounts of those symptoms, and found striking parallels with the affects of arsenic poisoning. "I found 6 or 7 categories of illness that fit with arsenic," Hancock says. For example, the settlers reported "bloody flux" -- bloody diarrhea -- extreme weakness, and delirium. All are symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Some of the ill suffered from strange skin peeling -- which, Hancock says, can also be caused by arsenic poisoning. In addition, the histor~c records contain accounts of sudden death. "People went to bed at night in adequate health and were dead in the morning. Arsenic poisoning will cause cardiac arrhythmias," Hancock says, which can lead to sudden, fatal, heart attacks.

Unfortunately, forensic tests can't prove -- or disprove -- Frank Hancock's arsenic theory. The heavymetal can be detected in urine (if ingested recently), hair, or fingernail samples. But it does not get deposited in bone -- and bone is all that remains of the fallen at Jamestown.

Back to Case

Document I: Excerpts from Interview with archeologist, William Kelso, PBS 2004.

Kelso's work is revealing a much different picture of Jamestown than previously imagined. This was no genteel colony of privileged noblemen. Nor were they completely unsuited for life in the Virginia wilderness. "For years the story of Jamestown was that the wrong people were sent; that they were all 'gentlemen' who wouldn't know how to exist in the wilderness," Kelso says. "Not true. They were trained military men -- sure, there were obviously some losers -- but they knew where to site this fort and settlement. It was in a good military location: way upriver from the ocean, hidden. They were given instructions to avoid the Spanish, and if the Spanish had been able to find Jamestown quickly and easily, they never would have lasted at all."

But life was decidedly tough, as revealed by the burials -- 76 in all, including JR 102C, the young Brit killed by a musket shot whose story is described in the SECRETS OF THE DEAD II episode "Death at Jamestown." The bulk of the burials appear hurried, sloppy. "The bodies were thrown in, in very strange positions. There are small graves, smaller than the people. Obviously there was some kind of stress going on." Some of the bodies are clothed, which was "unheard of at that period," Kelso says, "because clothing was recycled. People didn't want to touch the bodies, probably because they feared some contagion on the clothing." Some of the burials were found with musket or pistol balls. "We have yet to determine if these are in bone or accidentally in the burial, but homicide seems to have been a cause of death as well. It was definitely a rough place."

Back to Case

Document J: List of Settlers

  • Original Settlers
  • First Supply
  • Second Supply

Census Data is culled from John Smith, “Proceedings of the English Colony in Virginia” and Generall Historie (Printed with original spelling)

Original Settlers May 13, 1607




  • Master Edward Maria Wingfield
  • Captaine Bartholomew Gosnoll
  • Captaine John Smyth
  • Captaine John Ratliffe
  • Captaine John Martin
  • Captaine George Kendall



  • Master Robert Hunt



  • Master George Percie
  • Anthony Gosnoll
  • Captaine Gabriell Archer
  • Robert Ford
  • William Bruster
  • Dru Pickhouse
  • John Brookes
  • Thomas Sands
  • John Robinson
  • Ustis Clovill
  • Kellam Throgmorton
  • Nathaniell Powell
  • Robert Behethland
  • Jeremy Alicock
  • Thomas Studley
  • Richard Crofts
  • Nicholas Houlgrave
  • Thomas Webbe
  • John Waler
  • William Tanker
  • Francis Snarsbrough
  • Edward Brookes
  • Richard Dixon
  • John Martin
  • George Martin
  • Anthony Gosnold
  • Thomas Wotton, Surgeon
  • Thomas Gore
  • Francis Midwinter



  • William Laxon
  • Edward Pising
  • Thomas Emry
  • Robert Small
  • Anas Todkill
  • John Capper



  • James Read



  • Jonas Profit



  • Thomas Couper



  • John Herd
  • William Garret



  • Edward Brinto



  • William Love



  • Nicholas Skot



  • John Laydon
  • William Cassen
  • George Cassen
  • Thomas Cassen
  • William Rods
  • William White
  • Ould Edward
  • Henry Tavin
  • George Golding
  • John Dods
  • William Johnson
  • William Unger
  • William Wickinson, Surgeon



  • Samuell Collier
  • Nathaniel Peacock
  • James Brumfield
  • Richard Mutton



  • With divers others


First Supply January 1608



  • Matthew Scrivner

appointed to be of the Councell


  • Michaell Phetyplace
  • William Phetyplace
  • Ralfe Morton
  • William Cantrill
  • Richard Wyffin
  • Robert Barnes
  • George Hill
  • George Pretty
  • John Taverner
  • Robert Cutler
  • Michaell Sickelmore
  • Thomas Coo
  • Peter Pory
  • Richard Killingbeck
  • William Causey
  • Doctor Russell
  • Richard Worley
  • Richard Prodger
  • William Bayley
  • Richard Molynex
  • Richard Pots
  • Jefrey Abots
  • John Harper
  • Timothy Leds
  • Edward Gurganay
  • George Forest
  • John Nickoles
  • William Gryvill



  • Daniell Stalling



  • William Dawson
  • Abraham Ransacke



  • William Johnson
  • Richard Belfield



  • Peter Keffer

A Gunner


  • Robert Alberton

A Perfumer


  • Raymond Goodyson
  • John Speareman
  • William Spence
  • Richard Brislow
  • William Simons
  • John Bouth
  • William Burket
  • Nicholas Ven
  • William Perce
  • Francis Perkins
  • Francis Perkins
  • William Bentley
  • Richard Gradon
  • Rowland Nelstrop
  • Richard Salvage
  • Thomas Salvage
  • Richard Miler
  • William May
  • Vere
  • Michaell
  • Bishop Wyles



  • John Powell
  • Thomas Hope
  • William Beckwith
  • William Yonge
  • Laurence Towtales
  • William Ward



  • Christopher Rodes
  • James Watkings
  • Richard Fetherstone
  • James Burne



  • Thomas Feld
  • John Harford



  • Post Gittnat

A Surgeon


  • John Lewes

A Couper


  • Robert Cotton

A Tobacco-pipe-maker


  • Richard Dole

A Blackesmith


  • With divers others


Second Supply Fall 1608




  • Captaine Peter Winne
  • Captaine Richard Waldo

Were appointed to bee of the Councell


  • Master Francis West
  • Thomas Graves
  • Rawley Chroshaw
  • Gabriell Bedle
  • John Russell
  • John Bedle
  • William Russell
  • John Gudderington
  • William Sambage
  • Henry Collings
  • Henry Ley
  • Harmon Haryson
  • Daniell Tucker
  • Hugh Wollystone
  • John Hoult
  • Thomas Norton
  • George Yarington
  • George Burton
  • Henry Philpot
  • Thomas Maxes
  • Michaell Lowicke
  • Master Hunt
  • Thomas Forest
  • William Dowman
  • John Dauxe
  • Thomas Abbey



  • Thomas Phelps
  • John Prat
  • John Clarke
  • Jefry Shortridge
  • Dionis Oconor
  • Hugh Wynne
  • David ap Hugh
  • Thomas Bradley
  • John Burras
  • Thomas Lavander
  • Henry Bell
  • Master Powell
  • David Ellys
  • Thomas Gipson



  • Thomas Dowse
  • Thomas Mallard
  • William Taler
  • Thomas Fox
  • Nicholas Hancock
  • Walker
  • Williams
  • Morrell
  • Rose
  • Scot
  • Hardwin



  • Milman
  • Hellyard



  • Mistresse Forrest, and Anne Burras her maide
  • eight Dutch men and Poles, with some others

 Back to Case