Now we know the names of the men whose graves we just walked on in Jamestown

Earlier this month, the family and I loaded up the car and drove south to Savannah, Georgia, making stops along the way at a number of significant historical sites. Among other places of interest, we visited Colonial Williamsburg, the site of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, and the “lost colony” of Roanoke. My favorite stop on the We’ll Make Our Kids Appreciate History If It Kills Us tour, however, was Jamestown… the site of the first permanent the English settlement in the Americas. [Jamestown, which was first settled in 1607, remained the capital of the Virginia colony for 83 years.] As we just had one day to spend exploring the area, we chose to forgo the “living history” of the Jamestown Settlement, which is a recreation of the town as it’s thought to have looked in the early 1600s, and spend our time instead with the archeologists of Jamestown Rediscovery, the non-profit that has been digging on the site of the original settlement since 1996.

Prior to the work of these archeologists, led by Dr. William Kelso, it was thought that the original settlement had been washed away, beneath a rising James River. Kelso and his team, however, proved conventional wisdom wrong. They found evidence of Fort James, and they’ve been working at the site ever since, slowly uncovering details about what happened on the site after May 1607, when 104 English men and boys arrived there from England with he intention of starting a settlement and extracting resources from the “new world” to send back home… Two-thirds of these men and boys, by the way, would be dead by the time supplies arrived in 1608, along with German, Polish and Slovak craftsmen to add to their numbers. [They apparently figured out pretty quickly that they needed settlers who actually knew how to do useful things.]

While walking around the site, the archeologists told us a little about their most recent discovery – the graves of four people who had been buried at the east end of what would have been the earliest known Protestant church in North America. The graves had been discovered in 2010, shortly after the discovery of the Anglican church’s foundation, but not excavated until 2013. As the graves would have been in a part of the church known as the chancel, where a community’s most important people were traditionally buried, the archeological team knew that these were the remains important early settlers, but that’s all they would say. They wouldn’t tell us who they thought it was that they’d exhumed. To learn that, they told us, as they led us around the crosses that marked their graves, we’d have to wait a few weeks, until they issued the report they’d coauthored with Dr. Douglas Owsley, the head of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Apparently all of the remains had been shipped off to DC for analysis, and the results would be announced on July 28… which is today.

Here are 3-D renderings of the four skeletons found buried near the altar of the Jamestown church, where, by the way, is were Pocahontas and John Rolfe were married. [Pocahontas died shortly thereafter, after being taken to England to advertise for the colony.]

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 5.26.52 PM


By looking at the physical evidence (what the men were buried with, and how they were buried), along with historical documents in both the United States and England, and the findings of forensic scientists (who looked at things like lead content in the bones in order to determine social standing (the wealthier you were, the more lead in your system, as you tended to eat from plates and utensils with high lead content)), they’ve arrived at the following… The men buried near the alter of the church which stood inside the walls of Fort James, they believe, are…

The Rev. Robert Hunt: The first pastor to the colony, an Anglican priest, he arrived in 1607. Hunt soon lost all his possessions in a fire. The next year he died at about age 39.

Capt. William West: He was a gentleman, and a relative of the colony’s first governor. West died in 1610 at about age 24, fighting Indians. A silver sash was in his coffin.

Sir Ferdinando Wainman: A soldier, horseman (thus the strong thighs) and an English knight, Wainman was in charge of ordnance and horses. He died in 1610, and was about 34.

Capt. Gabriel Archer: His family, in fact, was Roman Catholic and, according to records found in England, had been persecuted for failing to attend Anglican church services. It was his grave where the reliquary and the staff were found. Archer was about 34 years old when he died in 1609.

Others who died in the colony, it should be noted, didn’t fare as well. Earlier research by Kelso and his team showed, for instance, that a 14-year-old servant girl, who the people of Jamestown Rediscovery call Jane, was butchered and consumed after dying during what’s known as “the starving time,” shortly after arriving at the settlement in August of 1609 on one of six ships from England bringing new settlers, but little food.

Kelso, according to National Geographic, didn’t believe historical accounts regarding cannibalism at Jamestown until finding Jane’s mutilated bones among those of butchered animals. Prior to this discovery, he thought that claims of cannibalism documented in England were politically motivated, and intended to discredit the Virginia Company of London, which financed the settlement. “Now,” Keslo told National Geographic, “I know the accounts are true.” Among other evidence conveyed by her remains, “numerous cuts, saw marks, and gouges along her lower jaw made by the tip of a knife to get to the meat, and to remove throat tissue and the tongue,” were found.

It’s gruesome stuff, but it was infinitely interesting to Clementine, who turned 11 on the trip… the idea that this young servant girl, who was about her age, had died and been eaten over 400 years ago, just feet from where we were standing. [If you’ve got a young person who you’d like to get interested in either archeology or this period of early American history, there’s a video called Jane: Starvation, Cannibalism, and Endurance at Jamestown that you can rent through Amazon.]

