Notes From The Frontier
The Dark Secrets of Jamestown
Updated: May 7
For centuries, historians who investigated Jamestown and Werowocomoco, the Pamunkey Indian village where Pocahontas and her chieftain father Powhatan lived, had to rely on written accounts from the time and later historical documentation. The legend of Pocahontas and John Smith, especially, was wildly romanticized through a white male, Anglo-Saxon prism. Jamestown was a powerful symbolic legend, first, of a new world claimed for the English Empire, a beachhead and bulwark against Catholicism and other enemy empires, then later the birth of a new nation. There was a strong motivation to enhance the legend with colonialist, patriotic, and religious fervor.
But recent research, archeological findings, and scientific documentaries have revealed shocking details and grim, in fact horrific, realities of settlement life and death. Could it be possible that a foundation settlement of our nation was rife with intrigue that included crypto-Catholicism (in an anti-Catholic settlement), starvation, assassination attempts, and even murder and cannibalism! Archeological findings seem to indicate exactly that.
Recent archeological digs that started twenty years ago at Jamestown have revealed shocking facts about life at Jamestown. Archeologists at Jamestown unearthed something stunning in structure #191, which contained a brick-and-mortar oven of a kitchen: first they found skeletal remains of dogs, cats, rats and even a horse in the kitchen area. But then they found something even more shocking: the mutilated skull and severed leg of a 14-year old English girl dating 1609. The skull and tibia bone both had numerous cutting and sawing marks on them, indicating that the body had been butchered. In addition, the back of the skull was smashed open, indicating that the skull had been bludgeoned, presumably to get at the brains, which are high in protein and were eaten customarily from other butchered animals by the colonists.
The winter of 1609 was known as “the starving time” at Jamestown in Smith’s and other written accounts. During that time, of about 600 total colonists, only 60 survived. Immediately next to the skull a pottery bowl was unearthed also, indicating that cannibalism most certainly took place in that kitchen at Jamestown.
In fact, the colonists could not have picked a worse time to try to settle in Virginia. Cores drilled from centuries-old trees near Jamestown and Weowocomoco by the archeology team show that Virginia was in the midst of a seven-year drought. The previous winter had been nearly as bad and many settlers had died of starvation. It was during this time that John Smith ventured out in search of Indians willing to provide the colonists with food. But some Paspahegh Indians ambushed his team, killed some of the members, and took Smith prisoner. Powhatan was chief of about 15,000 people in 30 districts, including the larger consortium of Paspahegh, of which the Pamunkey were a smaller tribe. It was allegedly during this time that Powhatan was going to kill Smith that Pocahontas intervened and pled for his life. Later, she and other women helped feed the starving Jamestown settlers. When Smith returned, he found that about 75% of the colonists have already starved to death.
Desperate, some of the colonists decide to try to sail back to England on the small British ship, The Discovery. But Smith, trying to keep the colony afloat, aims one of the fort’s cannons at the ship and kills some of the defectors. In one of America’s first trials by jury, Smith is condemned to hang. By some accounts, he even has the noose around his neck when Captain Newport sails into the harbor with new settlers and stops Smith’s hanging.
The Pamunkey tribe helps Jamestown survive through the winter, even though food is in short supply in their own village. Pocahontas serves as an emissary between Smith and her father. But in September 1609, Smith is nearly killed in a gunpowder explosion that Jamestown archeologists believe was an assassination attempt. Smith leaves immediately for England, never to return. Chief Powhatan and Pocahontas are told that Smith was killed. Relations between the Indians and Jamestown sour as famine faces both the whites and natives. The Indians can no longer afford to feed the whites and the “starving time” begins.
It is during the starving time that many leaders of the colony die, including church leaders, Captain Gabriel Archer. Archer was the nemesis of John Smith and had led the trial to hang him. Archer—or rather his excavated body—leads us to another shocking detail about Jamestown. When his grave was excavated, archeologists were astonished at a find: an ancient Catholic reliquary! In other areas of excavation, researchers found clandestine rosaries and Catholic items. Was Archer, the leader of the first Protestant church in America, secretly a Catholic? And what about the person who buried him with the Catholic relic? It was a truly tantalizing clue from the Protestant flagship settlement!
