Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner?

Published:May 7, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

"Burial of the Dead, 1609–1610" by Sidney E. King (National Park Service)

Last week archaeologists at Jamestown and the Smithsonian announced that they have found evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown during the Starving Time. This caused a huge sensation, but Rachel B. Herrmann, a scholar quoted in our entry, calls for caution:

In addition, why are there no primary sources that cite the cannibalization of this girl? She’s no salted wife, no dead Indian, and no hanged man. I’ve written a bit on how some colonists like John Smith and George Percy sensationalized such stories of cannibalism, and find it a bit odd that they wouldn’t have included the story of the cannibalization of a high-born girl. Wouldn’t that have been much more “lamentable” than the death of a lazy colonist (at least in Percy’s interpretation)? The future of the colony could have rested on Jane as well as other women’s capacity to bear children. There were, as these news stories all assert, myriad accounts of the Starving Time, and I’ve never seen any primary source account that even closely matches a description in keeping with what this anthropological find describes.

None of these speculations negate the severity of the Starving Time—but neither do they convince me that cannibalism took place.

Speaking of all those primary sources, you’ll find them transcribed and linked to from our Starving Time entry. These accounts, some of them first-hand, others second-, are how the stories of cannibalism got started. And it’s a testament to how compelling they are that the stories have persisted.

At the New Yorker, however, Dana Goodyear downplays these tales, comparing the relative popularity of cannibalism tales associated with the Donner Party and the lesser-known fate of the Jamestown settlers:

The difference between the tale of the Jamestown colonists and that of the Donner Party is transmission: in 1847, a noisy newspaper culture reported on every available detail; two hundred and thirty-seven years earlier, there was no domestic press. There was only word of mouth. Deserters from Jamestown, among the first to tell of cannibalism in the colony, set sail for England on a stolen boat christened the Swallow.

There are a couple problems with this. One, I think the Swallow left Jamestown before the real starving—let alone the cannibalism—had begun. Two, word of mouth only prevented widespread publicity of the Starving Time for a short while. And, remarkably, the powers that be did little if anything to cover it up.

As Herrmann has written, and as we have echoed in our entry, these chroniclers may have had their reasons to invent or exaggerate cannibalism at Jamestown. Which is why it is unfortunate—even with this new, albeit not fully conclusive evidence—that some high school history textbooks assume this to be a fact.

As Herrmann says, we should be cautious and take such stories … with a grain of salt!

IMAGE: Burial of the Dead, 1609–1610 by Sidney E. King (National Park Service)