Archaeologists Make New Discovery About America’s First Colonial Settlement

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It’s been over 300 years since colonists left Jamestown behind, but its mysterious past continues to captivate the public. Now, archaeologists have brought new information to light which could fill some of the many blanks on the first permanent American colony.

The New World

Exploring and settling the New World was all of the hype in the 1600s. When Jamestown was founded, its colonists had hoped to start a great life in the New World. Instead, the colony could not make it to its 100th birthday.

Finding A Home

On orders from the Virginia Company of London, over 100 English settlers took off to set up a colony in the New World in 1606. After a stop in Puerto Rico for provisions, the expedition and its three ships – Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery – arrived in the Chesapeake Bay. Before finding a spot for their permanent colony, they stopped at Cape Henry. After sailing up the James River, they settled on Jamestown Island on May 14, 1607.

It’s Perfect, I’ll Take It

The Virginia Company instructed the colonists on what type of location to choose. They wanted somewhere which could be easily defended. England had periodically been at war with many of the European countries also establishing colonies in the New World. Jamestown was a great choice because the island had great visibility down the James River, was inland enough not to have conflict with passing ships, and was not occupied by Native Americans. They built a triangular fort over an acre which surrounded a church, storehouse, and houses.

Fighting The Locals

It did not take long before the colonists realized that life would be more difficult than expected. For one, the land was near-uninhabitable. Before they could build the fort walls, the neighboring Paspahegh Indians attacked them, killing one and injuring 11 others. In addition, the island was cut off from the mainland which limited the amount of game animals. Most were killed off quickly. Lastly, the marshy surroundings were ripe with malaria-carrying mosquitos and poor drinking water.

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Once the James Fort was completed, Christopher Newport, captain of the Susan Constant, headed back to London to report to his superiors and return with more supplies. He made two runs, known as the First and Second Supply, between England and Jamestown. His first mission brought 70 new colonists and not enough food.  The Second Supply brought not only necessary supplies but the colony’s first female settlers, as well as non-English skilled craftsmen and specialists. At the time, most of the colonists were aristocrats.

Tricked By The Natives

John Smith is one of the most well-known colonists from Jamestown. He was a vital piece of the colony’s expedition team around the Chesapeake Bay. On his journeys, he tirelessly looked for food supplies for the colonists. This included setting up trade agreements with the Nansemonds. However, Smith and his men were set up by the Powhatan Indians on an early expedition. He was taken to see Wahunsunacock, better known as Chief Powhatan, for judgment.

Colors Of The Wind

Fortunately for John Smith, the chief’s youngest daughter came to the rescue. Chief Powhatan had decided to execute Smith until Pocahontas pleaded for her father to exercise some mercy. Historians debate the accuracy of Smith’s claim that Pocahontas saved him. While she might have barely interacted with Smith, Pocahontas did help the settlers of Jamestown. After a fire destroyed their fort in 1608, she brought food and clothing to the reeling colonists. She also negotiated the release of Native Americans caught stealing weapons.

How Rude!

The Virginia Company of London did not know what hit them when they demanded an explanation for the small return on their investment into Jamestown. Council president John Smith answered their request as honestly and bluntly as he could. He began the memo by warning his superiors of his demands, “I humbly intreat your Pardons if I offend you with my rude Answer.” The Virginia Company responded to “Smith’s Rude Answer” of requesting more supplies and worker by sending their biggest shipment yet.

Third Time’s Not The Charm

In 1609, the Virginia Company geared up for a third supply run. With a new flagship, Sea Venture, leading the pack with Christopher Newport at the helm, nine ships left London for Jamestown. The larger Sea Venture held most of the supplies, as the other ships brought 500 colonists. The convoy hit a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean, separating the Sea Venture from the pack and causing its wreck on Bermuda’s reef. All 150 people onboard survived the storm, but only a few supplies made it to Jamestown.

Hungry, Hungry Colonists

About 300 people made it to Jamestown from the Third Supply, but most supplies sunk with the Sea Venture. Now with 500 colonists at Jamestown, the colony hit a rough patch. They had not planned to grow their own food and a drought in 1609 limited food available for trade. At one point, some resorted to cannibalism. Plus, with John Smith returning home to recover from an injury, their most skilled leader was gone. The brutal winter knocked out most of the colony. Only 60 people survived the winter.

Hannibal Lecter Of The Colonial Times

Rumors and speculation of cannibalism during the Starving Time spread for centuries out of Jamestown. Five historical accounts written by Jamestown colonists reference cannibalism, but scientists could never prove it. In 2013, scientists discovered the first piece of evidence of cannibalism not only in Jamestown but from any European colony between 1500 and 1800. They studied and tested the bones of a 14-year-old girl found in the James Fort ruins. She had peculiar marks on her various bones.

