The Remains of the First Colonists

Excavations close to the west palisade wall and inside James Fort revealed 29 early fort-period grave shafts. Later analysis using ground-penetrating radar identified additional graves, for a total of approximately 36 burials. This graveyard likely holds the remains of the English colonists who died in 1607. John Smith stated that 50 colonists died between May and September 1607. We know the burials were from the first years of the colony because they predated one of the rowhouse buildings, Councillor’s Row (ca. 1611). The chimney base and foundation cobbles partially overlaid three of the burials. While the location of a burial ground in the fort is curious, the motive for its location is better understood in the context of the Virginia Company’s instructions to the departing colonists. Instructions in late 1606 from the Virginia Company of London Council to the would-be Jamestown colonists stressed “above all things” the need to hide the numbers of English sick and deceased in order to prevent the Virginia Indians from seizing upon their weakness. Hence these colonists were buried behind the fort wall to conceal their deaths from prying eyes.

Currently, the team excavates three burials each year. Excavations have revealed more than ten individuals, including two double burials, and one grave containing three individuals buried together. All individuals have been identified as male, which is in keeping with the first year of the colony when no English women were present at Jamestown. The double and triple burials also suggest a 1607 date because there were several days in August of that year when two men are recorded as dying on the same day. Twenty individuals died in that one month alone, and the struggling colonists likely resorted to these multiple burial shafts to save energy and time. One notable burial was that of a boy of about 15 years of age. A small stone Virginia Indian projectile point was found next to the boy’s right femur, suggesting that he had been shot by an arrow shortly before he was buried. Archaeologists believe this to be the young boy recorded as being “slaine” during combat with the Paspahegh Indians and their allies during the first month of the settlement. Undoubtedly, much more remains to be learned from this burial ground.


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