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American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Topic: ContactTopic: ExplorationTopic: SettlementTopic: PermanenceTopic: Power
Topic: Settlement
Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Settlement
Text 1. First Arrivals
Text 2. Hardships
Text 3. Q&AS for Potential Settlers
Text 4. Instructions for Leaders
Text 5. Missions to the Indians
Text 6. Enslaved Peoples
Text 7. Go Ahead?

Reading Guide
Facial reconstruction of skull excavated in Jamestown
Facial reconstruction of skull excavated in Jamestown
- Spanish: Hunger and rebellion on Hispaniola, ca. 1499 (PDF)
- English: "Starving time" in Jamestown, 1609-10 (PDF)
- French: Jesuit index of a year in New France, 1616 (PDF)
- English: Servitude and hunger in Jamestown, 1623
- English: Lean years in Massachusetts Bay, 1630 (PDF)

Food: ultimately this section is about food, or the lack of it. In describing the phenomenon, historians will use words like drought, disaster, hunger, and weakness, i.e., the causes and consequences of the lack of food. But those who experience it are more direct in their memoirs. George Percy tells us that men in Jamestown cried out in the night "we are starved, we are starved." Jesuits list, one by one, their desperate actions "in search of food in time of famine." "Either to find food or die" is the expressed goal of a Spaniard official in Hispaniola. "Through hindsight," writes historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman, "we can see that settlers and planners defeated themselves by inadequate preparation for the rigors of transplantation, but these lessons were learned very slowly and at great human and monetary cost."* How the settlers defeated themselves is poignantly clear in these five accounts of early settlers' hardships—disease, injury, war, mutiny, Indian attacks, severe weather, abandonment, power struggles, and the hardship they stress the most, no food.
  • HISPANIOLA, CA. 1499. Hunger, rebellion, and Indian attacks defined the settler's life on this island which Spain had claimed seven years earlier. In this letter by the chief justice of Hispaniola who is appalled by the Columbus brothers' leadership, we glimpse the desperation of the settlers and the Indians caught in power struggles among the Spanish officials. Amidst all the intrigue is hunger due to drought, war, and the lack of provisions from Spain. Who can remedy the situation? "God and Their Highnesses," the official writes, as he negotiates for a ship to take him and his followers home to Spain.
    [Francisco Roldán, Hispaniola, Letter to Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros, Spain, ca. 1499]

  • JAMESTOWN, 1609-1610. Known as the "starving time," the winter of 1609-1610 brought such "a world of miseries" to the settlers that hunger became the force governing the colonists. They ate their horses, then rats, then shoe leather. Some were driven to murder and digging up corpses. Others stashed food as they planned a secret return to England. Food was begged from the Indians or, if not forthcoming, stolen. The resulting cycle of attacks and counterattacks brought more misery and death. Who was to blame? John Smith? As the colony's previous governor he had compelled the men to work and was soon deposed and sent back to England, later justifying his dictatorial policies in repetitive histories and accounts. Or George Percy? Governor of the colony during the "starving time," he wrote this "true relation" partly as his defense against accusations of failed leadership. That Jamestown wasn't abandoned for good in June 1610 is due to the chance meeting on the James River of the ship carrying the sixty surviving colonists back to England, and the ship bringing provisions and 300 new colonists from England. But it was still many years before Jamestown was anything but "a world of miseries."
    [George Percy, A True Relation of the Proceedings and Occurances of Moment which have happened in Virginia . . . anno 1609 until my departure out of the Country which was in anno Domini 1612, publ. 1624]

  • NEW FRANCE, 1616. Arriving in 1611 in Acadia (Nova Scotia), the Jesuit missionaries became synonymous with New "France," along with the ever-present fur traders. We include several selections in this Toolbox from the Jesuits' annual reports to their home office in France, but nothing from a fur trader, unfortunately. As Reuben Gold Thwaites, editor of the Jesuit Relations, explains, "the trader nearly always preceded the priest. But the trader was not often a letter-writer or a diarist; hence, we owe our intimate knowledge of New France, particularly in the seventeenth century, chiefly to the wandering missionaries of the Society of Jesus." As Jesuits, they were intellectual, perceptive, disciplined, and almost obsessively thorough in their chronicles of the missions' progress, the Indians' culture, the English threat, and, above all, their astounding and steadfast religious determination. As an introduction to the Jesuits' perspective on New France, we begin with the index to the volume for 1616. More than a dry skimmable list, the index reads like the prologue to an epic of discovery and hardship. From simple entries like "Scurvy, or land disease, common in Canada" to the mini-sagas like "Father Biard refuses to disclose to the English the position of Sainte Croix, for which he is in danger of losing his life," you will find this an engrossing document that suggests hardship, intrigue, ambivalence, and wonder.
    [Jesuit Relations, Vol. 4: 1616, index]

