Thanksgiving means many things to many people. To the average American, it is a time of giving thanks for what we have. A time of watching football, getting ready to spend obscene amounts of money on Black Friday “sales”: camping out for a new television set that we didn’t need. To Native Americans it is often about being insulted by pop-American history, a time of betrayal and a reminder of the centuries-long genocide that took place after indigenous North Americans saved the collective ass of colonists. For others it is simply about a day or two off of work, school, and Star Wars or Godfather marathons on cable. But for the historical settlers at Jamestown, from 1609 to 1610, when the holiday was already in practice, this was a time of murder and cannibalism.
The idea that there were man-eating pilgrims is nothing new, but American History courses in U.S. schools typically make no mention of it. Still, many historical accounts mention settlers (though her perhaps not pilgrims proper), turning to cannibalism for survival, particularly as the winter months approached.
In the United States, Americans commonly trace the Thanksgiving holiday to stories of a 1621 celebration at the Plymouth Plantation. According to national myth, it was here that the Plymouth settlers held a harvest feast after a successful growing season, but the holiday was documented as being in practice as early as 1607, including in Jamestown (founded in 1607), Virginia as early as 1610 or before.
The Associated Press described the situation in Jamestown in less than traditional terms, some time ago. Amongst these surprising traits of the Jamestown practices of the season were cannibalism.
Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley said the human remains date back to a deadly winter known as the “starving time” in Jamestown from 1609 to 1610. Hundreds of colonists died during the period. Scientists have said the settlers likely arrived during the worst drought in 800 years, bringing a severe famine for the 6,000 people who lived at Jamestown between 1607 and 1625.
The historical record is chilling. Early Jamestown colonist George Percy wrote of a “world of miseries,” that included digging up corpses from their graves to eat when there was nothing else. “Nothing was spared to maintain life,” he wrote.
How could the colonists have wound up in such dire straits? A large part of it had to do with their alienation from indigenous peoples. That much of the Thanksgiving myth is true. Very few settlers would have survived on these shores without the advice of Native Americans which they had previously no interest in dialoging with. Long before they began begging for the help described in the Thanksgiving myth, many colonists turned to murder and cannibalism of the indigenous Native Americans. The Algonquian tribes of Virginia’s Native Americans – the Powhatans – were friendly, but this didn’t spare all of them from being devoured by the colonists.
The colonists also drove away wildlife by over-hunting, and could not farm land that wasn’t prime for horticulture. Many of them had no knowledge of such things, having arrived at these shores for ideological and economic reasons, by way of non-British nations like Holland in the Netherlands, which they had already fled to, after finding that their religious take-over of Britain was not going as planned.
Explorer George Percy’s explained the cannibalism of Native Americans the colonists killed:
“So great was our famine, that a Savage we slew and buried, the poorer sorte took him up againe and eat him; and so did divers one another boyled and stewed with roots and herbs… [the cause of starvation was] want of providence, industrie and government, and not the barennnesse and defect of the Countrie, as is generally supposed.”
In his “Cannibalism in Early Jamestown,” Mark Nicholls explains that “When dearth and disease swept through Jamestown, reducing its population perhaps by 80 percent in the catastrophic Starving Time of 1609–10, some individuals had turned to cannibalism out of hunger.” Percy and others told of sporadic cannibalism and the breakdown of colonial society in the face of disaster:
A worlde of miseries ensewed as the Sequell will expresse unto yow, in so mutche thatt some to satisfye their hunger have robbed the store for the which I Caused them to be executed. Then haveinge fedd upon our horses and other beastes as longe as they Lasted, we weare gladd to make shifte with vermin as doggs Catts, Ratts and myce all was fishe thatt Came to Nett to satisfye Crewell hunger, as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather some Colde come by. And those beinge Spente and devoured some weare inforced to searche the woodes and to feede upon Serpentts and snakes and to digge the earthe for wylde and unknowne Rootes, where many of our men weare Cutt of and slayne by the Salvages. And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them. And some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes…
If we Trewly Consider the diversety of miseries, mutenies, and famishmentts which have attended upon discoveries and plantacyons in theis our moderne Tymes, we shall nott fynde our plantacyon in Virginia to have Suffered aloane…The Spanyards plantacyon in the River of Plate and the streightes of Magelane Suffered also in so mutche thatt haveinge eaten upp all their horses to susteine themselves withal, Mutenies did aryse and growe amongste them, for the which the generall Diego Mendosa cawsed some of them to be executed, Extremety of hunger inforceinge others secrettly in the night to Cutt downe Their deade fellowes from of the gallowes and to bury them in their hungry Bowelles.
Percy, Nicholls explains that “There are earlier narratives that made the same point, including a few relating to the Newfoundland voyages. But Percy is saying something else here. Life in Jamestown, for all the conscious mimicry of English tradition, is fundamentally different from life back home.”
Not quite as romantic as a stuffed turkey, but historical details have rarely impeded the mythos of Americana.