If you’d like to know more about this most recent Jamestown discovery, I’d suggest reading the article just posted to the website of the Smithsonian Magazine, which has a great deal of detail about not only these new findings, but about the history of the Jamestown settlement. Here, by way of that article, is a bit of that background.

…Jamestown was England’s attempt to play catch-up with the Spaniards, who had enriched themselves spectacularly with their colonies in South America and were spreading Catholicism through the world. After years of war with the Spanish, financed in part by pirating their ships, England turned to the Virginia Company to launch new colonial adventures. The first 104 settlers—all men and boys, women didn’t arrive until the next year—sailed with a charter from their king and a mission to find silver and gold and a passage to the Far East. They landed in Jamestown, prepared to scout and mine the land and trade with the native people for food. And they did trade, exchanging copper for corn between eruptions of hostility. But as Jamestown’s third winter approached, the Powhatan had limited supplies of corn; a drought was smothering their crops and diverting the once plentiful giant sturgeons that fed them. When English resupply ships were delayed, and the settlers’ attempts to seize corn turned violent, the Powhatan surrounded the fort and killed anyone who ventured out. Brackish drinking water, brutal cold and the lack of food did their damage from within. Jamestown’s early history is so dire it’s easy to forget that it endured to become a success and the home of the first democratic assembly in the Americas—all before any pilgrims made camp in Plymouth. Abandoned in 1699 when Virginia’s capital moved to Williamsburg, the colony was thought to have sunk into the river and been lost…

FortJamesSpeaking of the Spanish, it’s my understanding that the early colonists lived in fear of being murdered by them. While in Jamestown, we were shown caltrops deployed by settlers in order to cripple the horses of the Spanish, should they approach with the intention of doing them harm. It would seem, however, that the Spanish never attacked, perhaps thinking that, between the Native Americans and the cannibalism, they didn’t have to. [Many, by the way, think that the Spanish killed the men and women of Roanoke, who “disappeared” sometime after the establishment of their settlement in 1587.]

Here’s what Fort James looked like at the outset. For what it’s worth, historians knew the general layout of the fort prior to the archeological work done by Kelso and his team thanks to Pedro de Zúñiga, a Spaniard who was given the task of keeping tabs on the English by King Philip III of Spain.

Pedro de Zúñiga’s crude drawing of the fort, which was sent to King Philip III in a coded letter, is the only known visual representation of Jamestown from that time. [See above.] Here, for those of you interested in such things, is a quote from Zúñiga’s December 6, 1607 letter to Philip III: “As to Virginia, I hear that three or four other ships will return there. Will your Majesty give orders that measures be taken in time; because now it will be very easy, and quite difficult afterwards, when they have taken root, and if they are punished in the beginning, the result will be, that no more will go there.”


And here’s video about the research leading up today’s announcement. I know it’s doubtful that many in the audience will find this as interesting as I do, but, as someone who gave up a career in historic archeology to settle down and get a “real” job, I find this amazingly wonderful. And it makes me wonder about our first settlers to leave the planet and what fate awaits them. [I’ve wanted my kids to be astronauts since they were born, but now I’m having second thoughts. If history is any guide, I don’t expect that many in the first wave to Mars will make it long enough to see the first supply ship land.]

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  1. Anonymous
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    It had never occurred to me that a British knight could have been among the first dead colonists in America.

  2. Meta
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    According to an article in the Williamstown Yorkville Daily, the reliquary doesn’t necessarily prove that Archer was a secret Catholic. “Horn said there is no indication Archer was a Catholic,” according to the article, “leading the team to two working theories: Archer was a secret Catholic or the reliquary is actually Anglican.”

    The team found two people from the original 1607 voyage, including Capt. Gabriel Archer. He was present at the founding, developed a rivalry with Capt. John Smith and was involved in several plots to “get rid” of Smith.

    “He was in many respects Smith’s nemesis,” Horn said. “Archer is prominent because he’s always at the center of the politics and the factionalism that’s a feature of the first few years.”

    Archer was a Cambridge-educated gentleman who died during the starving time of 1609 and 1610. Discovered in his grave is a small silver box roughly 2.5 inches long and 1 inch wide, which has perplexed the researchers.

    That’s because it is likely a reliquary, which is a small container that holds holy relics. They are typically associated with the Catholic Church, and while there were a handful of Catholics in the early colony, the majority of colonists — and all of the leadership — are believed to be Anglicans.

    The researchers knew there was something inside the reliquary, but the silver was too corroded to allow it to be opened without destroying the artifact. They approached the FBI, which recommended two companies with powerful scanning technology — General Electric and Micro Photonics.

    Thanks to those companies’ advanced scanning equipment, the team was able to see six bones — likely human, though possibly animal — along with two pieces of lead that were likely a small container known as an ampular. Those containers were used to hold holy water, oil or even blood.

    Horn said there is no indication Archer was a Catholic, leading the team to two working theories: Archer was a secret Catholic or the reliquary is actually Anglican. The Anglican Church did have some reliquaries, though they were quite rare compared to the Catholic Church.

    A reliquary expert suggested to the team the one they found is not a private reliquary. It appears more likely to have been used in public ceremonies.

