Thursday, May 02, 2013

Jamestown Jane and the cannibals

By Michael J.W. Stickings and Frank Moraes 


The BBC had a really interesting article yesterday on new evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in what is today the United States. It includes this historical nugget:

The Starving Time was one of the most horrific periods of early colonial history. The James Fort settlers were under siege from the indigenous Indian population and had insufficient food to last the winter.

First they ate their horses, then dogs, cats, rats, mice and snakes. Some, to satisfy their cruel hunger, ate the leather of their shoes.

As the weeks turned to months, nothing was spared to maintain life. How many of the growing numbers of dead were cannibalised is unknown. But it is almost certain the girl was not the only victim.

Relief came in the form of Lord De La Warr, who sailed into the settlement with food and new colonists. After six months of siege and starvation, only 60 of the original 300 settlers had survived.

"It's somebody doing what they had to do," said Dr [Doug] Owsley [a Smithsonian anthropologist who worked on the project] of the cannibalism.

Needless to say, it was a difficult time.



Meet Jamestown Jane. Or as her friends in Jamestown may have referred to her, Juicy Jane. According to USA Today, in a presentation at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, her reconstructed face was presented as shown in the picture at the left. A lot of reconstruction was necessary, because she was apparently butchered for food during the a bad winter in 1609-10 when 80 percent of the residents of the colony died -- mostly of starvation. Poor Jane had her skull based open to get to her high protein brain. No one can say whether she was specifically killed to eat or not. Regardless, pretty girl.

This isn't the first time that cannibalism has been associated with Jamestown. Accounts at the time claim that one man was put to death for eating his wife. (I assume this is not a euphemism!)

Reading about all of this made me wonder why it is we were all taught about the Plymouth Colony, when it wasn't first. So I did a little research and came upon a bulletin board with a discussion of the issue. And I was shocked at the answers. Most people said we probably focus on Plymouth because the Pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution. Well that's wrong and right.

It is wrong in the sense that it is absolutely false that the Pilgrims came to Plymouth to get religious freedom. They left England because of religious persecution. And they went to Holland (in what is today the Netherlands) and got religious freedom there. But it's a funny thing about religious freedom: those who give it tend to give it to everyone. There was a whole big world of ideas and the Pilgrims didn't much like that. The kids were getting new ideas in their heads and the Pilgrims were (gasp!) losing their cultural identity. So off to Massachusetts. And good for them! But don't say they went to get religious freedom when it was exactly the opposite.

But I think these bulletin board people are correct: this myth is the reason that grammar school children throughout the nation are taught about the Pilgrims. But I hated this kind of nonsense even when I was a kid. In the second grade, I was taught that Columbus discovered America. In the fifth grade, I was taught, well, Columbus really didn't discover America. And in the seventh grade I was taught that, yes, in terms of westward migration, Columbus really did discover America. Was that so hard? Did I really have to go through three iterations of the story?

As for the story of western invasion, why not Jamestown with its war, disease, and cannibalism? Those are all critically important concepts to understand about the founding the United States. And at this point, I think the kids would choose Jamestown if they were asked. "Hey kids, which story do you want: Thanksgiving turkey or Jamestown Jane? They're both nice a juicy, if a tad gamy!" I think the answer is perfectly clear.

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)


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