Jamestown, VA, is the site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Established in 1607, the colony was initially the creation of a corporation called the Virginia Company of London. One could buy shares in the new venture, or travel to the area themselves.
The Jamestown settlement struggled during its first two decades. The earliest residents endured a "Starving Time" that decimated the small population, and other miserable experiences. Bad press about living conditions and life expectancy traveled back to England, and for a time it was difficult to convince people to settle in the colony.
By the 1630s, though, things had become calmer in Jamestown. The English Civil War sent a number of royal supporters packing, and some of them went to Virginia to settle. The original settlement was essentially abandoned by the late 17th century, and for 200 years Jamestown was largely forgotten. Many experts even insisted that the original James Fort had washed away into the James River, and like the mysterious Roanoke Colony, it was considered lost to history.
In the early 1990s, historian and archeologist Bill Kelso insisted the original site, trod by Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, remained exactly where it was in 1607. Kelso was right. Since 1994, Preservation Virginia and Jamestown Rediscovery have carefully excavated the site marking the storied colony of Virginia. What they found is as strange as it is amazing.
A Possibly Cannibalized Skull
A skull and a severed leg bone were found buried in an early 17th century kitchen cellar during a 2012 Jamestowne Rediscovery/Preservation Virginia archeological dig. Visible cut marks on the skull and the bone, as if to remove the flesh for consumption, suggest cannibalistic activity.
Why would Jamestown's supposedly upright settlers turn to eating human flesh? The discovered bones were determined to come from a terrible time during the very earliest years of the colony. This "Starving Time" decreased the population from around 500 to 60 in less than one year. Some settlers died from disease, but most perished from starvation. Accounts written by survivors and acquaintances reported that the colonists resorted to cannibalism after all other food sources were exhausted.
The discovered skull was nicknamed "Jane." Jamestowne archeologists and Smithsonian Institute scientists discovered that the skull and leg bone were from a teenaged female, around 14 years old. They aren't sure whether she was killed to serve as food, or if she died from starvation or illness and was then consumed.
An intriguing contemporary account may or may not solve the mystery of Jane. According to letters written to the Virginia Company (the corporation that created the Jamestown colony), the desperate settlers ate any animals they could find, even rats and poisonous snakes. They finally resorted to digging up recently buried corpses and eating those.
But one man among the colonists might have had a different approach to avoiding starvation: he is said to have killed, butchered, and "powdered" (salted) his pregnant wife. Some accounts provide the particularly gruesome detail of how he cut the baby out and threw it into the James River. His stash of "wife meat" was eventually revealed - only her head was missing.
Could this ill-fated woman be Jane? Historians will likely never know for certain, but it's interesting to consider.
A Signet Ring With A Shakespearean Connection
Along with the pottery, glass, and bones that have been discovered at Jamestown, some more precious items have appeared. One of the most intriguing is a brass signet ring, embossed with the image of an eagle with spread wings. The symbol was associated with the Strachey family of England. William Strachey was an early Jamestown colonist. He was an educated man and a playwright who moved within William Shakespeare's literary circle. He was also among the passengers of a ship destined for Jamestown, thought lost just prior to the Starving Time.
But Strachey's ship, the Sea Venture, wasn't lost. Instead, it got caught in a hurricane and blown off course. The ship landed, somewhat damaged, on Bermuda. The crew and passengers were stuck there all winter until they could repair the ship. When spring arrived, they loaded up the hold and sailed for Jamestown.
When the repaired Sea Venture reached Jamestown Island, the new arrivals discovered a small group of weak and emaciated settlers, a total of 60. The other ships which had come over with the Sea Venture had made it to Jamestown, swelling the population to around 500. But the Sea Venture had carried the food, seeds, and farming implements, along with guns and ammunition for hunting or fort defense. Without them, the settlement had struggled.
The survivors begged the leadership from the Sea Venture to take them away from their horrible existence at James Fort, and it was decided that everyone would board the ship and return to England immediately. But as they were making their way down the James River and into Chesapeake Bay, a group of ships were spied, carrying new colonists and fresh supplies. Everyone agreed to return and give Jamestown one more try.
When Strachey finally returned to England, he was known to regale his fellow poets and authors with stories from his adventures in Bermuda and Virginia. Shakespeare supposedly based his play The Tempest on the tale of the shipwrecked Sea Venture.
As for Strachey's ring, it's unclear whether he lost it during the one year he spent at Jamestown, or if he sold it and someone else lost it.
A Child's Shoes
Believe it or not, even a few shoes survived the centuries buried in Jamestown pits and wells. Unearthed discoveries included a pair of shoes worn by a small child, constructed of goatskin leather. The condition of the shoes suggest only light wear. Perhaps a young child took his or her first steps in the New World in these very shoes.
Shoes were a mark of prestige, particularly for children, who typically went barefoot. So, the shoes either belonged to a child of a wealthy Jamestown family, or a child of lesser status whose parents doted upon them.
A Catholic Reliquary
Jamestown archeologists discovered a burial site containing the graves of four early and prominent colonists. One of these graves held the remains of a young man named Gabriel Archer, who arrived on the first voyage to Virginia and had a great rivalry with Captain John Smith. For 400 years, it was presumed that all colony leaders were devout Protestant Christians. And yet, Archer's grave contained a small Catholic reliquary, a container holding objects of religious significance. Via xray technology, scientists were able to discover that there were even shards of bones inside the box.
Jamestown was established in 1607 as an English colony in Virginia. England was by then a firmly Protestant Christian country after years of religious wars, and the Protestant James I was on the throne. Spain, however, was still very Catholic, and establishing their claim in the New World. English leaders felt compelled to achieve their own Protestant foothold across the Atlantic. They believed that if they did not, then the entire New World would be Catholic. England was in no way interested in returning to the wars of religion.
Politics aside, plenty of closeted "Papists" still existed in 1607. Considering that, it's less surprising to find a Catholic reliquary buried with an early Jamestown colonist. Still, it was exciting to find the object with the Protestant Archer. Jamestown archeologists have discovered a variety of other Catholic items as well, including rosary beads and crucifixes. Historians assumed that those items were merely the result of trading with Spaniards passing through the settlement, but the discovery of the reliquary is leading them to reconsider religious life in Jamestown.