Dog Bones

Project details

  • Object number –
  • Material – Bone
  • Place of Origin –
  • Date – c. 1610
  • Context –
  • Location – Archaearium
  • Category – Starving Time

A mysterious gunpowder explosion wounded Captain John Smith badly and sent him back to England in October 1609. Jamestown became isolated. Chief Powhatan applied pressure to the needy colony by forbidding his people to trade food to the settlers and by ordering his warriors to attack any colonists or livestock found outside James Fort. Starvation weakened the colonists and led to sicknesses such as dysentery and typhoid. Two out of three of the colonists died that winter; acting president George Percy said “Indians killed as fast without [the fort] as Famine and Pestilence did within.” The colonists ate anything they could, including shoe leather. There were charges of cannibalism. Percy wrote, “Then, having fed upon horses and other beasts as long as they lasted, we were glad to make shift with vermin, as dogs, cats and mice.”

Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists have unearthed evidence of that menu. A dog jawbone showing butchery marks was found in what was probably James Fort’s first well, dug in late 1608 or early 1609. The well went 14 feet deep and so made a great trashpit when the few surviving colonists prepared to abandon the colony in the spring of 1610. The well pit also had rat bones, a 4-foot-diameter sea turtle carapace, shark bones and teeth, a whale vertebra, and numerous bottlenose dolphin bones with butcher marks. Butchered bones of at least six horses and nine dogs were found in a cellar with a slate that featured many words and drawings.

English shipwreck survivors arrived from Bermuda in May 1610 to find only 60 colonists still alive in the fort. Thomas Gates realized there would be further starvation within a few weeks; on June 7, 1610, he announced the colonists would abandon Jamestown and sail for England. But their path home was blocked by the arriving ship of the new governor of the colony, Lord De la Warr, who insisted they return and rebuild Jamestown.