Manufactured of an English earthenware type known as Surrey-Hampshire Border ware, this small ceramic vessel is probably a strainer for making individual portions of cheese. It was pieced together in a process known as “crossmending,” and is comprised of fragments from three different early fort period contexts. The sherds were recovered from the blacksmith shop/bakery, the second well, and pit 6, which suggests these features were all in use around the same time. Evidence from the second well suggests that the cheese strainer was broken and thrown away by the spring of 1612. But when was it used at Jamestown? Did it arrive with the first settlers in 1607 or did it come in a later shipment? Documentary evidence helped answer these questions.
Cheese-making requires fresh milk, and without refrigeration, milk could not survive the long Atlantic Ocean journey from England. Thus, the discovery of this cheese strainer suggests that cows for fresh milk were present at Jamestown. Documentary sources tell us that the first cattle arrived at Jamestown in 1611, first with Sir Thomas Dale in May, and later with Sir Thomas Gates that August. It is conceivable that the cattle and the cheese strainer were shipped to Virginia at the same time. Thus, the cheese strainer was undoubtedly used for one year only—beginning in about the late spring of 1611 through the spring of 1612 when it was discarded. More research may narrow this timeline even further: perhaps the cheese strainer was only used for a few months before being discarded.
This artifact is also correlated with the arrival of steadily increasing numbers of women at James Fort. Women began to arrive at Jamestown as early as 1608. A small number of women survived the 1609-1610 starving time winter, and Thomas Gates traveled to Virginia in 1611 with his wife and children. In the early 17th century, women were often responsible for making dairy products such as butter and cheese, and thus it is possible that this strainer was a possession of the matriarch of the Gates or other families. Women, and the types of artifacts they brought to Virginia, were crucial to the survival of the settlement—a fact that even the Virginia Company recognized as the colony developed. Sir Edward Sandys, the treasurer of the Virginia Company recorded, “…the plantation can never flourish till families be planted and the respect of wives and children fix the people on the soil.” Therefore, this single object exemplifies Jamestown’s everyday life as it evolved from an unstable military fort to a permanent and more self-sufficient town.