Jamestown Settlement and the Starving Time

The first joint-stock company to launch a lasting venture to the New World was the Virginia Company of London. The investors had one goal—gold.

In 1607, 144 English men and boys established Jamestown colony. The colonists were told that if they did not generate any wealth, financial support for their efforts would end. Many of the men spent their days searching for gold unsuccessfully. As a consequence, the colonists spent little time farming. Food supplies dwindled. Malaria and the harsh winter besieged the colonists, as well. After the first year, only 38 of the 155 had survived.

The colony may have perished if not for the leadership of John Smith. He imposed strict discipline on the colonists. “Work or starve” was his motto, requiring colonist to spend 4 hours per day farming.

An accidental gunpowder burn forced Smith to return to England in 1609, and the colony endured even more hardships. A new boatload of colonists and supplies sank on its way to help the hungry settlement. The winter of 1609-10, known as the “starving time,” may have been the worst of all.

Diseases and hunger ravaged Jamestown. Two colonists were tied to posts and left to starve as punishment for raiding the colonies’ stores. One colonist even took to cannibalism.

Despite the introduction of tobacco cultivation, the colony was a failure as a financial venture. The king declared the Virginia Company bankrupt in 1624.

Investors lost about 200,000 pounds. The charter was revoked, and Virginia became a royal colony, the first in America to be ruled by the Crown.

Investments in permanent settlements were risky. Many paid with their pocketbooks and many colonists paid with their lives. For every six colonists that ventured across the Atlantic, only one survived.

Source: Jamestown Settlement and the Starving Time
Copyright ©2008-2016 ushistory.org, owned by the Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia, founded 1942.

Back to top