Virginia is home to 28 different native species of frogs and toads, and evidence of their presence on Jamestown Island can be found archaeologically, as well as being seen and heard by visitors throughout the spring and summer months. All species of frogs and toads are grouped together in the order Anura, Greek for ‘without a tail.’ Many of the frog bones excavated at Jamestown are only identified as Anura, since small, smooth amphibian bones can be difficult for even a zooarchaeologist to assign a species. Some specimens have been further identified to the genus Rana, a group of ‘true frogs’ including bullfrogs, leopard frogs, green frogs, and wood frogs. Tree frogs, like the spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) belong to a variety of other genera.
The marshy environments and pine woods surrounding Jamestown are perfect habitats for many species of frogs and toads and their presence at Jamestown was recorded by John Clayton, writing in 1688: “Frogs they have of several sorts, one of a prodigious largeness, eight or ten times as big as any in England, and it makes a strange Noise, something like the bellowing of a Bull […] There is frequently heard in the Woods a shrill sort of Noise[…] and some have asserted it to me, that it was made by the green Frog.”
Frog bones have been recovered by archaeologists from many of the well features in and around James Fort, including the Smithfield Well and the Second Well. A group of over 100 well preserved frog bones were excavated from the Smithfield well. Many different parts of the skeleton are represented and clearly identifiable in this assemblage, providing a valuable addition to the laboratory’s faunal reference collection. In the Second Well, 13 frog bones have been identified, mostly in the genus Rana. One of these bones could be identified as bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana), in part because of its distinct large size.
Frog legs were a common food in continental Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, but were not part of English cuisine. The Jamestown colonists would likely only have consumed frog in times of desperation, such as the Starving Time in 1609 – 10. By the early 1700’s however, it appears that bullfrogs were consumed in Virginia. Robert Beverly writes, “In these swamps and running streams, they have frogs of an incredible bigness, which are called bull frogs, from the roaring they make. Last year I found one of these near a stream of fresh water, of so prodigious a magnitude, that when I extended its legs, I found the distance betwixt them to be seventeen inches and a half. If any are good to eat, these must be the kind.” Today, frog legs are still most likely to be eaten in parts of North America with strong French influence, particularly throughout the Deep South. Bullfrogs and leopard frogs are the species most likely to end up on the menu because of their size, abundance, and wide geographic distribution.