- Historic Sites
Digging Up Jamestown
Where the written word leaves off, the spade must often take over. A well-known archaeologist relates what the earth has revealed about the first permanent British colony in America
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
The chapel had two bells, which could ring out merrily when the occasion demanded, but which were more often to toll out the notes of doom as the death rate continued to mount over the months and years. The horrifying figures have been succinctly stated by the National Park Service archaeologist John L. Cotter in his report on the archaeology of Jamestown: Between December, 1606 (when the first vessels of the Virginia Company left England) and February, 1625, 7,289 immigrants came to Virginia. During this period 6,040 died … Allowing for a proportion of these settlers to have been buried on plantations and settlements on the mainland, it is evident that more persons were buried on Jamestown Island during the first few years than lived there at any one time thereafter.
A though the infant settlement had endured many privations, the winter of 1609–10 exceeded all the horrors that had gone before. Increased Indian hostility, disease, and almost nonexistent food supplies whittled the colonists’ numbers down from about five hundred to as few as sixty. This terrible winter, now referred to by historians as the “starving time,” probably left its mark in the ground in the form of a large concentration of graves beneath the east end of an extensive foundation complex which included the site of the third State House, later destroyed in Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676.
It is estimated that the graveyard contained as many as three hundred bodies, most of them clustered together but with a few stragglers extending almost to the present river’s edge. As all of them pre-date the earliest of the overlying foundations, we know that they stem from the first years of the colony. Furthermore, the fact that the bodies were interred without coffins and lay with heads and feet in all directions strongly suggests that they were laid to rest in haste without the niceties of formal Christian burial. The “starving time” could well have provided both the large number of dead and the frame of mind that made disposing of the remains more important than the paying of final respects.
A second early graveyard was situated in the vicinity of the seventeenth-century brick church, whose original tower still stands. Scattered burials have also been found in various parts of Jamestown and its environs, most of them the bones of colonists, but a few being skeletons of Indians.
The disposal of human remains is always a problem when deaths come too quickly one upon another. Just how and where the early settlers dealt with this problem is still unknown, for apart from the three hundred or so under the third State House complex, the small early cemetery by the church, and the few individual graves, no traces have been found of the remainder of the 6,040 who perished in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. The positions of the two cemeteries, however, provide us with clues to the position of the fort site, supporting the theory that it stood in the vicinity of the surviving Confederate earthwork.
The hazards of venturing outside the fort were constantly brought home to the settlers, and consequently they would undoubtedly have dug their graves in the best-protected area that they could find. The island being roughly pear-shaped and the settlement being situated toward the narrow end, the greatest natural protection would have been found upriver in the lee of the fort, toward, as it were, the stem of the pear. On the basis of this reasoning it would follow that the fort must have been east of the “starving-time” graveyard. The second cemetery, on the other hand, was almost certainly of later date and was in use when the settlement was outgrowing the fort and when the danger from the Indians seemed to be waning. Thus, with the town growing in a down-river, or easterly, direction, the second cemetery would have been below the fort; together the two graveyards provide brackets between which the fort site probably existed.
In May, 1610, along with the approach of spring, came Sir Thomas Gates, the colonists’ new governor, who had been delayed for almost a year in Bermuda. The sight that greeted him on arrival was enough to make him decide to pack up and take the surviving settlers home. In the words of his report, … the pallisadoes he found tourne downe, the portes open, the gates from the hinges, the church ruined and unfrequented, empty howses (whose owners untimely death had taken newly from them) rent up and burnt, the living not able, as they pretended, to step into the woodes to gather other fire-wood; and, it is true, the Indian as fast killing without as the famine and pestilence within.