The Reverend Robert Hunt set sail with the first expedition to Virginia in the winter of 1606 to serve as the first Anglican minister at Jamestown. In conformity with England’s religious settlement, the Church of England was the official church of the new colony, and the Reverend Hunt was given the task of overseeing the spiritual needs of settlers and promoting the conversion of Indian peoples of the region. He died between January and April of 1608, probably about the time the church was constructed and was the first person to be interred in the church’s chancel. Hunt was buried in a simple shroud with his head to the east, the conventional burial position for clergymen so that they would rise facing their congregation at the time of the Resurrection. Today the Reverend Hunt is honored with a feast day, April 26, on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA).
Robert Hunt was born in 1569 in Hampshire, England. After attending Oxford University, he became vicar of Reculver, Kent, in January 1596 and two years later married Elizabeth Edwards. In 1602, the couple moved to Heathfield, Sussex, by which time they had two children, Elizabeth and Thomas. The marriage does not appear to have been a happy one, and Hunt seems to have been unpopular with his parishioners, who noted that he was not a resident of the parish and “keepeth no hospitality.” In November 1606, Hunt made his will and left the following month with the first expedition to Virginia.
Captain John Smith, one of the leaders of the colony, described the Reverend Hunt as "our honest, religious and courageous divine." On April 29, 1607, when the settlers made landfall in Virginia at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Hunt delivered what was likely one of the first Protestant sermons in America, giving thanks for the settlers’ safe arrival. After the colonists disembarked at Jamestown a couple of weeks later, Hunt conducted the first service under sailcloth spread between trees.
Hunt survived the summer and fall when disease, food shortages, and Indian attacks rapidly reduced the settlers’ numbers. In early January 1608 an accidental fire burned the fort to the ground: "Good Master Hunt our preacher,” Captain John Smith recalled, “lost all his library, and all that he had but the clothes on his back, yet none never heard him repine [complain] at his loss….” He reportedly gave regular services, sermons, and Holy Communion right up until his death early in 1608. His will, probated in England in July 1608, is the only documented evidence of his death. Edward Maria Wingfield, the colony’s first president, described him as “a man not in any way to be touched with the rebellious humours [tendencies] of a popish spirit, nor blemished with the least suspicion of a factious schismatic.”
The Reverend Robert Hunt was likely the first person interred in the chancel of the 1608 church and is the northernmost of the four burials. This location, to the left as viewed by the congregation in the pews, is often the position an Anglican cleric would take when conducting a service. The recovery of several Virginia Indian artifacts along with the lack of European material culture in this grave shaft suggests the burial occurred early in the history of James Fort. The date and position of this grave reinforces the conclusion that this is Hunt, since he died sometime in the spring of 1608 shortly after the church was built.
The Reverend Robert Hunt was positioned with his head to the east and had been wrapped in a simple shroud for burial. The grave, unlike the other three later burials in the church’s chancel, showed no evidence of having once held a coffin. Shroud burials were a common practice in James Fort’s early period, when the rate of death was rapid and strained the survivors’ ability to follow typical English customs. The shroud may also signal the burial preferences of a humble Anglican minister.
Historical records show that the Reverend Robert Hunt was 39 when he died. Forensic evidence from the remains in this grave indicates he was a male of between 35 and 40. The growth plates in the skeleton are closed and tooth wear suggests the person was in second half of their 30s. The bones of the skeleton are thinner than those found in the other three graves, all of which suggest that this person was older at the time of this death than the three others buried in the chancel.
The orientation of the skeleton with the head to the east and the simple shroud burial also strongly suggest that the individual was a clergyman; Hunt was the only minister at James Fort in the early period. The Protestant church has a long tradition of burying the laity with their heads to the west so that they would face Jerusalem and the rising sun at the time of the Resurrection. However clergy were typically interred the opposite way in order to rise facing the church congregation. The three other leaders interred in the church’s chancel were buried in coffins, but this individual was only in a shroud, perhaps suggesting a desire to remain humble even in death.