Pumpkins and other squash (Curcurbita sp.) were a very important local food source for Native Virginians and the colonists in James Fort. Native to the Americas, Curcurbita species are some of the oldest domesticated plants in the world and were planted and harvested intensively by Native Americans in both North and South America long before the arrival of Europeans. They have been found on archaeological sites dating as early as 8000 years ago. Squash, along with corn and beans, are referred to as the “three sisters” crops, and were planted, harvested, cooked, and eaten together in a sustainable agricultural system, each providing essential nutrients to local communities.
As recorded by early European travelers, the Algonquian word for squash and gourds is Mahcawq. Spelled in various ways depending on the source, this is a similar word to the Algonquian word for “box’ or “container.” These fruits were not only useful for the food they provided, but also emptied and dried gourds were used as containers so the similarity of these words is understandable.
At Jamestown, squash seeds and stems have been found in both the first and second wells. They have been identified by archaeobotanists as the species Curcurbita pepo, which encompasses many varieties of squash including acorn squash, pumpkin, summer squash, zucchini, and spaghetti squash. Notably, over 800 pumpkin or squash seeds, probably part of food preparation occurring around 1612, were found with other trash that was thrown away into the colony’s second well. While most botanical material on archaeological sites is preserved because it has been burned, organic material found in the first and second wells was preserved because the material was waterlogged. This means that artifacts like seeds, nuts, and leather were underground in an anaerobic environment where oxygen was not present and therefore microbes which typically eat away at organic material could not grow.
Finding the uncharred seeds inside the fort indicates that pumpkins or squash were brought to the colony either uncooked or mostly whole and meals using them were prepared inside the fort. The harvesting season of pumpkins, which are typically planted in mid-summer and gathered in late fall, could indicate that the second well was being filled in with trash late in the year before an oncoming winter.