Captain William West arrived at Jamestown in June of 1610 with his relative—the governor, Lord De La Warr—and another kinsman, Sir Ferdinando Wainman. He was killed in fighting against elite Indian warriors near present-day Richmond in the fall or winter of 1610.

Who was William West?

William West was born around 1585 in England although little is known about his life. He arrived at Jamestown in June 1610 as part of a military force commanded by his kinsman Thomas West, Lord De La Warr, the first captain general and governor of the colony. Several months later, De La Warr ordered some of his men to the falls of the James River—near present day Richmond—to repossess a fort (“Laware’s Fort”) abandoned by the English the year before. The fort was located in the heartland of the Powhatan chiefdom and fierce fighting between English soldiers and Indian warriors took place there. After West was killed he was brought back to Jamestown for burial, likely because of his kinship to Lord De La Warr.

How was William West buried?

Captain William West's grave was the southernmost of the four chancel burials. He was interred in an anthropomorphic, or human-shaped, coffin with his head to the west. Although only traces of the wood survived, plotting of the nail positions revealed the coffin’s original shape. His grave had been seriously disturbed by two later 17th-century boundary ditches and a 1930s utility trench. These disturbances had impacted his cranium and right leg, and only a few inches of fill remained in the grave shaft.

Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists discovered a silver-and-cloth artifact placed between William West's left humerus, or arm bone, and left ribs. This object was the only item found to have been deliberately- placed inside one of the coffins. Archaeologists only exposed a small portion of this delicate artifact in the field in order to protect it and undertake a more controlled excavation in the lab. They removed the torso and the artifact along with the surrounding soil for more careful analysis. X-rays revealed that the object was a 6-inch by 3-inch bundled section of a sash, which had been positioned lengthwise with the orientation of the remains. The x-rays also showed dozens of silver spangles and a dense concentration of silver thread. Research indicates that this type of sash was a mark of a captain's rank.

What evidence suggests this is William West?

Despite the poor overall state of the remains, Smithsonian forensic anthropologists were able to determine through surviving cranial features and long bone measurements that this individual was a male between 21 and 24 years old at the time of death. Historical records indicate that West was around 25 when he died, so the forensic analysis supports his identification.

Lord De La Warr lost two relatives during his tenure at Jamestown (June 10, 1610 – March 1611): West and Wainman. Similarities between the two burials suggest that the two individuals were connected in some way and thus help to support their identification as the Governor’s kinsmen. The two burials had nearly identical high-status anthropomorphic—or human-shaped—coffins. Similar nail patterns, nail sizes, and construction techniques suggest that these two unique coffins were built by the same carpenter. Furthermore both skeletons exhibited a high lead count, which can be indicative of high-status people. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries elites used pewter and lead-glazed vessels more frequently than their less wealthy counterparts.

Explore the Interactive 3D Model of William West's Burial


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