So far, over 1000 walnut shells and shell fragments have been recovered from James Fort, the majority from just a few layers of the colony’s second well. The waterlogged layers of the well provided an anaerobic environment for these organic artifacts, preserving them in almost perfect condition.
Walnuts typically drop from the tree in the late autumn, after the leaves fall. If stored in cool and dry conditions, walnuts can last for a few months, providing a valuable source of nutrition through the early winter months. The discovery of extremely high numbers of both walnuts and hickory nuts in the lower layers of James Fort’s second well indicates that the well was beginning to be filled with trash soon after these nuts were consumed, likely in the early-mid spring. Documentary and other botanical evidence supports this. John Smith writes that “In May and June they [Virginia Indians] plant their fieldes and live most of Acornes, walnuts, and fish.” Botanical research which recovered oak flowers from similar layers of the well as these walnuts indicates that the well was likely filled in late April to early May. Oak flowers are delicate and disintegrate quickly, indicating that if they were preserved, the well was most likely filled in the late spring, soon after the oak flowers bloomed.
These black walnut shells not only help archaeologists understand what the colonists may have been eating, but they are evidence of an exchange of knowledge between the Virginia Indians and the English colonists. While walnuts were already known to the English at the time of their arrival in Virginia, Virginia Indians would have better understood the environmental influences on and seasonality of local Juglans Nigra. It is not known how these nuts were prepared or consumed once they were removed from their shell, but it is likely that Virginia Indians were influential in the colonists’ consumption of walnuts.
Walnut trees were observed and noted by George Percy soon after the May 1607 arrival, and Robert Beverly describes the walnut as a food consumed by the Virginia Indians. Thomas Harriot writing about his observations in the Roanoke colony in 1580s suggests that the plentiful local walnuts could be milled for their oil. Writing about the Starving Time, John Smith records that walnuts were part of the last remaining sustenance available to the colonists, and Smith mentions that walnuts were sent back to England as a potential commodity. Black walnut trees were also discussed in historical documentation as useful building material.