The discolored-soil outline of a burial shaft aligned with James Fort’s west wall and beneath a shallow trashpit revealed what could be the forgotten grave of Jamestown’s prime founder, ship’s Captain Bartholomew Gosnold. A captain’s leading staff appeared on the coffin lid. (Artifacts are rarely found with 17th-century English burials except in cases when the body was thought to carry a contagious disease.) Then the superbly preserved skeleton lying within the coffin outline offered an even more telling link: the well-preserved pelvis allowed forensic anthropologist Dr. Douglas Owsley to determine that this 5’5” European man died in his mid- to late-thirties. Gosnold was 36 years old at his passing on August 22, 1607.
A symbol of rank and authority, the light polearm had been placed on top of the gable-lidded coffin at the time of burial — a mark of high status. The wooden staff did not survive, but the decay of the wooden shaft left enough of a dark stain in the ground to reveal its original 5 1/2 feet in length. Only the metal parts of the staff were preserved: the decorative point fashioned into a cruciform, and two iron languets with copper-headed iron rivets that once held the pike-shaped blade with balustroid molding to its wooden staff.
Gosnold was vital to the planning of the Jamestown venture. His success as a mariner and privateer led him to explore and name Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard in New England and to briefly colonize one of the nearby Elizabeth Isles. When peace between England and Spain was settled in 1604, the English began planning another attempt to colonize North America’s eastern coast. Gosnold captained one of the three ships that carried the first Jamestown settlers (the Godspeed) and was popular with the colonists. Even the self-promoting Captain John Smith and his archenemy Edward Maria Wingfield (the colony’s first Council President and Gosnold’s cousin by marriage) agreed on Gosnold’s value. Smith named Gosnold the “prime mover” of the planting of Jamestown. When Gosnold suffered a three-week illness and died, he was honorably buried “having all the ordinance in the fort shot off with many volleys of small shot.” Wingfield lamented:
…divers of our men fell sick…amongst whom was the worthy and religious gentleman, Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, upon whose life stood a great part of the good success and fortune of our government and colony.