Sturgeon

Project details

  • Date

     January 31, 2015

  • Task

     Study Collection

  • Category

     Bone, Foodways

  • Object number – Various
  • Material – Bone
  • Place of Origin – James River
  • Date – Early 17th Century
  • Context – James Fort
  • Location – Archaearium
  • Category – Foodways

Archaeologists have found tens of thousands of sturgeon scutes (bony plates which line the bodies of sturgeon in five rows) in James Fort because the large fish was a key source of food for the colonists. Captain John Smith wrote in early 1609, “We had more sturgeon than could be devoured by dog and man, of which the industrious by drying and pounding, mingled with caviar, sorrel, and other wholesome herbs, would make bread and good meat. Others would gather as much tockwhogh roots in a day as would make them bread a week, so that those wild fruits and what we caught we lived very well in regard of such a diet.”

The Jamestown colonists reported that the Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus) was plentiful in the James River from May until October, when the anadromous fish would swim into the freshwater above Jamestown to spawn. Sturgeon have long bodies, no scales, and can grow to 12 feet in length. They are bottom-feeders in the rivers and coastline of North America, spawning in fresh water and then feeding in the brackish waters of estuaries.

The colonists also tried to prepare the fish for export to England as a profitable commodity. Fish were a valuable commodity to the English: their ships had been fishing off Newfoundland for decades before Jamestown was founded. But England was buying sturgeon from the Baltic States, and it was expensive. Despite sending “dressers of sturgeon” to the colony, by 1630 this commercial scheme appears to have been abandoned because preservation of the fish was too difficult in the heat of summer when the fishing was best.