Black bears (Ursus americanus) are the only bear species native to Virginia. They are the most common and widespread species of bear in North America. In seventeenth century England the largest predatory wildlife had already been greatly reduced in number by many years of intensive hunting, and wolves had been completely eradicated for decades. The forests of Virginia, however, were still full of bears, wolves, coyotes, foxes, pumas, and bobcats. John Smith’s journal record of his first Chesapeake voyage in June and July of 1608 includes sightings of “wolves, bears, deer, and other wild beasts.”
The colonists were unused to sharing their environment with large and predatory animals and were particularly concerned about the safety of their limited number of livestock imported from England. The small number of domestic animals present during the early years of the colony were important sources of meat and valuable draft animals that were difficult to replace. Bears, wolves, and other predators were hunted in order to protect these resources during the early fort period. The bear bones excavated at Jamestown were all discovered in early features such as Pit 5 and the First Well. The entire assemblage of bear remains consists of ten phalanges, the small bones of the paws, and seven of these are the terminal phalanges. The image above includes a proximal, intermediate, and terminal phalanx aligned to form a single digit, although they may not have been associated in life. The terminal phalanges would have supported the black bears’ long straight claws, perfect for climbing trees or for a hunter to take as a trophy. Bear claws were sometimes worn by Native Virginians as symbols of power and strength, and may be part of the Jamestown collection because they were used by the English as trade items.
Beginning in the 1630’s, Virginia’s House of Burgesses authorized local governments to pay bounties for various wildlife considered to be a danger or nuisance such as wolves, bears, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, pumas, squirrels, groundhogs, and crows. These measures were common throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and significantly changed Virginia’s ecology by reducing populations of large predators that typically regulate the rest of the ecosystem from the top down. In fact, a bounty law for bears remained on the books in Highland County, Virginia as recently as 1977.