Salt Poisoning In The Starving Time

Dublin Core

Title

Salt Poisoning In The Starving Time

Subject

Jamestown Colony
Colonial period, ca. 1600-1775, poisoning, salt

Description

         The winter of 1609-1610 in the Jamestown colony became known as “The Starving Time” due to the immense loss of life of the colonists living there. What started as an estimated 500 residents[1] at the beginning of winter dwindled to a mere 60 survivors[2] when supply ships arrived in the early spring. Traditionally, historians have placed the blame of this high mortality rate on the colonists’ poor planning and the inept leadership of the president.[3]While both of those factors played a role, historians fail to take into account neither the environmental conditions that the colonists had no control over, nor the physiological repercussions of drinking water with a high salt content. Salt poisoning played a role in the suffering and loss experienced by the colonists during the winter of 1609-1610 in the Jamestown colony and helped to exacerbate the already harsh conditions that made up “The Starving Time.”

            To understand why the colonists relied on salt-tainted water, the drinking sources must be examined. Archeological excavations of James Fort show that there was only one well inside the protective walls. The well was approximately fourteen feet deep. From the architecture of the well design, it is believed to have been built in either late 1608 or early 1609.[4] This would have made it the colonists’ primary source of, what they believed to be, safe water. The other source of water available to the colonists was the nearby river.[5] James River at the point of the Jamestown colony was where the fresh water began to transition to salt water resulting in the mixing of fresh and salt water called brackish water. President George Percy, the leader of the colony during the winter of 1609-1610, described the river water as, “…cold water taken out of the river, which was at a flood verie salt, at a low tide full of slime and filth.”[6]

            The condition of the river water was likely one of the reasons that the colonists dug what they hoped was a freshwater well within the walls of the fort quickly. Unfortunately, evidence now shows that there was a severe drought affecting the region for the first six years of Jamestown’s founding.[7] Historical archeologists analyzed tree ring patterns and their findings of a prolonged drought support colonists’ firsthand accounts of the water quality and supply.[8] As the drought continued and the water line dropped, the salt would have become more concentrated without fresh rainfall to help dilute the river. The colonial well was reliant on the natural aquifer to provide fresh water, but as the aquifer level lowered during the drought, brackish water from the river seeped into the drinking well.[9] It is believed that the well water might have exceeded 2 g/L of sodium chloride,[10] well above the taste threshold of 1.3 to 1.4 g/L in drinking water.[11] In modern times, the United States Environmental Protection Agency recommends a level of 0.02 g/L of sodium in drinking water.[12]

         The effect of the drought on the water quality and safety was felt by the colonists as early as July 1609, when they began to be afflicted by salt poisoning, dysentery, and typhoid fever.[13] The first deaths began in early August which shows that the water source had already taken a toll on the health and safety of the residents of Jamestown. It was known that “…by drinking of the brackish water of James Fort weakened, and in daungered…”[14] the health of the drinkers, possibly leading to their death. Only having brackish water to drink most likely caused dehydration among the colonists even as they became thirstier, causing them to drink more tainted water.[15]

            As the winter progressed, the food supply started to run low and the rations that the settlers received ranged from a scant eight ounces of meal and a half pint of peas daily[16] to nothing at all. Hunger forced the colonists to eat their dogs, horses, vermin, and shoe leather, and some colonists possibly even resorted to cannibalism.[17] While sodium is necessary for many biological functions and the body strives to maintain a stable concentration of it in the blood stream, fasting can have a strong influence on how the human body copes with sodium intake. At the beginning of fasting, either by choice or force, the body begins to excrete higher than normal levels of sodium in urine. As fasting continues, to maintain optimal sodium concentrations in the blood stream, the body then begins to conserve dietary sodium.[18] Some of the classic signs of salt poisoning are edema, or in colonial language “swellings,” lassitude, and irritability; symptoms that all of the early colonists displayed.[19] 

          As their food grew scarce and their sodium intake continued to be high due to the brackish water supply, the colonists’ energy and activity declined. Records show that their behaviors became illogical and erratic. Modern studies have shown that in sedentary adults, excess sodium intake can lead to hypertension and cognitive decline.[20] One possible example of this was the failure of Virginia Council president George Percy to seek help from James Davis at Point Comfort.[21] While the colonists in Jamestown were literally starving to death, the settlers just to their north at Point Comfort were healthy, with an excess of food by way of their hogs and native blue crabs.[22] Many historians have placed blame on Percy for his part in the 80% mortality rate, denouncing his leadership skills. Scholars have found no reason for his failure to consider this option in any of his writings, but with the possible decline in his cognitive functions brought about by famine and high sodium intake, the idea may never have occurred to him.