Upon Further Review

The girl’s skull showed many similarities to other victims of cannibalism. Doug Owsley, an anthropologist with Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, connected chop and cut marks on her skull to those made by assailants coming after her meatier parts. The body referred to as “Jane,” showed similar marks, fragmentations, and cuts to other victims. Owsley and his team figured out that she was 14 years old based on the size of her shinbone. Studies on her teeth revealed she could be from a high-status family.

Not Exactly The Chef’s Menu

The Starving Period really forced the colonists to get creative with their meals. The land had little to offer and times were tough.They needed to eat and were forced into meals that made their stomachs and morals churn. When food supplies first became depleted, they roasted their horses and eventually house pets such as cats and dogs. Eventually, they transitioned into the rats, mice, and snakes which they could find. Finally, they ate whatever leather was laying around.

Help On The Way

Although some of the Sea Venture’s survivors perished on Bermuda or in an effort to find Virginia, the remaining survivors built two ships and headed back for Jamestown. When the ships, Deliverance and Patience, made it back to Jamestown, most of the town was dead, and the rest very ill. They packed up,  boarded everyone on the two ships, and prepared to sail for England. Alas, they ran into an English fleet in the James River and with their help could continue living in Jamestown.

Lord Delaware Says No

On board these ships was Thomas West, Baron De La Warr (Lord Delaware), the new governor of Virginia. Baron De La Warr and his fleet supplied plenty of food and medicine, in addition to doctors and other colonists., and ordered them back to Jamestown. This was a turning point in English colonization. If the colonists went back to England, if would have been yet another colonization failure by England (following Roanoke Island). Instead, they committed to Jamestown. However, tough times were ahead.

Fight The Power Back

Although Baron De La Warr brought food to Jamestown, he also brought a bitter dislike of the Native Americans. With his constituents barely recovered from The Starving Time, De La Warr ordered an attack on the Powhatan. This led to five years of war between them. They reached a ceasefire after Samuel Argall kidnapped Chief Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas. In March of 1614, the two sides reached a peace agreement, which was finalized with the marriage of John Rolfe to Pocahontas.

Prosperity Finally Comes

In addition to his marriage with Pocahontas and the peace that followed, John Rolfe brought something else with him to Jamestown – tobacco. Rolfe was one of the survivors from the Sea Venture. He brought a strand of the crop with him from Bermuda, which Europeans liked much more than the strain growing in Virginia at the time. This new tobacco brought a gold-rush of sorts to Jamestown, as well as great wealth. Jamestown became the capital of the Virginia Commonwealth.

An Indian Princess In England

One of the main goals of the Virginia Company of London was not only to profit off the new colony but also to convert the natives into good practicing Christians. Following her marriage John Rolfe, Pocahontas converted to Christianity. The Virginia Company thought their relationship would make a great symbol of progress. She could show the old world that taming a “savage” was possible. They showed her off as an Powhatan princess for all to see.

Indian Massacre Of 1622

The period of prosperity did not last long. After the death of Pocahontas on a public relations trip to England, relations with the natives soured. A new chief, Chief Opechancanough, wanted to eradicate the settlers. He led a series of surprise attacks on the surrounding English settlements. 347 colonists died, but Jamestown was spared, unlike its neighbors due to a tip from a Native American named Chanco. Fighting between the colonists and Native Americans continued on and off for decades, occasionally breaking an 1846 treaty.

Colonial Speed Dating

Since many of the earlier colonists were men, the Virginia Company was worried about the long-term sustainability of families. In 1621, they sent 57 unmarried women to the colony. The Virginia Company paid for their travel and some clothes and food. If they married in Jamestown, their new husband would be responsible for paying back the Virginia Company for her transport. Most of the women were widows hoping to find love again. Sadly, most of the women disappeared without any records.

Can’t We All Get Along?

The three Anglo-Powhatan Wars had devastating effects on both the colonists and the natives. Chief Opechancanough again tried to attack the colonists in 1644. He was eventually captured and killed by the man assigned to guard him. Following his death, the new guard of Powhatan entered into treaties with the English. The Powhatan agreed to make yearly payments to England in return for a defined boundary between them. This would create the first Indian reservations in America.

Bacon Burns It Down

In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led a revolt against the leaders of Virginia, specifically Governor Berkeley. He thought they were not handling the “Indian problem” well enough. Bacon and his followers lit Jamestown on fire, burning 18 houses, the church, and the statehouse to the ground. Bacon died before the English could capture him, but 23 of his comrades were hung by Governor Berkeley. Some historians believe that Bacon’s Rebellion influenced the American Revolution a hundred years later due to its challenge of English policy.

This Is The End My Friend

Jamestown rebuilt itself after Bacon’s Rebellion, but in 1698, the statehouse in Jamestown burned down for the fourth time, this time by accident. The Virginia House of Burgesses (the first North American legislature) occasionally moved to Middle Plantation when the statehouse was inaccessible. Five William and Mary students proposed moving the capital to Middle Plantation due to its location on higher ground away from the mosquitoes and malaria, and its location near two rivers. The town dissolved following the official move of the capital.

