Jamestown’s collection includes approximately 450 identified goose bones from over a dozen contexts around the site. About half of these bones could not be identified to the species level, even by expert zooarchaeologists, because fragmented and incomplete specimens often obscure the subtle differences used to distinguish between closely related species. Approximately 180 bones in the collection come from Canada geese (Branta canadensis). Domestic geese (Anser anser) are currently represented by 50 bones in the collection, although some of the goose bones not identified to species have been placed in the genus Anser and could likely belong to domestic birds. Less than 20 bones have been identified as the remains of snow geese (Chen caerulescens).
Historically, Canada geese migrate south to warmer climates like Virginia to spend the winter and return north to raise their chicks in the summer. Virginia Indian hunters and the Jamestown settlers took advantage of this seasonal resource, and some of the bones show evidence of butchery, burning, and even human tooth marks. Canada geese and other waterfowl were an important wild food source during the difficult early years of the colony when the availability of supplies from England was irregular. Several centuries of over-hunting by European settlers followed by conservation efforts to save migratory waterfowl beginning in the 1930s have upset the balance of this seasonal migration. Today, resident populations of Canada geese have become established in Virginia because the geese lack predators and can stay year-round, becoming a modern nuisance.
Snow geese are much rarer in Virginia than Canada geese. All populations are migratory, and those along the east coast mostly prefer to winter farther north between Maryland and Massachusetts or farther south in the Carolinas.
Evidence of domestic geese brought from England has been recovered from some of the earliest contexts at Jamestown, but the majority of the examples currently identified were recovered from Jamestown’s Second Well, dug around 1611. This aligns with the heightened focus on maintaining and increasing stocks of domestic livestock and poultry as a stable source of food for the colony during the Martial Law period that followed the Starving Time of 1609-10.