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

Becoming a Detective

"Some...say the Starving Time was an Indian war against the English invaders. The Powhatan (Indians) may have decided to get rid of the settlers by starving them. [Powhatan, the chief of the Powhatan Indians refused] to trade with them. He laid seige to Jamestown. That means armed Indians wouldn't let anyone in or out [of the settlement stockade]. The settlers couldn't hunt or fish. They could hardly get to their pigs and chickens. The gentlemen ate the animals that were in the stockade - without much sharing. That made the others very angry. Soon there was nothing for anyone to eat.

"A few escaped. 'Many of our men this Starving Time did run away unto the savages, who we never heard of after,' [Captain] Percy wrote.

"Finally, in May 1610, two English ships tied up at Jamestown's docks. Of the 500 people that were in Jamestown in October when John Smith left for London, only 60 were still [there]."

From Joy Hakim (1993). "The Starving Time" in Making Thirteen Colonies (p.33). New York: Oxford University Press.

So what happened that caused the "starving time" in Jamestown colony?

Investigating the Evidence

  • Document A: John Smith's Description of the Powhatans (1612)
  • Document B: Watercolor Drawing of Indian Village of Pomeiooc (1585-6)
  • Document C: Engraving of Indians making boats (1590)
  • Document D: Reprint from Travels and Works of Captain John Smith (1610)
  • Document E: Excerpt from The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia Since Their First Beginning (1612)
  • Document F: Reprint from "George Percy's Account of the Voyage to Virginia and the Colony's First Days" (1607)
  • Document G: Captain John Smith Seeks Powhatan's Aid(1610)
  • Document H: Excerpts from an Interview with pathologist, Frank Hancock
  • Document I:Excerpts from Interview with archeologist, William Kelso, PBS (2004)
  • Document J:List of Jamestown Settlers

Searching for Clues

Please answer the following questions about each document or download the formatted Case File (PDF format | Word document).

    1. Who authored the document?
    2. When was the document authored?
    3. What type of document is this?
    4. How are the Powhatans and/or the English colonists portrayed?
    5. What clues are provided about the cause of the Starving Time?
    6. What questions did you ask while evaluating these sources?
    7. On what points do the accounts agree? On what points do the accounts differ?
    8. Which of these sources is most reliable in determining what actually happened during the winter of 1610 in Jamestown? Why do you think so?
    9. Describe the difficulties in developing an accurate account of historical events like the Starving Time in Jamestown.
    10. If you were asked to write your own historical account of the events, how would you
      go about doing so?

Cracking the Case

Based on your analysis of the documents and citing evidence to support your answer, please write a paragraph or two answering the following question: So what happened that caused the "starving time" in Jamestown colony? Within your analysis, please indicate whether you were satisfied with the evidence and list any additional questions that have been left unanswered through your investigation.