These small iron artifacts, approximately five inches long, are the spring mechanism from animal traps. English settlers brought them to Virginia to capture small animals such as beavers, otters, and raccoons. Recognizing the popularity of furs in England, the Virginia Company proposed this as a potential source of income for the settlers to pursue in the new colony.
To prevent the settlers from undercutting the Company’s profits, the council passed laws against unauthorized personal trade with the Virginia Indians. Yet sailors and ship captains arriving on supply ships and the colonists themselves continued to exchange goods directly with the Powhatan. The fur trade grew significantly in the 17th century; thus furs and animal skins could fetch considerable sums in the London markets. In particular, expensive yet fashionable hats made from beaver pelts, conveyed the elite social status of the wearer.
William Strachey noted that “the Indians take [otters and beavers] with gins and snares….” As the fur trade developed, European traders increasingly relied upon Virginia Indians. Because of their familiarity with local animals and skills in trapping and preparing furs and skins, Virginia Indians more efficiently supplied a trading system that grew into a complex transatlantic commercial network. While the English used iron animal traps with springs, the Virginia Indians fabricated “gins” (engines) with locally sourced wood or natural woven fibers.
Although the tenterhooks found at James Fort reveal that animal hides or furs processing was ongoing, only four trap springs have been recovered. English settlers may have discarded the animal traps because they found the less labor-intensive way to acquire pelts was through trade with Virginian Indians and mariners who participated in black-market transactions. If the colonists trapped animals, the creatures probably had a different value to the starving settlers than they did to elite Englanders. While beaver and otter furs were prized in England, in James Fort, particularly during the winter of 1609-1610, these animals were valued as food. Faunal remains from beavers, otters, and raccoons have been recovered from Jamestown’s earliest features, including the 1608-1610 kitchen cellar and the colony’s first well where these trap springs were discovered.