Democracy At Work

Jamestown might have operated as a colony of the crown, but set up its local government to represent a democracy. According to the Virginia Company’s charter, emigrants received 50 acres of land and choose colony inhabitants to form their government. The House of Burgesses convened for its first legislative assembly on July 30, 1619, the first of its type in the New World. The meeting did not last long, however. A malaria outbreak interrupted the meeting, and its members scurried to deal with the issue.

Strangers In A Strange New Land

The English were not the only people who found their way into Jamestown. In August 1619, the first European ship containing African landed at Jamestown. At the time, no slave trade had been established between Africa and the English. All of the 20 or so black people that came to Jamestown came as either freemen or indentured servants. They were considered colonists. William Tucker became the first Black person born in the New World. The first recorded slave was in 1640.


Still Standing

Although the town no longer existed, people continued to live on Jamestown Island. The fourth edition of the Jamestown Church might have fallen in Bacon’s Rebellion, but its church tower survived, becoming the centerpiece of two future churches. The fifth church stayed in business into the 1750s before its desertion. In 1907, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America built the Memorial Church in its place and used the original tower in its design. Over a century later, the Jamestown Church made news headlines.

Are You Sure About That?

For years, many believed that the ruins of the James Fort, the initial settlement at Jamestown, had sunk into the James River. However, others believed, including archaeologist William Kelso, that the Jamestown Church was located near the center of the historic fort. In 2010, Kelso and his Jamestown Rediscovery Project uncovered five deep post holes. The holes matched colony records of the 60-foot-long original church in Jamestown. The discovery of the holes confirmed the church’s location but led to an even greater revelation.

Identifying The Unknown

Kelso was happy to find the original location of the church, but his work was not finished. As they continued to excavate the area, comparing it to old records of the church, archeologists found four side-by-side graves. It appeared as if the graves were dug underneath the church’s chancel, the area outside the altar reserved for clergy. Being buried under the chancel was an honor only bestowed upon prominent members of society. A question remained: whose graves were they?

Difficult Working Conditions

Since Kelso had determined that they must be “high-status people,” they decided to continue searching for answers. Kelso joined forces with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History to exhume the remains. It was no easy task since only 30% of the bones remained due to decay. Scientists used various data to come to a conclusion in 2015. They looked at everything from chemical analyses to genealogical records to 3D imaging. They even looked at how they were buried.

A Man Of Faith

Robert Hunt’s time in Jamestown did not last long. He died only a year after arriving, but was one of the most beloved members of the community due to his role as peacemaker and Chaplin. Archaeologists could identify him as a church leader based on how he was buried. For one, he was not buried in a coffin. Alternatively, he was wrapped in a shroud. In addition, he was buried facing the congregation as per tradition back then.

Wealth As An Identifyer

The remains of Sir Ferdinando Wainman, the first British knight buried in America, were identified based on his wealthy lifestyle. At the time, many upper-class cups and bowls were made with lead. Chemical tests on Wainman’s teeth revealed high levels of lead, which could not be present if he mostly ate and drank from wooden bowls. Also, a reconstructed 3D image of his coffin suggested (due to the pattern of coffin nails) that it was human shaped, not hexagonal-shaped.

The Baron’s Nephew

In a similar vein to Wainman, Captain William West was identified due to his high social standing. In addition to being related to Wainman, West was related to Sir Thomas West, the first governor of Virginia. He also had a high lead content in his teeth and a souped-up coffin. What set him apart from Wainman was the sash draped over the skeleton’s chest suggesting he was a military man. West died in a battle with the Powhatan Indians.

Identifying The Young Explorer

One of the identified bodies was that of Captain Gabriel Archer. The young Captain was a talented sailor but died during The Starving Time around 1609. During his time at Jamestown, he was a major opponent to John Smith. Scientists identified him by the captain’s leading staff, a sign of a high-ranking officer, with which he was buried. Archaeologists also found him buried with a silver box which contained a lead ampulla generally used for holding holy water – an odd choice for a Protestant.

A Hidden Community?

The silver reliquary containing an ampulla and bone fragments in Archer’s grave posed a new question. As the ampulla was a Catholic relic, why would it be buried with one of Jamestown’s community leaders? Archer’s parents were persecuted in England as Catholics, so it’s possible that Archer was a secret Catholic. Perhaps Archer was a part of a larger group of secretly practicing Catholics. He was also buried facing the congregation as if he were clergy. This one solved mystery led to another unsolved.

A Spy Among Us?

If Gabriel Archer was a Catholic, is it possible that he was a spy for the Catholic Church? Jamestown was England’s best bet into establishing colonies and keeping pace with Spain, a Catholic country. During his life, Archer participated in a conspiracy to remove the first president of Jamestown and actively fought to rid the colony of John Smith. You could not be a Catholic as a person with authority under England. Perhaps he fought the establishment from the inside.

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