This small copper alloy item, measuring only 15mm x 19 mm, would have decorated a leather strap of some type, possibly a belt, a leather harness, or a spur strap. There are several mounts in the Jamestown collection, but many are relatively plain. Others, like this one are more decorative. This mount is one of two in the collection that is in the form of a small bird, called a martlet.
The martlet, often used in heraldry, is a mythological bird that doesn’t have feet; its legs terminate in tufts of feathers. The martlet, representing the inability to land or being continuously on the wing, was used as a mark of cadency (a symbol on a coat of arms) associated with a family’s fourth son. By primogeniture or the English system of inheritance in the seventeenth century, the eldest son succeeded the father. As a result, he inherited all or most of the family estate, and the second and third sons were typically destined to enter the church. However, the fourth son did not stand to inherit property and was left to “fly the coop” and determine his own place to land in the world.
This symbolic bird, sometimes also referencing hard work, perseverance, and a nomadic lifestyle has particular significance to more than one Jamestown colonist. Having to rely on their own accomplishments and not their inheritance to advance their fortune and status in life, Englishmen traveling to Virginia had the opportunity to change their social status through land ownership. By 1620, the Virginia Company had established a system incentivizing property ownership in Virginia. Instead of an English feudal system where tenants were under an obligation to the landowner or lord, in Virginia, individuals were granted their own parcels of land, and younger sons who may not have stood to inherit family estates or wealth in England may have been more likely to choose to travel to Virginia.