          Based on the high salt concentrations in their drinking water, even without understanding the physiological effects it was having, the settlers likely would have preferred to locate a true freshwater source. The colonists’ poor relations with the native people surrounding Jamestown made doing so close to impossible. After they had extorted the native people’s food earlier in the summer, when the colonists returned to them in the late fall, they found that the natives were unwilling to trade for food.[23] While Powhatan’s tribes understood the need to move their primary location based on the season and the shifting levels of salinity in the river, this put stress on their population as well.[24] Their dependence on a semi-nomadic lifestyle protected them from the water-born maladies of salt poisoning, typhoid, and dysentery, but at the same time it also prevented them from creating their own stores of food for the winter, which made them unwilling to share with the settlers. Not only did Powhatan’s people kill the hogs the settlers had planned on using as a food source through the winter, they also used guerrilla tactics to kill anyone that ventured outside the protection of the fort’s walls.[25]

           After the winter ended in 1610, there were only approximately 60 survivors out of the beginning 500. Evidence shows that the original well was abandoned after June of 1610 when Lord De Lea Warre arrived to the colony[26], just months after the end of “The Starving Time.” William Strachey, Esquire wrote in the summer of 1610 that Jamestown “hath no fresh-water springs serving the town but what we drew from a well six or seven fathom deep fed by the brackish river oozing into it; from whence I verily believe the chief causes have proceeded of many diseases and sicknesses which have happened to our people.”[27] Even though the colonists did not understand the concept of salt poisoning or other water-borne pathogens, they still understood that the water was the source of a majority of their illness.

         When the new governor, Sir Thomas Dale, arrived in the colony in 1611, he promptly wrote back to the Virginia Company with a list of items to be accomplished including to dig "a new well for the amending of the most unholsome water which the old afforded.”[28] Archeological evidence shows that this second well was filled and abandoned sometime between 1617 and 1619, most likely due to brackish water once more tainting the water supply. The colonists relied on this original well for the entire duration of “The Starving Time,” and even the contemporaries recognized that the brackish water played a critical role in the death and misery in the colony.   


Footnotes

[1] Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith, The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2008), 171.

[2] Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas Powhatan Oechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 145.

[3] Glover and Smith, Shipwreck, 182.

[4] Jamestown Rediscovery, “James Fort’s First Well.” Assessed October 19, 2016. http://historicjamestowne.org/archaeology/map-of-discoveriest/james-forts-first-well/.

[5] Dennis B. Blanton, “Drought as a Factor in the Jamestown Colony, 1607-1612. “Historical Archaeology” 34, no. 4 (2000): 74-81, accessed October 19, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25616853, 7.

[6]George Percy “Observations gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia by the English, 1606. Written by the Honorable Gentleman, Master George Percy.” in Hakluytus posthumus; or, Purchas his pilgrimes, ed. Samuel Purchas, 4 vols. (1625), vol. 4, 1690.

[7] Blanton, “Drought,” 76.

[8] Ibid., 75.

[9] Ibid.,  77.

[10] Phillip J. Goodling et al., “Full of Slime and Filth: Assessing Drinking Water Quality During the Early Jamestown Colony, Virginia” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Geological Society of America, Denver, Colorado, October 27-30, 2013), accessed November 2, 2016, https://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2013AM/webprogram/Paper227111.html.  

[11] Government of Canada, “Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality: Guideline Technical Document – Sodium,” accessed November 2, 2016, http://healthycanadians.gc.ca/publications/healthy-living-vie-saine/water-sodium-eau/index-eng.php.

[12]Drinking Water Advisory: Consumer Acceptability Advice and Health Effects Analysis on Sodium. Washington: United States Environmental Protection Agency Office of Water, 2003. Accessed November 2, 2016, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-09/documents/support_cc1_sodium_dwreport.pdf.

[13] Tony Williams, The Jamestown Experiment: The Remarkable Story of the Enterprising Colony and the Unexpected Results that Shaped America (Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2011), 69.

[14] Council for Virginia. A Trve Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia, With a confutation of such scandalous reports as haue tended to the disgrace of so worthy an enterprise. Printed for W. Barrett. London, 1610, 42.

[15] “Can Humans Drink Seawater?” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, accessed November 2, 2016, http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/drinksw.html.

[16] Glover, Shipwreck, 179

[17] Ibid.

[18] Sareen S. Gropper and Jack L. Smith, Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism, 6th ed.,(Belmont: Wadsworth, 2013), 462.

[19] Carville V. Earle, “Environment, Disease, and Mortality in Early Virginia,” in The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century: Essays on Anglo-American Society, ed. Thad W. Tate et al. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), 103.

[20] Alexandra J. Fiocco et al., “Sodium intake and physical activity impact cognitive maintenance in older adults,” Neurobiology of Aging 33 (2012): 829.e21, accessed November 2, 2016, doi: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2011.07.004.

