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

Teacher Notes:

Introduction to Case:

In 1606, King James gave permission to a group of wealthy men to start a colony in North America. The group sent settlers to Virginia hoping to make money for the colony.

In April 1607, 105 settlers arrived in Virginia. Most of them hoped to become wealthy by finding natural riches like gold. They picked a spot near a wide river and built a settlement. In honor of King James, they called it Jamestown.

Unfortunately, the settlers built Jamestown on a marsh. A marsh is a low lying area of wet land that is sometimes unhealthful for people. The water around Jamestown was dirty and salty. The land was not good for farming. And mosquitoes carried a deadly disease called malaria.

Within 8 months, disease killed most of the settlers. By January 1608, only 38 of them were still alive.

In late 1607, one of the settlers, Captain John Smith, was captured by some Native Americans. They took Smith to their chief, a man named Powhatan. Powhatan ordered Smith to kneel and lay his head between two stones. Several men raised their clubs in the air. Smith believed that he was about to be killed.

At that moment, Powhatan's young daughter, Pocahontas, laid her head on Smith's. Smith believed that she saved his life. Historians, though think Smith may have misunderstood the Native American ritual.

Later, Pocahontas visited Jamestown several times, bringing food to the settlers. Powhatan's people also taught the settlers to hunt, plant crops and fish. Meanwhile, more settlers kept arriving from England.

In 1608, John Smith was elected President of the colony. Many of the settlers were "gentlemen" who were used to having servants do all the work. Smith knew that the settlement needed everyone's help in order to survive. He said firmly that any man who would not work would not eat. Smith's leadership helped to save the colony. That winter, only 18 colonists died.

The next year, Smith returned to England after being badly burnt by an explosion of gunpowder. The colonists had lost a strong leader, and Powhatan was no longer helping them. The winter of 1609-1610 was known as the "Starving Time". Many settlers had to eat horses and dogs. Hundreds of them died. Only about 60 settlers survived.

The Jamestown settlers never found any gold. They needed a way to support their colony in order to stay in America. Then, a man named John Rolfe found a way to grow a sweet tasting kind of tobacco. People in England loved the new Virginia tobacco. Now the settlers had something that they could trade for money and supplies. Tobacco became Virginia's "gold”.

History Alive Text, Jamestown Colony 6.3, p.61-62



This exercise was inspired by an exercise in Bruce VanSledright’s book, In Search of America's Past: Learning to Read History in Elementary School.


NCSS Theme II: Time, Continuity and Change
Focus on reading and reconstructing the past to:
1. include various perspectives on historical events;
2.draw upon historical knowledge during the examination of social issues;
3. develop the habits of mind that historians and schalors employ.

National Center for History in the Schools
Standard 2: Historical Comprehension
Standard 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation
Standard 4: Historical Research Capabilities
Standard 5: Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making

Maryland Voluntary State Curriculum Standards
Grade 5A2: Explain the significance and chronology of key historical events during the age of European exploration.

Virginia Standards of Learning
VS.1 The student will develop skills for historical and geographical analysis including the ability to
a) identify and interpret artifacts and primary and secondary source documents to understand events in history;
b) determine cause and effect relationships;
c) compare and contrast historical events;
d) draw conclusions and make generalizations;
g) interpret ideas and events from different historical perspectives;

VS.3 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the first permanent English settlement in America by
b) describing how geography influenced the decision to settle at Jamestown;
f) describing the hardships faced by settlers at Jamestown and the changes that took place to ensure survival;
g) describing the interactions between the English settlers and the Powhatan people, including the contributions of the Powhatans to the survival of the settlers.

USI.1 The student will develop skills for historical and geographical analysis, including the ability to
a) identify and interpret primary and secondary source documents to increase understanding of events and life in United States history to 1877;

USI.4 The student will demonstrate knowledge of European exploration in North America and West Africa by
b) describing cultural interactions between Europeans and American Indians (First Americans) that led to cooperation and conflict;

Word document of Case and Documents

PDF of Suggested Lesson Plans

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.