Jamestown Rediscovery is proud to announce the creation of a new exhibit in the Voorhees Archaearium called “Gentleman Soldiers.” Located between the “People of Jamestown” and “Influence and Industry” exhibits, this installation highlights the material culture of the military leaders within James Fort that helped sustain the first permanent English settlement in the New World. These soldier’s artifacts listed below exemplify rank and status within the Fort.
The colonists at Jamestown were led by a number of ranked Captains whose past military careers enabled them to face periods of disease, hunger, and the wars with native peoples that befell them. These resilient, high status officers were experienced veterans who fought the Spanish in the Netherlands and had taken part in campaigns in Ireland. They brought with them their own weapons, armor, symbols of rank, knowledge of military discipline, as well as mementos of their worldly travels. Owing to leaders like Master Edward Maria Wingfield, John Smith and ultimately Sir Thomas West, the first fledgling permanent English settlement in America would live on — destined to establish lasting traditions of democracy, rule of law, private enterprise, and individual opportunity.
“Every Sunday, when the lord governor and captain general goeth to church, he is accompanied with all the gentlemen, and with a guard of halberdiers in His Lordship’s livery, fair red cloaks, to the number of fifty, both on each side and behind him…”— William Strachey, on Lord De La Warr, “A True Reportory” 1610
Among the many duties of a captain was the expectation to supervise the daily work of the men under their charge, usually 50 to 100, enforcing discipline, and maintaining the men’s moral and religious welfare. In social standing, captains ranged from relatively humble men who had been elevated to captainships during their previous military service, to the sons of aristocracy or even the peerage itself in a few cases. Gentlemen designated their status by their superior weapons, such as swords, rapiers, daggers, poniards, and pistols. Men of highest standing also brought their own armor, which would have been of much better quality than that worn by the ordinary soldier.
Over the past few decades, Jamestown Rediscovery excavated James Fort period features with high concentrations of elite status objects related to these individuals.
The facemask of a close helmet found in the cellar of James Fort’s blacksmith shop, turned bakery, is a highlight in the new exhibit. It is displayed alongside a recently acquired, complete example of the same type from the time period. The conservation of a loaded pistol found with Lord De La Warr’s halberd in the Fort’s second well is finished after many years. It, along with the ivory diptych compass sundial and other possessions of this sector of Jamestown’s leaders, are featured prominently.
Some captains who served in Virginia began life as relatively humble men who had been elevated to officer status earlier in their military service. But the majority were well-connected gentlemen, even including a few younger sons of aristocracy, who had fought in the Netherlands and Ireland in the last years of the sixteenth and opening years of the seventeenth century.
Sir Thomas Gates, ( – 1622), was a highly respected veteran of wars in the Spanish Netherlands. In 1609, he was given command of a large fleet bound for Virginia, but while making the crossing was shipwrecked on Bermuda and did not reach Jamestown until May 1610, just after the “Starving Time.” He served as deputy governor until Lord De La Warr’s arrival the following month, and again before finally leaving for England in 1614. He was responsible for establishing a strict military regime in the colony governed by martial law, and was one of the principal leaders in the first war against the Powhatans.
Gentlemen were collectors. These personal artifacts have hidden meanings beyond their identification, they are mementos and symbols of a gentleman’s adventures before the Jamestown expedition. They are representative of their worldly travels, military service, and their association with the rising mercantile class.
During the first two decades of the colony, Virginia was governed by captains and commanders whose experience on the battlefields of Europe prepared them for combat and hardship in America. Captains usually commanded from 50 to 100 soldiers, overseeing their daily work and training as well as maintaining discipline. They were also responsible for the men’s moral welfare and enforcement of strict religious observance according to the tenets of the Church of England.
Master Edward Maria Wingfield, the first president of the governing council at Jamestown, took with him an object in the form of a pair of wings that represented his family’s crest on their coat of arms. Previously he had served in the Spanish Netherlands and Ireland and was described as a “valiant gentleman.” In a large-scale attack by Powhatan warriors on the English at Jamestown shortly after landing, Wingfield barely escaped serious injury when he was “shott cleane through his bearde” leading his men in defense of the encampment. It was this attack that persuaded the colonists’ commanders to build a sturdy wooden fort, which was likely modeled by Wingfield on designs found in Ireland and Europe.
Wingfield advocated for Jamestown Island when the location of the initial settlement was debated. It was strategically located at a bend in the river that would force enemy ships to turn broadside to the settlers’ cannons in the event of a naval attack. Additionally, a deep river channel parallels the south side of the island, making the setting ideal for ocean-going shipping.
Over the past twenty-five years, Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists excavating James Fort period features (ca. 1607–1624) have unearthed significant numbers of elite objects related to the first gentleman soldiers. They brought their own armor, swords, rapiers, daggers, poniards, and pistols of much better quality than that for ordinary soldiers provided by the Virginia Company. These were personal weapons and indicated their social and military rank as well as previous experience.
Besides displaying their high status by the quality of their arms, dress, and armor, gentleman soldiers also carried or wore items that clearly signified their elevated rank or noble lineage. When the first Governor and Captain General, Lord De La Warr, arrived at Jamestown in June 1610, he was escorted into James Fort by a company of soldiers who carried ceremonial halberds. Captains might carry leading staffs or adorn themselves with sashes embellished with silver bullion fringe.
Main header: Frans Hals and Pieter Codde. Militia Company of District XI under the Command of Captain Reynier Reael, Known as ‘The Meagre Company’, 1637. Rijksmuseum.
Gentleman & Adventurers header: Abraham Ortelius, Aegid. Coppenius Diesth, and Humphrey Llwyd. Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvm. Antverpiae: Apud Aegid. Coppenium Diesth, 1570. Library of Congress.
Sir Thomas Gates portrait: Jan Antonisz van Ravestyn. Sir Thomas Gates. The Bermuda Archives.
“…worthy and noble gentlemen…” header:
Map: Ortelius, Diesth, and Llwyd, Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvm.
Soldiers: Hals and Codde, Militia Company.
Captains & Commanders header: Adam van Breen. The Vijverberg, The Hague, in Winter, with Prince Maurits and his Retinue in the Foreground, 1618. Rijksmuseum.
Gentleman musketeer drawings: Thomas Cockson. This table doth demonstrate LI postures to the muskettier and XXXIII to the pikeman with there wordes of command plainly expressed in the instructions following, 1636, The British Museum.