  • JAMESTOWN, 1623. Thirteen years after the "starving time," Jamestown was still a place where barely-holding-on counted as success, but with the introduction of tobacco cultivation the colony had its first lifeline. Tobacco sold for a solid profit in England, enticing more settlers to cultivate more fields, requiring more workers to tend the fields, attracting more impoverished young men to bind themselves in labor contracts for several years as indentured servants (and later, of course, locking captured Africans in the permanent "contract" of slavery). Here we read a letter from a newly arrived indentured servant, Richard Frethorne, to his parents, in which he plaintively lists the daily instances of hunger and deprivation in his life. He pleads with them to buy out his indenture and let him return to England as "there [is] nothing to be gotten here but sickness and death."
    [Richard Frethorne, Letter to his father and mother, 20 March, 2&3 April 1623]

  • MASSACHUSETTS BAY COLONY, 1630s. Roger Clap arrived in New England in May 1630 at age 21, having overcome his father's opposition to his emigration. In his seventies he began his memoir to tell his children of "God's remarkable providences . . . in bringing me to this land." A devout man, he interprets the lack of food for his body as part of God's providing food for the soul, in this case the souls of the Puritans as they created their religious haven.
    [Memoir of Roger Clap, written ca. 1680]
Comparing these early settlers' experiences with those of New World explorers can provide a deeper appreciation of the phenomenon of resilience (for those who wrote memoirs were the resilient ones). (19 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What are the varied responses to hunger and other hardships in the early settlements?
  2. What factors seem to determine the variety of responses? Who responds how?
  3. Compare the role of religious faith in these accounts.
  4. Compare the accounts of Richard Frethorne and Roger Clap. How do their motives for settlement affect their responses to the experience?
  5. What hardships could have been avoided through better preparation? Was some hardship inevitable?
  6. How does a settlement's leadership determine its response to the lack of food and other hardships?
  7. As you can determine from these selections, why did the settlers have inadequate provisions? Were there food shortages in all cases?

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What motivated the Europeans in their initial settlements?
  •  How did the European nations differ in their vision of a successful settlement?
  •  How did they differ in the institutions they created to maintain their settlements?
  •  What factors led to the survival or abandonment of a settlement?
  •  What relationships evolved among European settlers, Native Americans, and enslaved Africans?
  •  What did "America" signify to Europe in 1630? What did "Europe" signify to Native Americans and enslaved Africans?

Hispaniola:  2
Jamestown, 1609-10:  6
New France:  5
Jamestown, 1623:  2
Massachusetts Bay:  4
19 pages
Supplemental Sites
Historic Jamestowne, from APVA Preservation Virginia

Jamestown Rediscovery, from the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities

Virtual Jamestown, from the University of Virginia et al.

John Smith on the "Starving Time," from History Matters

Powhatan Takes Advantage of "The Starving Time," from the Library of Congress Learning Page

Death at Jamestown, from Secrets of the Dead (PBS/WNET)

The Jesuit Relations, full text in English from Creighton University

The Jesuit Relations, digital page images in French, English, and Latin from Early Canadiana Online

Hunger in Massachusetts Bay, 1630, overview from the Dorchester Reporter

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Hispaniola, Jamestown,
  1609-10, & New France:
National Humanities Center
Jamestown, 1623: History Matters, from George Mason University and the City University of New York (CUNY)
Massachusetts Bay: National Humanities Center

Image: Facial reconstruction of skull unearthed in Jamestown archaeological excavation, 1996. Reproduced by permission of APVA (Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities) Preservation Virginia / Historic Jamestowne.

*Karen Ordahl Kupperman, "North America and the Beginnings of European Colonization" (Washington: American Historical Association, 1992), ix.

Toolbox: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
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