The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) appears to have been a popular fruit among the Jamestown colonists. Over 100 seeds have been recovered from a few features on the site, notably from Pit 5, a cellar feature dating ca. 1608-1610, and the colony’s second well, dating ca. 1610-1612. The fruits would have provided an excellent source of Vitamin C, a resource that was often lacking in the diets of many, including individuals travelling on ships in the 17th century.
Persimmons were known to Virginia Indians as putchamin or pessamin, meaning “dry fruit,” lending a clue to local Powhatan preservation techniques to maintain access to persimmon fruits into the winter season. This use is recorded by John Smith as he describes persimmons being preserved “as Pruines“. The plants were recorded in historic documents as early as a 1557 narrative of Hernando de Soto’s expedition in the Southeastern United States, and were first discussed in an English language text in A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588) by Thomas Harriot, who was part of the early Roanoke colony. The first written use of the word persimmon comes from William Strachey, the Secretary of the Virginia colony, writing in 1612 in his Historie of Travall into Virginia Britannia.
One of the two seeds from Pit 5 was found in association with many small bones, likely catfish bones, perhaps the remains of a meal prepared in that space. Both seeds in Pit 5 were preserved because they were carbonized — they had been burned. If not yet ripe, persimmon fruits are incredibly bitter, with John Smith recording “If it is not ripe, it will drive a man’s mouth awrie with much torment.” Perhaps slightly less than ripe fruits were cooked in this space to make a jelly or marinade and a few seeds accidentally fell close to the fire. An amazing 70 persimmon seeds were recovered from the lowest and oldest layers of James Fort’s Second Well. Persimmon fruits today usually contain fewer than 10 seeds per fruit. Although not an exact calculation, it seems likely that the seeds found in this well represent quite a few fruits! Persimmons typically ripen in the fall, and are at their best when they drop from the tree naturally. Despite Smith’s warning of the astringent taste of unripe persimmons, he continued, “but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricock.” Persimmon fruits may have been a valuable early winter food at Jamestown, as they can survive on trees even after the first frost. If the persimmons were consumed in the fall or winter and their seeds discarded in the well with other trash, perhaps their presence is a clue as to what time of the year the well was no longer a source of fresh water and was being filled in.
One other charred persimmon seed was recovered from a mid-17th century context, indicating that the fruits were still part of the Virginia diet in this later period.