    “It may be that ultimately we’re never going to know for sure whether it’s a personal Catholic item or the spiritual sacred expression of the 1608 [Anglican] church,” he said.

    Read more:

  3. Meta
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    The reference to “plots against Smith” have sent me down the US History rabbit hole. I was not aware that Smith returned to England after having been injured in a “gunpowder explosion”. Now I’m wondering if others may have had a hand in the explosion.

    Smith proved to be an able and efficient administrator and he quickly emerged as the leader of the settlement. He pressured Powhatan to provide corn for the colonists and he threatened to banish any colonist who was unwilling to work. Smith’s discipline helped to sustain the colony through the winter of 1608-1609. However, Smith’s prominent role in the colony was short-lived; Captain Newport returned to Jamestown in 1609, bringing new settlers and supplies and armed with a new charter for the Virginia Company. A power struggle ensued and Smith eventually lost his position as the president of the colony. Smith also injured himself in a gunpowder explosion in the fall of the year. He went back to England in October, 1609 and never returned to Virginia.

    Read more:

  4. JT
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Did the colony have a formal relationship with Pedro de Zúñiga, or was he spying on them from afar?

  5. Meta
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    I’m still in the rabbit hole.

    Maybe the “soft handed” gentlemen from England who couldn’t fend for themselves narrative is off the mark.

    In the conventional view of Jamestown, the horror of the starving time dramatizes the fatal flaws in the planning and conduct of the settlement. Why, after three growing seasons, were the men of Jamestown still unable or unwilling to sustain themselves? History’s judgment, once again, has been to blame “gentlemen” colonists who were more interested in pursuing profits than in tilling the soil. While the Virginia “woods rustled with game and the river flopped with fish,” according to The American Pageant, a 1956 history textbook, the “soft-handed English gentlemen . . . wasted valuable time seeking gold when they should have been hoeing corn.” They were “spurred to their frantic search” by greedy company directors in London who “threatened to abandon the colonists if they did not strike it rich.”

    But Kelso and Straube are convinced the fate of the colony was beyond the control of either the settlers or their London backers. According to a landmark 1998 climate study, Jamestown was founded at the height of a previously undocumented drought—the worst seven-year dry spell in nearly 800 years. The conclusion was based on a tree-ring analysis of cypress trees in the region showing that their growth was severely stunted between 1606 and 1612. The study’s authors say a major drought would have dried up fresh-water supplies and devastated corn crops on which both the colonists and the Indians depended. It also would have aggravated relations with the Powhatans, who found themselves competing with the English for a dwindling food supply. In fact, the period coincides perfectly with bloody battles between the Indians and the English. Relations improved when the drought subsided.

    Read more:

  6. Eel
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    If you have to eat someone, it might as well be the new servant girl.

  7. Kat
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    I haven’t finished the Smithsonian article yet, so they may answer this, but are they saying that one of the men that was dug up was guilty of murder or that he conspired to murder someone?

    “The bones, now labeled 3046C, belonged to a man who had come to the New World on the first trio of ships from England to the spot called Fort James, James Cittie or, as we know it, Jamestown. He survived the first wave of deaths that followed the Englishmen’s arrival in May of 1607. Over the next two years, he conspired to take down one leader and kill another. This man had a murderous streak. He died, along with hundreds of settlers—most of the colony—during the seven-month disaster known as the “starving time””

  8. Meta
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 11:04 am | Permalink


    If you read to the end, you’ll find the answer. The gunpowder explosion that caused Smith to leave the colony and return to England was probably set by Archer, who had tried to have him hanged earlier.

    Archer was a gentleman who trained as a lawyer, but he might be better characterized as a provocateur. He had been shot in both hands with arrows by Native Americans on the day the first ships arrived in Virginia, the same day he learned that, in spite of his connections and high status and experience, including a previous expedition to New England, he had not been appointed to the colony’s ruling council. John Smith, a soldier and the blunt son of a farmer, had. Their enmity was sealed, one of many “struggles between alphas,” as Horn described it. The two men disagreed about whether Jamestown was the right spot for the colony (Archer said no) and how to wield power (Smith had no use for councils). They were alike in their belligerence. Archer helped unseat the first president of Jamestown, who branded him a “ringleader…always hatching of some mutiny.” Smith had been in chains at least once on mutiny charges too.

    When Archer finally secured a leadership position as the colony’s official record-keeper, he used it to try to hang Smith. Archer called Smith’s loyalty into question after two of Smith’s scouts were killed in a skirmish with the natives; Smith was taken captive in the same incident, but returned unharmed. When this plot failed, Archer attempted murder, detonating Smith’s pouch of gunpowder while he slept—so historians and Smith himself believed. Smith headed back to England, where he made a surprising recovery and wrote the accounts that figure so prominently in American history, including the story, perhaps apocryphal, of his rescue from death by the young Pocahontas. He became the best known of all the Jamestown leaders. Archer died soon after the attempt on Smith’s life, from the bloody flux (dysentery) or typhus or starvation.

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