Digging Up Jamestown

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It has often been said that armor was found to be too heavy to wear in Virginia and that the colonists quickly abandoned it. This may be true of the heavier threequarter-length suits, but it would seem that the protective merits of breastplates, helmets, and mail continued to be appreciated as late as the 1620’s. Earlier, in 1611, William Strachey described the order of dress for those who had to venture on punitive missions beyond the palisades. Every musketeer, he said, “shall either be furnished with a quilted coate of Canuas, a headpeece, and a sword, or else with a light Armor, and Bases quilted, with which he shall be furnished; and every Targiteer [one who carries a shield] with his Bases to the small of his legge, and his headpeece, sword and pistoll or Scuppet provided for that end …”

 

No identifiable fragments of shields, or “targets” as they were called, have yet been found in Virginia excavations. Although it was on its way out in Europe by the end of the sixteenth century, in Virginia the shield had much to commend it. When the Indians loosed their arrows in a high arc, the colonists could see them coming and use their shields to push them aside. Equally helpful was the fact that with the protection of a shield it would not be essential to wear plate armor, but only a padded or leather coat. The shields themselves were generally circular, about three feet in diameter, and made of steel, or more commonly of wood covered with leather. It was the latter variety on which, in the first days of the 1607 landing, a naively confident Englishman invited a visiting Indian to try his luck. George Percy recalled that the savage ”… tooke from his back an Arrow of an elle long, drew it strongly in his Bowe, shoots the Target a foote thorow, or better: which was strange, being that a Pistoll could not pierce it. Wee seeing the force of his Bowe, afterwards set him up a steele Target; he shot again, and burst his arrow all to pieces.”

No Indian bows have been found in Virginia excavations; being of wood they would not normally survive. But if they were deposited in permanently wet soil they could do so, and there is every reason to suppose that the marshes of Jamestown Island may hold many such treasures. In such conditions, metals and organic material can be preserved in virtually the same condition as they were in on the day they were lost. An Indian canoe, hollowed out of a single tree trunk, has been found in fine shape in the mud of the York River near West Point and is exhibited in the Valentine Museum in Richmond. Although such objects survive intact as long as they remain incased in mud, once they begin to be washed out of it they quickly go to pieces. This is particularly true of fabrics and slender pieces of wood such as arrows or bows. Whereas pottery or stone implements are easily spotted by archaeologists and collectors, it calls for a very sharp eye to recognize the curve of a bow amid the mass of roots and twigs that habitually protrude from the riverbanks.

 

Although the English were all too aware of the effectiveness of the bow and arrow in the hands of the extremely mobile Indians, there is no indication that the colonists made use of the same weapon. Firearms were considered much more useful in that the report of the gun would often disperse the enemy even when the ball missed by a country mile. As every student of European history knows, the English longbow with steel-tipped arrows had been a combination to be feared since the Middle Ages. Although this weapon was still in use in the early seventeenth century, there is evidence to show that the colonists deliberately refrained from importing any for fear that one might fall into Indian hands and serve as a prototype for improving their already deadly armament.

The heavy crossbow with its equally cumbersome quarrels or bolts had been a standard European weapon in the early days of Spanish incursion into America. But it was troublesome to carry and slow to load. On the credit side, it could pierce plate armor at sixty yards; but against Indians who frequently wore little but a frown, such power was hardly necessary. Light crossbows were used as sporting weapons, and part of one of them was found in excavations at Green Spring, the great seventeenth-century plantation of Governor Berkeley.

Many musket fragments have been found in excavations at Jamestown, the most informative being the locks or firing mechanisms, which well illustrate the various stages in the development of the firearm. The principle of the musket was simply the ignition of a small quantity of gunpowder that burnt through a touchhole into the barrel of the gun, setting off the compressed charge that it contained. During the seventeenth century various methods were developed to achieve this simple result. The first and least complicated was the matchlock, which was nothing more than a covered pan for priming powder and a length of cotton soaked in potassium nitrate to provide a constantly burning match. The end of the match was attached to a lever on the side of the gun, and when the trigger was pulled, the glowing end was thrust down into the powder—always providing that you remembered to open the lid of the pan first. The matchlock was the principal weapon of the first colonists, but by 1624, as Harold Peterson has pointed out, a military census showed that there were only 47 matchlocks out of a grand total of 1,098 firearms in the colony. In England, however, the matchlock continued to be used by the army until 1690.