[21] David A. Price, Love and Hate in Jamestown (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 129.

[22] Glover and Smith, Shipwreck, 182.

[23] Rountree, Pocahontas, 137.

[24] Earle, “Environment,” 107.

[25] Rountree, Pocahontas, 145.

[26] Jamestown Rediscovery, “James Fort’s Second Well.” Assessed November 2, 2016, http://historicjamestowne.org/archaeology/map-of-discoveries/second-fort-well/.

[27]William Strachey. “A true reportory of the wracke, and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight; vpon, and from the Ilands of the Bermudas: his comming to Virginia, and the estate of that Colonie then, and after, vnder the gouernment of the Lord La Warrre, Iuly 15. 1610” in Hakluytus posthumus; or, Purchas his pilgrimes, ed. Samuel Purchas, 4 vols. (1625), vol. 4, 1758.

[28] Thomas Dale, “Sir Thomas Dale to the president and counsell of the companie of adventurers and planters in Virginia” in The Genesis of the United States, ed. A. Brown. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1890), 492.

 

Bibliography

Blanton, Dennis B., “Drought as a Factor in the Jamestown Colony, 1607-1612. “Historical Archaeology” 34, no. 4 (2000): 74-81, accessed October 19, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25616853.

 “Can Humans Drink Seawater?” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, accessed November 2, 2016, http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/drinksw.html.

 Council for Virginia. A Trve Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia, With a confutation of such scandalous reports as haue tended to the disgrace of so worthy an enterprise. Printed for W. Barrett. London, 1610.

 Dale, Thomas, “Sir Thomas Dale to the president and counsell of the companie of adventurers and planters in Virginia” in The Genesis of the United States, ed. A. Brown. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1890.

 Drinking Water Advisory: Consumer Acceptability Advice and Health Effects Analysis on Sodium. Washington: United States Environmental Protection Agency Office of Water, 2003. Accessed November 2, 2016, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-09/documents/support_cc1_sodium_dwreport.pdf.

 Earle, Carville V., “Environment, Disease, and Mortality in Early Virginia,” in The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century: Essays on Anglo-American Society, ed. Thad W. Tate et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979.

 Fiocco, Alexandra J., et al., “Sodium intake and physical activity impact cognitive maintenance in older adults,” Neurobiology of Aging 33 (2012): 829.e21, accessed November 2, 2016, doi: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2011.07.004.

 Glover, Lorri and Daniel Blake Smith, The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2008.

 Goodling, Phillip J., et al., “Full of Slime and Filth: Assessing Drinking Water Quality During the Early Jamestown Colony, Virginia” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Geological Society of America, Denver, Colorado, October 27-30, 2013) accessed November 2, 2016, https://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2013AM/webprogram/Paper227111.html.

 Government of Canada, “Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality: Guideline Technical Document – Sodium,” accessed November 2, 2016, http://healthycanadians.gc.ca/publications/healthy-living-vie-saine/water-sodium-eau/index-eng.php.

 Gropper, Sareen S.,and Jack L. Smith, Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism, 6th ed.,Belmont: Wadsworth, 2013.

 Jamestown Rediscovery, “James Fort’s First Well.” Assessed October 19, 2016. http://historicjamestowne.org/archaeology/map-of-discoveriest/james-forts-first-well/.

 Jamestown Rediscovery, “James Fort’s Second Well.” Assessed November 2, 2016, http://historicjamestowne.org/archaeology/map-of-discoveries/second-fort-well/.

 Percy, George “Observations gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia by the English, 1606. Written by the Honorable Gentleman, Master George Percy.” in Hakluytus posthumus; or, Purchas his pilgrimes, ed. Samuel Purchas, 4 vols., 1625.

 Rountree, Helen C., Pocahontas Powhatan Oechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2005.

 Strachey, William, “A true reportory of the wracke, and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight; vpon, and from the Ilands of the Bermudas: his comming to Virginia, and the estate of that Colonie then, and after, vnder the gouernment of the Lord La Warrre, Iuly 15. 1610” in Hakluytus posthumus; or, Purchas his pilgrimes, ed. Samuel Purchas, 4 vols. 1625.

 Williams, Tony, The Jamestown Experiment: The Remarkable Story of the Enterprising Colony and the Unexpected Results that Shaped America. Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2011.

Creator

Sara Zellers

Source

[no text]

Publisher

The University of Memphis

Date

11/30/2016

Contributor

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Collection Items

Observations gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia by the English, 1606.
Observations gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia by the English, 1606 is an exert from one of George Percy’s journals. It was re-printed in the anthology compiled by the Reverend Samuel Purchas,…

A Trve Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia, With a confutation of such scandalous reports as haue tended to the disgrace of so worthy an enterprise
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