Although many Americans associate the first Thanksgiving to a 1621 celebration at Plymouth, Thanksgiving services were routine in the future Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607. In fact, the first permanent settlement of Jamestown, Virginia held a Thanksgiving prayer service to celebrate the arrival English supply ships in 1610, marking the end of a gruesome period in American history.
Conditions were so bad for Jamestown settlers that the period between 1609-1610 was called the “Starving Time.” When the supply ships arrived at the fort in 1610 the crew found settlers so malnourished they looked like skeletons and only 60 of the original 300 colonists survived.
Historians believe severe drought conditions and competition for scarce food resources caused a strained relationship with the nearby Powhatan tribe. Eventually the Powhatans besieged the fort, preventing the settlers from leaving to get food. The colonists got so desperate they resorted to eating horses, dogs, cats, rats, mice and snakes, even their shoes and any other leather they could find. According to reports by George Percy, who was the president of Jamestown at the time, settlers exhumed and ate corpses and drank blood from fellow weakened colonists. In 2013 forensic evidence came to light that supports Percy’s account.
A team of forensic anthropologists and archaeologists, led by Dr. Douglas Owsley, division head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of National History, revealed that analyses of some of the skeletal remains recovered from the Jamestown fort show signs that settlers practiced cannibalism to survive between 1609 and 1610.
In 2012, researchers unearthed an incomplete human skull and tibia from a 14-year-old English girl, nicknamed “Jane,” who died during the “Starving Time.” The skull had chop marks on the frontal bone (forehead), back of the skull, and tibia that could have been made by a small hatchet or cleaver; the mandible (jaw) had cut marks, consistent with a knife. Experts argue that these marks were evidence of dismemberment and cannibalism after the girl had died, though forensic experts do not know if she died from natural causes or murder.
The colony was saved in May of 1610, when more settlers arrived bringing a years worth of provisions. Owsley told CNN that there are still more pits at the fort to be excavated, and only 10% of Jane’s body has been recovered, so he believes that there may be more grisly examples of cannibalism to be found.