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The Jamestown "Starving Time"


When English colonists arrived in Virginia in May 1607, they selected a site on the James River and constructed a fort and buildings to house the men. They survived the first two years in part because John Smith was able to supplement their food supplies with food he obtained from the local Powhatan Indians.

In August 1609, approximately 400 new colonists arrived in Jamestown. Such a large influx of people stretched thin already insufficient food supplies. A severe drought had severely reduced the availability of food crops and local wildlife. The Powhatans, who were also affected by the drought, were no longer willing to share their food with the colonists (and John Smith had returned to England in September 1609 following a serious injury). Hostilities escalated, with the Powhatans eventually preventing the colonists from leaving the James Fort to gather food. To stay alive, the trapped and starving colonists were forced to eat anything they could. By the end of the winter of 1609–1610, more than 400 of the nearly 500 Jamestown colonists had perished.

In this lesson, students will learn about factors that led to the Jamestown “Starving Time” and describe the resulting changes in the colonists’ food sources. They will approach the subject in a personal way by sharing what they would have done if they had been Virginia colonists during the winter of 1609–1610.



  1. [Note to Teacher: For your reference, review (or have students review) the brief National Park Service’s WebRangers piece on dendochronology. It will provide the information you will need to explain to students how tree rings are formed, how climate affects their growth, and how they can be used to learn about the past.]

    Display the images of the Tree Cross Section for the class. The images show the tree’s growth rings before, during, and after the Jamestown “Starving Time” for the class to study.

    Ask students what they see. Focus on the rings and the distances between them. Have students share their thoughts on the possible meaning of the varying distances between rings. Explain to students that the growth rings in this cross-section from a very old tree from the Jamestown, Virginia, area were examined. Doing so enabled archaeologists to learn about the climate during the early years of Jamestown settlement.

  2. Focus on the section for Jamestown during 1609–1610, and then ask “What do the tree rings tell us about Jamestown during that time?” Explain to students that it was a period of drought resulting in very little plant growth. Ask how such drought conditions would have contributed to the “Starving Time.”
  3. Summarize for students the information about the “Starving Time” you gleaned from the Feature Article: “We are Starved” (for teacher reference) and/or the introduction to this lesson.

    Divide the class into groups of four. Give each group a set of the Jamestown Food Cards. Explain that the food items on the cards were written about in journals from 1609–1610. Have each group cut apart the cards, discuss the various foods listed on the cards, and decide which ones they would have eaten during the winter “Starving Time” of 1609–1610. Next, ask students to decide if there are any food items they would not have eaten and why. Facilitate a discussion in which each group shares its thoughts with the class.

  4. As a class, have students identify the 3 or 4 food items they think were eaten in Jamestown when food was plentiful. Discuss. Have each group set aside the cards for those food items.

  5. In their groups, have students arrange the cards for the remaining foods in the order in which they think the Jamestown colonists would have eaten them as food became increasingly scarce. Discuss the different choices.

  6. Read aloud for students the George Percy Quotation on the “Starving Time.” Discuss.

  7. Give each student a Jamestown “Starving Time” Graphic Organizer. Have students cut on the dotted lines then fold on the solid line. Students will write responses to each section.

    • Name at least three factors that led to the “Starving Time” in Jamestown in 1609–1610.
    • How did the food sources change during the “Starving Time”?
    • What would YOU have done or not done if you were a Jamestown colonist during the “Starving Time”?

This lesson was written by Dee Albrinck, elementary school teacher, Florence, KY, and Linda Colbert, retired elementary school teacher, Williamsburg, VA.