Freshwater catfish are abundant in Virginia’s rivers and lakes that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. Faunal analysis of the animal bones from many contexts, including Pit 1, Pit 5, and the First and Second Wells at Jamestown reveal that the colonists caught and ate plenty of them. Virginia has four different species of catfish: flathead, blue, white, and channel. White catfish (Ictalurus catus) are the most frequently identified catfish species in our faunal assemblages, followed by channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus). Altogether, catfish are some of the most common fish bones recovered at Jamestown and these large fish provided an important and familiar source of wild food. John Smith records catfish among the ‘fish [they] were best acquainted with,’ although the catfish found in England are members of the same order (Siluriformes) but different species. However, severe drought in Virginia in the early 17th century increased the salinity of the brackish water of the James River and may have made catfish scarce during difficult years when they were needed the most.
The “whiskers” that give catfish their name are actually thin sensory organs known as barbels. They help these omnivorous fish locate food at the bottom of lakes and rivers. Hunting crustaceans, insects, and other fish in the murky water would be much more difficult without them. Like many fish, catfish have hard, abrasive plates on the premaxilla and dentary bones of their jaw in place of more recognizable individual teeth. Most freshwater catfish species also lack scales but they still have a defense mechanism in the sharp, serrated spines on their pectoral and dorsal fins. This pectoral spine has been dulled by its long years in the ground before excavation, and even the spines on large living catfish are duller than those on younger, smaller fish which can be needle sharp.