A little over 30 acorns and acorn fragments were recovered from James Fort’s second well. Although they were far less popular than hickory nuts and walnuts, acorns were still a valuable food resource in 17th-century Virginia, especially during and after the starving time.

Like other nuts, acorns are a valuable source of fat, carbohydrates, and protein. However, they must be removed of toxic tannins before they are palatable and digestible. This is typically accomplished by washing and soaking the nuts in water. It is unclear from the historic documents how Virginia Indians in the 17th century prepared them, however, acorns were often ground to form a flour and baked plain or mixed with corn to create a bread cake. Their mild flavor can be paired with sweet or savory additions, like maple syrup, blackberries, corn, meats, and animal-derived oils.1

Oak trees are common in both Virginia and England, and the acorn was not unfamiliar to the English in 1607. Acorns and oak leaves were used in armorial devices to represent strength, independence, faith, and endurance, and acorns were used as decorative motifs, such as on spoon terminals, leather mounts, stamps on book hardware, and as mint marks on coinage.

However, in England in the 17th century, acorns were not considered foodstuff, at least for humans. Acorns, like other nuts, berries, fruits, and buds are known as “mast”. The term ‘mast’ etymologically is related to the words “fat”, “food”, and “meat”, and the acorn’s seasonal growth cycle was a significant part of medieval agricultural practices. As noted in a 16th-century instructional poem,

To gather some mast, it shal stand thee upon,
with servant and children, er mast be al gon:
Some left among bushes shal pleasure thy swine,
for feare of a mischiefe keepe acorns fro kine2

Mast was typically reserved as food for pigs (swine), but the nuts are toxic to cattle (kine). Pigs would consume mast and fatten up in the early fall before being slaughtered and salted for winter food supplies, typically in November.

Pigs were brought by the English to be a food resource at Jamestown, and their availability or lack thereof is correlated to the early successes and struggles of the colonists. Perhaps there are far fewer acorns in the collection because they were consumed by pigs present on Jamestown Island, who would have left little behind as trash.

1. Logan, W. B. (2005). Oak: The Frame of Civilization. United Kingdom: W.W. Norton & Company.

2. Tusser, T., Mavor, W. F. (1812). Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry: As Well for the Champion Or Open Country, as for the Woodland Or Several; Together with A Book of Huswifery. Being a Calendar of Rural and Domestic Economy, for Every Month in the Year; and Exhibiting a Picture of the Agriculture, Customs, and Manners of England, in the Sixteenth Century. United Kingdom: Lackington, Allen, and Company.