Rediscovering a Jamestown Founder

This solitary burial may belong to one of Jamestown’s principle founders, Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, who died three months after the colony was settled. According to Captain John Smith, Gosnold was “the first mover of this plantation” at Jamestown. The burial was located 24 feet outside of the west wall of the fort, near a gate that leads to the burial ground inside the fort. It was clear that the burial was from the James Fort period (ca. 1607-1624) because the burial shaft was oriented with the west fort wall. Furthermore, the burial had been disturbed by a 1630s trash pit, which showed that it pre-dated the 1630s.

There were multiple lines of evidence from this excavation that suggested this burial was for Gosnold. The individual in the burial shaft had been interred in a coffin, which during the early 17th century was a tradition reserved more for the upper class, and Gosnold’s high social status would qualify him for this type of treatment. At the time of burial someone had placed a captain’s leading staff on top of the coffin. Gosnold was a captain, and he was the only captain to die at Jamestown in the first year of the colony. The skeletal remains were from a European male whose estimated age at the time of death was in the mid-thirties. Gosnold was in his mid-thirties when he died in August of 1607. While the other 1607 burials are likely inside the fort in order to conceal the deaths from the Virginia Indians, this burial was not hidden from view. The Virginia Company had instructed the colonists to hide their casualties, so why was this burial out in the open? The answer likely lies with Gosnold’s role in the colony. He was too important of a figure in relations with the Virginia Indians to have simply disappeared, making it nonsensical to conceal his death. Rather, we know that when Gosnold was laid to rest, all of the guns in James Fort were fired during the ceremony. This event, taking place outside of the fort and viewable by the Virginia Indians, was likely used as a show of force.


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