Horse Bones

Project details

  • Object number – 3762-JR (coffin bone), JR124F (scapula), JR3BS tibia), JR2AK (tooth)
  • Material – Bone
  • Place of Origin – England
  • Date – Late 16th century
  • Context – James Fort
  • Location – Archaearium
  • Category – Starving Time

“Six Mares and two Horses” were loaded onto the Blessing in Plymouth, England, in May 1609 for a three-month voyage to Jamestown. Transporting horses was expensive and tricky because they had to be secured into slings for the entire voyage to avoid breaking their legs on the rolling motion of the ship. The colony they went to wasn’t much more stable.

When a wounded John Smith returned to England for medical treatment in the fall of 1609, Chief Powhatan ordered his warriors to lay siege to James Fort. The 300 colonists trapped within began to starve to death. As the winter dragged on, they ate rats, cats, dogs, snakes “or what vermin or carrion soever we could light on.” In this “starving time” winter they even butchered the horses brought from England the summer before. Sir Ferdinando Wenman was the “Generall of the Horse” in the Jamestown colony and also Master of the Ordnance at James Fort — a knight who was responsible for Jamestown’s arms and armor. But Wenman himself did not survive the “starving time” and died in 1610 at age of 34.

In the c. 1610 trash pits containing the colonist’s food remains, archaeologists also found horse equipment such as stirrups and bridles that became unnecessary when the horses became food. They found a curb bridle bit, 215 mm long and made of iron, likely from England. The bit was found in 2007 in a fort-period building just inside the fort’s northern bulwark. A horseshoe and a stirrup were found near a hearth that was part of a brick addition to a substantial rowhouse building from the first quarter of the 17th century. A hoof was found in “the factory,” a mud-and-stud building just east of the triangular James Fort. The size of the horse hoof indicates it was between 10 and 20 years old and perhaps a hobby horse. (Don’t laugh — the toy named the hobby horse is based on a real breed of the animal. The Middle English word hobyn from the 14th century came to mean “an ambling or pacing horse or a pony.” The term Hoblers or Hovellers came to describe men who kept a light horse so they could relay quick information of threatened invasion. Their duties as lightly-armed cavalry were to scout, to carry intelligence, to act as spies, to intercept convoys, and to pursue fugitives. So Border horses, called hobblers or hobbies, were small and active and trained to cross the most difficult and boggy country, going where foot soldiers could not easily go. Such horses would make sense for the marshy lands of coastal Virginia.)