Starvation was a constant problem in the early years of colonization—and in multiple tragic cases some settlers took to eating each other.
Thanksgiving. It’s about family. It’s about gathering “together to ask the Lord’s blessing,” as we sing in our all-American, non-denominational, way. It’s about those mysterious Pilgrims, who toggle in our minds between being religious fanatics and cute cartoon characters—although you wonder how they kept their black and white outfits so crisp and clean on the frontier. And it’s about food. What’s Thanksgiving without those autumnal yummies: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potato pie. But our historical understanding of the holiday’s origins are as mashed up as our sweet potatoes. We blur Pocahontas, Captain John Smith, Squanto, and William Bradford, and the Mayflower into one geographically inaccurate, timeless mess. And while we believe we are replicating the Pilgrims’ menu, they probably ate seal and lobster without sweet desserts, because their sugar stocks were depleted. Least appetizing of all, some of our settler forbears, these all-American heroes, were so hungry, so depraved by starvation that rather than consuming that Norman Rockwell-esque beautifully browned turkey, they ate chops of human cheek and chunks of human tongue.
Consider the colonist who mistook his pregnant wife for a meal. Although his name is lost to history, his story helps illuminate the mishmash that has become America’s Thanksgiving tale. While some will use it to pillory the colonists as brutes, it actually highlights their achievements. Not only did they survive unbearable conditions and launch this great adventure called America, but amid all the misery they taught an invaluable lesson we should remember as we adjust to living in Trumpland: Don’t forget to appreciate the good and say thanks, even when trouble strikes.
We don’t know much about the pregnant-wife-murdering cannibal. George Percy, the colony’s interim president, wrote an account in 1625 describing the misery of The Starving Time at Jamestown, Virginia. This reminds us that Thanksgiving celebrates two foundings, two colonies, separated by two decades and 595 miles. The first settlers arrived in Jamestown, with the Virginia Company in 1607. Thirteen years later, the Pilgrims in the Mayflower aimed for Virginia but found Cape Cod.
In Jamestown, our non-Pilgrim settler suspect may have been a noble’s younger son—the oldest sons inherited the lands, often leaving their spoiled younger siblings deprived of resources, and thus ready for adventure. Such aristocrats—like Percy, who was the youngest son of the eighth Earl of Northumberland, insisted the cannibalism occurred among “the lower orders.” Yes, the British initially imported their class stratifications to America. The frontier’s ferocity, however, eviscerated the differences. You survived based on smarts, grit, and dumb luck, not breeding, connections, or the luck to have inherited money.
Regardless of his background, this young man sailed enthusiastically to the New World. Although risky, it represented a colorful escape from 17th-century England’s drab, oppressive life. The passage by ship had been endless and unnerving. The overcrowded ship stank, lurched, often seemed about to sink. Finally, after four months of suffering—the smell of pine (the American coast was so lush that magical scent wafted 180 nautical miles across the seas). The first days would have been exciting, embarking on this great adventure. Our colonist probably enjoyed the fact that he was one of the few with a wife—the first ships were all male.
Then, gradually, conditions soured. The ships didn’t arrive with supplies as expected. The fields didn’t yield the crops as hoped—they endured one of the worst droughts in 800 years. And those natives from the Powhatan Confederacy, who initially seemed friendly, turned hostile—recognizing that these settlers threatened the traditional way of life.
Imagine how miserable it turned that winter of 1609-1610. Four of every five settlers would die. Percy reported they ate their horses. They chewed leather goods. They then turned to “vermin as doggs Catts, Ratts and myce.” They sipped the blood of neighbors hacked by the Powhatan. Venturing beyond their fort’s safety, they would “feede upon Serpentts and snakes.” Increasingly, “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.” The human remains were often prepared carefully: “boiled and stewed with roots and herbs …. powdered… carbonadoed.”
Then, one awful day, our colonist killed, salted, and eventually ate his wife. Perhaps he never loved her. Perhaps he loved her so much she kept begging him to end her misery—and save their baby from this living hell.
These settlers were not natural born killers or cannibals. Percy’s testimony was one of five accounts of Jamestown cannibalism. In 2012 archaeologists found the remains of a 14-year-old girl in a trash dump, who had also been eaten by her comrades. Doug Owsley, a Smithsonian anthropologist, a Bones-type expert, notes, “They were clearly interested in cheek meat, muscles of the face, tongue, and brain.” But “there is a hesitancy, trial, and tentativeness in the marks that is not seen in animal butchery.” These hacks are stomach curdling but life affirming. Our desperate friend, his devastated buddies, didn’t chop friends and relatives smoothly because they didn’t violate this taboo easily.
Percy doesn’t tell us how they first discovered the crime. For how long had she been missing? What desperate attempts to cover up did our settler try? Eventually, frontier justice caught up with him. He was hanged “by the Thumbes with weightes att his feete a quarter of an howere before he wolde Confesse the same.” Then, in this “emergency society,” in which you improvise to survive, another breach: He was punished in a most un-British way—burned alive.
Although this barbarous crime—and punishment—are pieces of our American puzzle, on Thanksgiving we celebrate the happy endings. We toast the hearty ones who survived in Jamestown after 1610, and recall its leader Captain John Smith, who credited Pocahontas with saving him. And we replicate the feast in 1621, uniting the Plymouth colonists, led by their commander on the Mayflower, Myles Standish, and their governor William Bradford, with the Wampanoag Indians. We give an extra cheer for Squanto, the member of the Pawtuxet tribe who helped the Pilgrims survive from 1620 to 1621.
Today, we celebrate both founding colonies. And, this Thanksgiving, as we express our gratitude, as we eat more palatable treats, let’s take stock of our bounty, our freedom. And let’s vow to create a politics worthy of those who sacrificed to create America, a politics expressing the best of us—not stirring the cannibal apparently living within us all.