This period, the Starving Time, was a difficult and decisive one in the history of Jamestown. It was characterized by new leadership, hostile Indians, famine, and a near evacuation of the colony.
John Smith, the charismatic and forceful leader of the colony, was badly wounded by a gunpowder accident. He sailed back to England in the fall of 1609, where he recuperated. After his departure, the colony faced formidable challenges.
Powhatan, the Indian chief, tried to starve the colonists out. He cut off all trade with the settlers. Englishmen found outside the fort were killed by the Indians. The situation became desperate as the starving colonists ate animals—including rats and mice—and even shoe leather. There were instances of cannibalism: one man even ate his pregnant wife. Less than one-fifth of the settlers survived.
In May 1610, two ships arrived. They were surprised to find the colony in such a wretched state, and the colonists decided to abandon Jamestown in June 1610. As their four small ships were leaving port, another English expedition arrived under the command of De La Warr. De La Warr spent the next year rebuilding the colony and brought it back from the brink of extinction.
The Starving Time had nearly ruined the colony, but the fortuitous arrival of a relief expedition marked a turning point. There would be more lean years for Jamestown, but it never again came as close to complete failure as it did in 1609–1610.