Exploring the ChesapeakeNightmare in Jamestown

Scene from National Geographic Television's Nightmare in Jamestown.

Sonnett: Do the position of the burials at Jamestown offer clues as to when people were buried?

Owsley: There are three general burial areas we’re working in on Jamestown Island: the area around the brick church, a specific area within James fort that was built over in 1610, and the “Third Ridge” cemetery, also known as the “Starving Time” cemetery. Artifacts recovered from this area seem to indicate that these burials date from around 1609-1610, during the period when the colony suffered great hardship and losses, up through about 1630.

Sometimes we find people were buried in great haste. The style of burial, (for example, with or without a coffin) and associated artifacts provide clues as to the date of the burial. And the burials on the “Third Ridge” cemetery are not consistent with the formal burial practices of the time—a few have coffins, some have shrouds, some have neither. The position of the burials—traditionally facing east-west—was not consistent. Some graves contained two people, which was not common practice. Some burials were shallow. These and other observations indicated a social breakdown that would be consistent with what we know about the “Starving Time” period of 1609-1610 from the historical record.

Sonnett: Despite the hardships and violence that faced settlers in the Chesapeake Bay, the English settlements ultimately prospered here. From looking at the bones of some of these early settlers, what kind of story can you see?

Owsley: In a sense, the history of the Jamestown, St. Mary’s City, and other English settlements along the Chesapeake Bay are truly written in bone. The climate of the Chesapeake Bay region was unlike the climate that these Englishmen left behind or what they would find in New England. These settlers had a hard time adjusting to the conditions and pathogens they encountered here.

Plus they came, initially, during a historic drought. So they had very poor timing, and, in a sense, were not fully prepared for the challenges, in terms of adequate food and health care, with what they would find here. They had problems with water contamination, since they were drinking right out of the river. With the lack of rainfall, salt water was moving up the bay and its tributaries and they were experiencing salt water poisoning from drinking the water. Plus they were dealing with typhoid and probably malaria as well as other diseases they brought from Europe. They died in great numbers in the early years of the colonies.

But many people lived through the period of adjustment, or “seasoning,” which we are now just beginning to understand. For those who lived, life was very hard. Everyone—Europeans and Africans—worked incredibly hard at farming and trades to make a living here. The impact of this work is reflected in the stresses and strains that are evident in their remains. Back problems and arthritis were common.

Sonnett: What do you feel is the greatest benefit of the work you are doing to add to our understanding about life on the Chesapeake Bay?

Owsley: Many of these people from the colonial period of the Chesapeake lived their entire lives without anybody writing a single word about them. Their remains are the only story that is left to us about the kinds of lives they led. We look at them with the eyes of a scientist, but we also recognize that they were once people that someone cared about, so we handle them with care and respect. This is their legacy to us and we must use all of the skills we can as historians, forensic investigators, and archeologists to be able to read their stories.

I want to be able to tell the story of what life was like for people in the Chesapeake from this period and tell it from different people’s perspectives. This is a fascinating process, in that you see things in the bones that you can’t see anywhere else. This is truly hands-on science and hands-on history.

Historic Jamestowne, site of the first English settlement in North America, is jointly administered by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and the National Park Service. National Geographic gratefully acknowledges the cooperation of Historic Jamestowne and of the Virginia Tourism Corporation in the making of The New World.

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