Jamestown's Skeletons


     Reenactment from the Jamestown 400 Anniversary Celebration

Jamestown, as the birthplace of (successful) European colonization in the Chesapeake, is the focus of much historical romanticism, locally and nationally. A few years ago, in 2008, there was a 400th anniversary commemoration of Jamestown’s settlement that clearly represented how the little colony continues to capture our country’s imagination. The celebration, held at the location of the original fort, was attended by the Queen of England, Miss Virginia, representatives from Chesapeake Indian tribes, sweaty people in replica period clothing and lots of American flags. Much ado was made, and there were many uplifting speeches about the bravery of Captain John Smith and the other colonists who persevered in the face of dwindling supplies, a long, hard winter, and the constant threat of death in the savage, untamed wilderness.


Jamestown reenactors recreate the colony’s early days, before sickness, starvation and conflict decimated their population.

Often repeated, too were Smith’s own quotes about the Chesapeake bounty from his accounts of the colony’s founding days, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & The Summer Isles. In it, Smith described the Bay in effusive terms: “Heaven & earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation; were it fully manured and inhabited by industrious people. Here are mountaines, hil[l]s, plaines, valleyes, rivers, and brookes, all running most pleasantly into a faire Bay, compassed but for the mouth, with fruitfull and delightsome land.”


It hardly seems possible, given the lofty hyperbole of modern orators and period explorers, that Jamestown’s origin story could hide a considerably darker side- at least, not one that was a foil for ultimate triumph. But recent archaeological discoveries have confirmed the brutal realities of life in the “Fruitfull and delightsome land” and revealed the banal regularity with which Jamestown settlers succumbed to starvation, disease, chaos, and even cannibalism.


A map of “Jamestown Fort” as drawn by the Spanish Ambassador to London, Pedro de Zuniga, in 1608.

From 1607 through 1609, the Jamestown colony had a failure to thrive, despite the arrival of several vessels full of physical reinforcements and additional supplies.These were not the stout pioneers of the 19th century, after all. These were artisans and farmers, lords, bricklayers, and musicians, hardly equipped by their previous life experiences to live off a deeply foreign land.The pressure was on the Jamestown settlers, ill-equipped as they were, to make the community a financial success for their investors at the Virginia Company of London. John Smith wrote to the backers, imploring them:  “When you send againe I entreat you rather send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, gardiners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons and diggers up of trees, roots, well provided; than a thousand of such as wee have: for except wee be able both to lodge them and feed them, the most will consume with want of necessaries before they can be made good for anything.”

Smith knew from experience. Under his leadership, the colony had only just managed to eke out a meager survival during the winter of 1608, foraging off oyster bars and a few remaining rations. Self-sufficiency was a goal that seemed far from achievable. But conditions were about to become markedly worse. After Smith was forced to return to England following an explosives accident, the colony was lead by George Percy, whose bungling attempts to negotiate with the regional Indians had incited hostilities and brought tensions to a head, effectively severing much-needed trade parlay for corn and other foodstuffs. As the fall’s seasonal malaria epidemic swept through the camps, the few settlers who survived were hardly able to lay by any provisions for the oncoming winter.


The evidence, recently discovered by archaeologists, of cannibalism at Jamestown: the skull of a 14-year-old English-born girl. Photo courtesy Smithsonian.

It was a recipe for mayhem and disaster. As the freeze locked down in earnest,  the desperate colonists who managed to survive the malarial plague proceeded to eat the leather from their shoes, the starch from their Elizabethan ruffs, and finally, rats and mice. It was hardly a leap from there to the previously unthinkable- cannibalism. Ironically, the settlers had greatly feared the rumors of a savage, flesh-eating race inhabiting the Caribbean islands during their voyage to the Chesapeake- but the savages turned out to be much closer to home. “Now” Percy later wrote, “famine (began) to look pale in ghastly in every face that nothing was spared to maintain life and do those things which seem incredible.”

There have been written accounts of the cannibalism at Jamestown during what came to be referred to as “the Starving Time.” In his book, Love and Hate in Jamestown, author David Price describes the most famous example:

“A man by the name of Collins…cast a hungry stare at his pregnant wife and murdered her in her sleep. He then chopped apart her remains, salted them, and feasted on them. He stopped short of consuming his own child… When Collins’ depravity was discovered, Percy had him hung by his thumbs with weights on his feet until he confessed.” This was not, unfortunately, an isolated incident.


The reconstructed face of the cannibalized Jamestown girl. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian.

While written accounts have described the cannibalism, there had never been any hard proof. But recent archaeological discoveries by Preservation Virginia and the Smithsonian’s physical anthropologist, Doug Owlsley, have finally found evidence: a skeleton and skull of a 14-year-old girl, with cut marks showing that her brain and flesh were removed. Her remains were later discarded in a dump containing horse and dog bones and then forgotten for 400 years, until excavated by the archaeological team.

Cut marks on the skull and skeleton of the remains were clear testimony to the desperate, unhinged acts that had taken place shortly after she died. Her brain, cheeks and tongue had been consumed. It’s a horrifying end for a voyage that started in England, thousands of miles away, and lead a young girl to a land that would soon take her young life.

This grisly story is quite different from the the heroic speeches retold at Jamestown’s anniversary and the romantic legends attached to Pochahontas.  But it’s one that makes the colony’s dogged survival all that more remarkable. While not the stuff of speeches, Jamestown’s skeletons have their own history to share, written in bone and waiting to be discovered. They remind us that for every success lauded in America’s history, there were millions of unnamed, uncounted victims that fell, fodder in the quest for obtaining European land in an untamed Chesapeake Bay.