Lives Cut Short
In December 1606, the first vessels left England bound for Virginia. Of the more than 7,000 immigrants who came to Virginia over the next nineteen years, more than 6,000 died. Most adults did not survive past the fourth decade of life.
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 though the colonists were learning how to survive here. They were adopting Indian-style farming, eating the local fish and game, and raising livestock. But they were still dying in high numbers, often at young ages.
Trauma and disease left direct clues in skeletal remains. Chronic illnesses, acute infections, accidental injuries, wounds, childbirth, and the medical "care" of the day cut short many lives.
Infectious disease was rampant. The illnesses that struck newcomers — dysentery (severe diarrhea), typhoid fever, and malaria — killed too quickly to affect the skeleton. Only malaria might have left clues in the bones of some colonists, if they survived for several months or years. But other highly communicable diseases that were common in the close quarters of ships or plantations can be seen in the bones of Chesapeake settlers.
- Tuberculosis, a bacterial infection, generally begins in the lungs but can affect other organs, including bone. It can be passed from one person to another through coughing, or contracted from drinking raw milk. TB is identifiable in the skeleton in only 5 to 10 percent of untreated cases.
- Syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection, has three stages. The last stage can damage many internal organs. Bones take on a swollen, "moth-eaten" appearance. In the skeleton, syphilis is most often seen in the cranium and tibia, with deep erosions and thickened formation of new bone.
Breaks, Blows, and Wounds
Accidental and intentional injuries were common. Broken bones were hazards of everyday life. The tasks of hanging green tobacco in barns to dry, handling livestock, felling trees, or putting up the high brick walls of the chapel at St. Mary's City were all dangerous. In Virginia, outbreaks of hostility with Native Americans continued until the late 1600s. Conflicts also flared up among the colonists.
Evidence of gunshot wounds was apparent in four skeletons from the early Jamestown cemeteries. In three, lead shot was found in and among the bone layers of the burials.
An Indian Uprising
In 1622, an Indian uprising led to the deaths of nearly 350 settlers living on plantations spreading along the James River. At the settlement of Martin's Hundred, more than half the population was killed or taken hostage.
Dental disease could be deadly if oral infection spread to other parts of the body. The colonists commonly suffered from cavities, abscesses, and loss of teeth. In the Chesapeake diet, corn — which is high in carbohydrates and sticks to the teeth — contributed to high rates of tooth decay. Colonists who tried to clean their teeth were often ineffective at removing plaque, a cause of gum disease, or preventing decay (caries). Extraction was the only available treatment.
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