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A Mouthful Of Dust

November 2023
1min read


Bits of glass and clay, buttons, coins, the occasional pipe bowl—these are the unprepossessing stock in trade of archaeologists who are working to reconstruct the daily life of the earliest American colonists. The time in which they lived seems almost impossibly remote to many of us, and it usually takes a gifted historian to reassemble the pieces, consult the written record, and make it all come alive again. But archaeology alone sometimes unearths facts so brutally compelling that they seem to speak to us directly.

Such a find is the skeleton below, recently discovered in Virginia by archaeologists Ivor Noel Hume and Eric Klingelhofer, who work for Colonial Williamsburg under the auspices of the National Geographic Society. It apparently belonged to an English victim of one of the first major Indian attacks in our history, and the time of his violent end can be pinpointed almost to the minute.

The skeleton was found on the newly discovered site of Wolstenholme Towne, one of the many small settlements interspersed with plantations that already dotted Virginia in 1622, just fifteen years after the founding of Jamestown. Relations between the colonists and the mighty Powhatan confederacy seemed friendly enough in the spring of that year so that on the morning of Good Friday, March 22, settlers throughout the colony invited tribesmen in to share their breakfast and to trade. As the sun reached the angle of eight o’clock, the Indians seized weapons from their startled hosts or produced them from beneath their own clothing and attacked. Almost 350 settlers were killed. The Indians struck hard at Wolstenholme Towne, too, as the skull of the skeleton grimly attests. It is fractured from behind, and broken again on the side, as if another blow had been struck while the unfortunate man lay senseless on the ground. He probably never knew what hit him, the killings having been so sudden, as Captain John Smith wrote, that “few or none discerned the weapon or blow that brought them to destruction.”

The palisaded town was burned to cinders by the Indians—the archaeologists have found its ashes—and the colonists who lived in the surrounding countryside fled for their lives, apparently pausing just long enough to scratch out a shallow grave for their fallen neighbor before racing toward Jamestown and sanctuary.

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