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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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skull

The First Colonists

 

Finding James Fort
 
The First Fatality?
 
Harsh Realities of Life in Jamestown
 
Struggling to Survive
 

Cause of Death —
Arrowpoint or Chipped Tooth?

 

"[The Indians] had ent'red the fort with our own men, which were then busied in setting corn ... in which conflict most of the council was hurt, a boy slain ..." -John Smith, 1608, A True Relation of such occurrences and accidents of note as hath happ'ned in Virginia ...

Two colonists, Captain John Smith and Captain Gabriel Archer, wrote that a young Englishman died during an Indian attack in 1607, only two weeks after they landed on the island. In August 2005, excavators discovered a skeleton inside the fort, along the western palisade wall.

Clues indicated the burial took place during the first weeks or months of settlement at Jamestown. Though Smith and Archer did not name him, this skeleton found in James Fort may tell his story. His bones — and a stone arrowpoint — survived to reveal details of his short life and violent death. Was this the colony's first fatality?

Evidence at the Scene

James Fort skeleton
James Fort skeleton JR1225B, in situ/Skeleton of a male, 14 to 15 years old, with a small stone arrowpoint. Credit: APVA Preservation Virginia/Historic Jamestowne. Image courtesy: Chip Clark

Clues in the burial tell a tense story. This boy was buried hastily. The grave
was poorly dug and too short for his body. His right collarbone was broken near the time of death, likely during the attack. Irregular positioning of the right arm reflects this injury and hasty placement of the body in the grave. The arrowpoint was not embedded in the femur but would have been lodged in the tissue of his left leg. His feet and legs remained together, once held in place by a loose shroud. The lack of any European artifacts in the soil shoveled back into the grave indicates that the burial took place during the settlement's first weeks or months.

 

Skeletal Evidence

A quick death might have been a blessing. Piecing his bones together, scientists saw that this boy had an infection that had spread from a broken, abscessed tooth into his lower jaw bone. His weakness made him especially vulnerable.

teeth
Teeth from the James Fort skeleton JR1225B. Credit: APVA Preservation Virginia/Historic Jamestowne Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

Even if the arrow had not wounded him, the infection of this boy's jaw would have eventually killed him as it spread throughout his body. As pus drained into his mouth, he would have had trouble eating and experienced terrible pain. The extent of the injury suggests that he broke a tooth before leaving England. The tooth could have been extracted, but he received no dental care.

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