Kids in Jamestown History

they helped build a new world but rarely show up in the written history

Young people have been important at Jamestown since the very beginning. There were four boys in the very first group of 104 Jamestown settlers. A young daughter of the Powhatan Indian leader fearlessly helped the English survive their first rugged years in Virginia. Two English boys became translators between the English and the Native peoples.

The first four boys were servants to gentlemen. We know their names—Samuell Collier, Nathaniel Peacock, James Brumfield, and Richard Mutton—but no one recorded their ages. They were probably at least 14, which was the usual age for apprenticeships in London. Two years later there were likely more children accompanying the 30 or 40 women aboard the ships of the third supply fleet to Jamestown.

The most famous of the young people at early Jamestown are Pocahontas and the English boys Henry Spelman and Thomas Savage. The three were hostages who came of age among strangers and served as emissaries, spies, translators, and diplomats. Pocahontas and Spelman were probably born the same year, 1595. Pocahontas was the daughter of Wahunsenacawh, who ruled a Powhatan chiefdom that included more than 30 Indian nations across eastern Virginia. Spelman grew up the son of a widow. He, like John Rolfe and William Strachey, came to Jamestown in 1609 after their ill-fated supply fleet was battered by a hurricane and shipwrecked on Bermuda for nine months. Spelman was then smart enough to recognize the dire condition of the James Fort colonists and went with Savage to live in the bountiful home of Wahunsenacawh.

Pocahontas herself was captured when she was in her late teens. Spelman had helped English leader Samuel Argall establish a relationship with the leader of a Patawomeck village that undermined Wahunsenacawh’s authority in the area. In the spring of 1613, Argall used that relationship to trick Pocahontas onto his ship and take her hostage. After a year of captivity with the English, Pocahontas converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, and married tobacco grower John Rolfe. Their wedding got the blessing of Wahunsenacawh and ended five years of warfare. Meanwhile, Spelman’s years of living with the Patawomecks had made him an accomplished trader with the Indians and one of the best interpreters the English had.

However, this is an unusual amount of information about young people at early Jamestown. The written record rarely mentions children because they had no legal status or power. No one even thought to write down which child was the first born in the settlement (the best guess now is that it was Virginia Laydon, daughter of carpenter John Laydon and maid Anne Burras). It is modern archaeology that can tell us about the lives of children through the objects left behind.

Children’s toys were mass-produced in Europe as a secondary business for most manufacturers from the 14th century until the 18th century, when toy-making became a specialty. Yet, children’s toys are rarely found on archaeological sites. Many toys were made of wood, which does not survive most soil conditions, and those made of base metal could be recycled into something else. The few toys found at Jamestown—such as tiny lead horses with arched necks and tails docked, poised to move into battle—are the earliest documented from colonial Anglo-American sites. Somewhere along the way, they lost the riders to spur them into action and the legs to run with. No longer useful for playtime warfare, the battered ponies were thrown away with food remains, broken pottery, shattered glassware, and other James Fort trash.

In a cellar the archaeologists found a tiny house one inch tall, with a steeply pitched roof like a Dutch house in the 17th century. It may have been a toy windmill. The blades, now missing, probably attached through the hole in the roofline, with a rod passed through to the other side of the object. Pulling a string wrapped around the rod would have made the blades spin. Turning the blades in the opposite direction would have rewound the string on the rod to start all over again, a little like a 17th-century yo-yo!

In 2006 fragments of a child’s first shoe were found in a timber-lined well filled with trash from circa 1617. The goatskin shoe was a “draw-bridge” style that came into fashion about 1600. The size 1 shoe showed signs of slight wear, perhaps from the infant’s first steps on Virginia soil. This shoe was a prestige item and reflects the status of the infant’s parents. This find is all the more rare because shoes were in short supply in the early Jamestown colony for everyone.