After the starving time, several years passed as relations between the Natives and whites continued to deteriorate. In the summer of 1613, Captain Samuel Argall, with the help of a lesser Paspahegh chief, Iopassus, abducts Pocahontas to use as leverage against her father. During the year she is kept at Jamestown, she reluctantly Anglicizes her name to Rebecca and is baptized as a Christian.
According to an account called The True Story of Pocahontas, written by a Pamunkey scholar, Dr. Linwood Custalow, and based on generational Pamunkey oral stories, Pocahontas had already been married to a Pamunkey man and given birth to a child. But when she was abducted, her husband was killed, the child confiscated from her, and she was raped in captivity. When a colonial leader, John Rolfe, proposes marriage to her, Pocahontas’s father agreed in hopes the marriage might end the violence between the whites and his tribe. Pocahontas bears a son the following year.
She was the first woman married to a white man to give birth in an English colony. In the eyes of the English, she and her husband were the First Family of Virginia and one of the first in America.
News traveled back to England that a princess of a great chieftain had converted to Christianity and married a white colony leader. This was a sign that the struggling colony was finally seeing success in building a Protestant new world and converting the natives.
Rolfe and Pocahontas were invited to come to England to visit the King and Queen and, truth be told, to court investors and help raise funds for the struggling colonies. It is an irony that the native woman who may have saved Jamestown from starvation, would die in a strange land promoting the colony that usurped her ancestral land from her tribe. It is another irony in American history that her Pamunkey tribe, who saved Jamestown from complete annihilation, should not be officially recognized by the U.S. government until 2015!
PHOTOS: Recent archeological digs that started twenty years ago at Jamestown have revealed shocking facts about life at Jamestown. (1) In April 2012, archeologists unearthed something shocking in structure #191, next to a brick-and-mortar oven of a kitchen: the mutilated skull and severed leg of a 14-year old English girl dating 1609. The skull and tibia bone had numerous cutting and sawing marks on them, indicating the body had been butchered. In addition, the back of the skull had been smashed open to get at the brains, which, in other large butchered animals were eaten by the colonists. Immediately next to the skull a pottery bowl was unearthed, indicating that cannibalism most certainly took place in that kitchen at Jamestown. (2) A model of the 14-year-old girl was recreated, based on the skull structure. Her remains were given the name “Jane” to humanize her. She was believed to be a servant girl from the south of England, possibly Cornwall. (3) PBS’s series, Secrets of the Dead, investigate the archeological findings in “Jamestown’s Dark Winter” (available on Netflix and Amazon Prime). (4) Archeologists excavate four graves on the Jamestown site where the oldest Protestant church in America once stood. The graves were believed to be those of prominent settlement “founding fathers,” including Captain Gabriel Archer. The archeologists found an item buried with his body that astonished them: an ancient Catholic reliquary! In other areas of settlement excavation, researchers found clandestine rosaries and other Catholic items. Was Archer, the leader of the first Protestant church in America, secretly a Catholic? And what about the person who buried him with the Catholic relic? (5&6) Two other excellent documentaries, National Geographic’s “Nightmare in Jamestown,” and NOVA’s “Pocahontas Revealed,” on PBS both explore surprising research about Jamestown. (7) Researchers used facial reconstruction software on a skull unearthed in a grave believed to have been that of Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, a founding father who was a primary force behind the expedition to Jamestown. (8) A nearby excavation in Purton Bay in Gloucester County, Virginia, where archeologists believe the Pamunkey village, Werowocomoco, once stood. One area is outlined by stains believed to be the largest longhouse yet found in Virginia, possibly belonging to the chief himself, where Pocahontas might have also lived. Pottery and other artifacts found on that spot are better made than the cruder fragments in other areas of the village. (9) Excavations that began in the mid-1990s reveal postholes from rotted stockade posts of the Jamestown fort. (10) John Smith’s and other English narratives about Jamestown state that Pocahontas and other Indian women spent quite a bit of time at Jamestown aiding the starving villagers with food and cooking for them. Many pieces of Indian pottery at the site indicate this was true. (12) Cores drilled from centuries-old trees near Jamestown and Weowocomoco show that Virginia suffered a seven-year drought that not only resulted in Jamestown starving and losing nearly 80% of their settlers in the winter of 1609, but also ultimately forced the Pamunkey to abandon their village.
See related posts:
- The Frontier Drama, Jamestown
- The True Story of Pocahontas - America's Earliest Settlements
Posted originally on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on August 10, 2019 83,855 views / 1,374 likes / 204 shares
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