Jamestown may appear to be a prosperous settlement in this illustration, but fossil evidence shows the colony had a dark history.
Established in 1607, Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, may have helped the British gain a foothold in the New World, but it came at a high cost, as evidenced by recent research from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Fossil evidence shows that the earliest settlers resorted to cannibalism in order to survive the brutal conditions of what was known as the "starving time."
During the winter of 1609-10, three-quarters of the colonists died, and those remaining turned to cannibalism as a last resort. The remains of a 14-year-old girl reveal that she was butchered for food, although the cause of her death could not be established.
Jamestown would recover and thrive in the years that followed. But if Jamestown is an example of a successful colony, what do the failures look like?
Like many islands in the Caribbean, Saint Kitts changed hands a couple times among the European powers during the colonial era.
Even though the New World was a vast land mass who size had yet to be understood during the 16th century, one thing that European powers seemed to believe was that the Americas apparently weren't big enough to share.
First discovered and claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus in 1493, Saint Kitts was the first site at which non-Spanish settlers attempted to establish themselves in the New World. In 1538, French Protestants arrived in Dieppe Bay to start a colony.
As soon as the Spanish caught wind of the French settlement, Spanish troops attacked and took over the site, deporting all of its inhabitants.
A portrait of French explorer Jacques Cartier
Established by Jacques Cartier in 1541, Charlesbourg-Royal was supposed to be the first permanent French settlement in the New World. Located near Quebec City, the settlement began with 400 inhabitants, including "nobles, doctors, priests, carpenters, iron workers, farmers, barbers, apothecaries, craftsmen and tailors, as well as pigs and goats."
Although initially friendly with the Iroquois who had already inhabited the area around the St. Lawrence, relations between the natives and the settlers soured progressively. Skirmished between the two groups, along with low morale due to the harsh conditions, led Cartier to the belief that the settlement was no longer viable, leading him and the colonists to abandon it.
The Spanish had better luck settling the Atlantic coast of Florida than they did the Gulf coast.
The site of the first attempted European settlement within the continental United States was Pensacola, Fla. In 1559, Spanish conquistador Tristan de Luna y Arellano arrived with the intention of creating a permanent colony.
Unfortunately for de Luna, his timing, right in the middle of hurricane season, could have been better. De Luna's ships reached arrived in Pensacola on August 15. On September 19, a 24-hour hurricane devastated the settlement and the fleed de Luna brought with him. Survivors attempted to salvage the settlement, but were forced to abandon it within two years.
The Spanish would eventually succeed in establish the first permanent settlement on the continental United States when St. Augustine was founded in 1565 on the Atlantic coast of Florida. So shaken were the Spanish by their experience on the Gulf coast that they deemed it unsafe and didn't return another settlement on Florida's west coast for over 130 years.
Charlesfort was one of the few settlements on this list where the colonists were able to work with the native population.
When settlements are lost or abandoned, evidence of their existence can get lost over time. In the case of Charlesfort, a 16th-century French settlement founded in South Carolina, it took more than 400 years to discover and identify the site where 150 men first trained to gain a foothold for France in the New World.
Commissioned by Gaspard II de Coligny and led by Jean Ribault, the expedition arrived in April 1562 and most of the men returned to France that summer to report their findings to the crown. Twenty-seven settlers remained behind with the promise that they would be resupplied within six months.
Unfortunately for Ribault, a religious civil war at home prevented him from fulfilling his promise. The men left behind, who hadn't planned on an extended stay, never got around to planting crops. They attempted to sail back to France with a ship they created with the help of Indian natives. On the way home, however, they ran out of food and had to resort to cannibalism before they were rescued by the British.
An illustration of Ft. Caroline as it appeared when the French attempted to settle the New World.
One year before the Spanish founded St. Augustine, French Protestants established a settlement in what is now Jacksonville, Fla. Originally intended to be a commercial venture, the La Caroline later was used as a haven for Protestant (Hugeunot) settlers, though the colony quickly proved nothing of the sort.
The fort was destroyed a year after its founding due to persistent famine and Indian attacks, killing off nearly a third of its inhabitants. In 1565, the settlement got the attention of the Spanish, who didn't like the idea of a French establishment along the routes of their treasure ships. Spanish troops attacked the fort and killed most of its nearly remaining 200 occupants.
Of the 50 or so that survived and were captured by the Spanish, several were executed as heretics. The Spanish torched the French fort, rebuilding their own in 1566.
The Powhatan Indians didn't like the Spanish at Ajacan anymore than they appreciated the English at Jamestown.
Given how unwelcome the Spanish tried to make settler of other European powers in the New World, it should come as no surprise that they weren't welcome everywhere they landed either.
Thirty-seven years before Jamestown, Jesuit missionaries founded a settlement called Ajacan on the Chesapeake Bay. Intending to convert the local Powhatan Indians to Christianity, the missionaries hadn't planned well for their expedition, and were short on food. To make up for the shortage, the missionaries insisted it be provided by the Indians they were trying to convert.
The Powhatan, however, didn't take very well to the missionaries' message. The Indians attacked the settlement and killed everyone at the mission. After the deaths of the missionaries, the Spanish got the message and no longer attempted to further explore the Chesapeake.
An illustration of John White returning to Roanoke Island to search for the missing settlers.
Before there was the success of Jamestown, there was the famous failure at Roanoke.
Dispatched by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587, a group of 150 colonists attempted to settle Roanoke Island. It was the second attempt after an earlier expedition to the same island by Raleigh failed. The new group of colonists would be led by John White, who was a friend of Raleigh and had been on the first trip to Roanoke.
For the second expedition, rather than sticking with a male-exclusive group as was the case with the first, White brought over entire families, including his daughter, who would bear a child on the expedition. The colonists grew to realize that Roanoke Island could not sustain them over the long term, so White returned to England to bring back supplies, leaving the colonists and his daughter and granddaughter.
As a result of conflict with the Spanish, White would not be able to return to Roanoke for three years. Upon his arrival, he discovered no trace of the people he left behind, with no way to find them. Unable to conduct a full search due to the approaching hurricane season, White was forced back to England, never to return. The Roanoke settlers have never been found, and their fate is still a mystery.