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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Life in the 1600s was hard in England but even harder in the Chesapeake. Colonists faced brutal summer heat and humidity, spells of hunger, heavy labor, outbreaks of conflict, and illness. Along with the usual maladies, diseases for which they had no immunity ravaged newcomers. Limited medical knowledge and lack of larger family support made their lives even more precarious.

Bone and burial data reveal the rigors of life in the Chesapeake. A high death rate of young people and the chronic shortage of women forced the settlers to rely on recent immigrants to renew their population. Not until the 1700s could American-born colonists increase their numbers.

 

left female hip bone    Difficult Births

Throughout the 17th century, colonists could not increase their numbers through the birth rate. Not only was infant mortality high, but there was also a chronic shortage of women.

bone    Was This Baby Swaddled to Death?

Investigators had only the bones and burial clues to tell the story of this child who was buried beneath the floor of the 17th-century Brick Chapel at St. Mary's City, Maryland.

evidence of trenphination    Colonial Medicine

A colonial "doctor" was often physician/apothecary/surgeon — three professions in England. Bloodletting, purges, or herbal remedies might be prescribed. The cure could be worse than the disease.

English slipware mug    Pottery, Pewter & Poison

Exposure to lead, a poison with widespread, lasting toxic effects, was a fact of life in the 1600s. All but the very poorest colonists ate and drank from objects containing lead.

Humerus and femur of an adult male with five bones having unhealed perimortem fractures.     Lives Cut Short

As many as a third of Chesapeake newcomers died within one year. If they lasted through the first "seasoning" fevers, they faced uncertain futures, even as the colonists were learning how to survive here.

burial    Chapel Burials

Jesuits built Maryland’s first major brick building—a chapel at St. Mary’s City. Less than half a century later, they demolished it, but the burials under its floor were left intact.

livestock    Settling In

Built less than 30 years later than Jamestown, St. Mary's City's first years were fragile. But, the Maryland colonists planted crops immediately and established peaceful relations with the local American Indians.

 

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