Captain Gabriel Archer, a vociferous critic and rival of Captain John Smith, was one of the most important of Jamestown’s early leaders. He died in 1609 or 1610 during the terrible winter known as the “starving time,” and his burial within the church’s chancel demonstrates his status was recognized among the settlers even during a time of great stress. Two intriguing artifacts were found in Archer’s grave: part of a captain’s leading staff and a silver box. The leading staff is indicative of his military rank and was placed on top of his coffin in his honor. More mysterious, however, is the small silver box resting on top of Archer’s coffin. Although the box cannot be opened owing to corrosion, high-powered CT scans revealed that it contains shards of bone and a tiny lead ampulla that would have held holy water, oil, or even blood. The presence of this reliquary, a sacred object normally (but not exclusively) associated with Catholicism, may suggest Archer was a secret Catholic. Alternatively, the object could have held significant meaning in the founding of the established church, the Church of England, in the New World.
Captain Gabriel Archer was born in 1575 and grew up in Mountnessing, Essex, about 25 miles from London. His parents were devout Catholics and were fined in the early 1580s for non-attendance of their local Anglican church.
Archer attended Cambridge University and then Grays Inn, where he studied law. He was a contemporary of Bartholomew Gosnold, with whom he traveled to New England in 1602. Five years later they were among the first settlers to set foot on land near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in late April 1607, where Archer suffered wounds to his hands in a fierce skirmish with local Indians.
The location for James Fort was chosen on May 13, 1607, and soon after one of the most important leaders of the colony, Captain Christopher Newport, led an expedition along the James River into the interior. Archer is likely the author of the detailed account of their expedition, which described the Indian peoples they encountered and the promise of the land. Subsequently, Archer was named as the first secretary of the colony but initially was not appointed to the governing council. He was a fierce critic of Captain John Smith and other leaders, even at one point calling for Smith’s execution, and was one of the principals involved in deposing the first president of the colony, Edward Maria Wingfield.
When Newport left in April 1608 to go back to England, Archer went with him. However Archer returned to Virginia a year later with the fleet that was damaged and scattered by a major hurricane in the Atlantic. He was on one of the ships that survived the crossing and arrived at Jamestown in August 1609. In the absence of the colony’s new leadership, which had been shipwrecked on Bermuda, divisions among the remaining leaders rapidly festered. After Smith was sent home a few months later, Archer was one of the most important of the remaining leaders. He did not survive long, however, and died during the "starving time" winter of 1609-1610, at the age of 35.
Captain Gabriel Archer was buried in a six-sided or hexagonal coffin. Sufficient traces of the wood survived to indicate the coffin was made of white oak. The coffin’s hexagonal shape was indicated by the positions of 58 nails found within the grave fill. Nails and fragments along the midline may suggest that the side had collapsed inward or perhaps that the lid was multi-part or gabled. Archer’s complex and high-status coffin is remarkable considering that he died during the “starving time” winter when some colonists were so desperate for food that they were forced to eat their dead.
Archer was buried with his head to the east, a traditional orientation for clergymen. In the early 17th century Anglican laity was traditionally buried with the head to the west so that during the Resurrection they would rise facing east and Jerusalem. The exceptions were clerics who were buried in the opposite direction, so that they would rise facing their congregation. When Archer died, the colony had been without a minister since the death of Rev. Hunt in 1608. Archer’s unconventional burial orientation may reflect the absence of a clergyman to ensure that the conventional orientation was observed or that possibly Archer served as a lay preacher in the absence of a minster. One other intriguing possibility is that he was a secret Catholic priest.
The two objects purposely placed in his grave—the silver box and the ceremonial leading staff—were both outside of his coffin. The silver box had been carefully positioned on top of his coffin near his left leg. The surviving portion of the leading staff, the finial below the tip of a ceremonial spear, was found aligned with the coffin nails in the vicinity of Archer’s lower left arm.
Captain Gabriel Archer died around the age of 35. Forensic analysis of the remains indicates an age of death between 35 and 39, consistent with what is known historically. The presence of the fragment of a leading staff also suggests that the colonists who buried this man held him in high regard. In 2005, a complete leading staff was recovered on top of Captain Bartholomew Gosnold’s coffin, located just a few feet outside the fort’s west wall.
The presence of the reliquary within Archer’s grave is an enigma. Was it associated with Catholicism or with establishing the first Anglican Church in America? If the silver box was indicative of the individual having been a secret Catholic, Archer would have been one of the more likely leaders to practice this religion since his parents were known recusants.