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Africans in the Chesapeake

Finding African Burials in the Chesapeake
African Origins
The Young Woman from Harleigh Knoll

Human remains offer compelling proof that men and women of African ancestry lived and died alongside English colonists during the earliest years of colonial settlement in the Chesapeake.


Though few in number, African skeletons are being identified at 17th-century sites in the Chesapeake. In Virginia, four burials on Jamestown Island and one in Gloucester County that held the remains of persons of African origin have been dated to the 1600s. At St. Mary’s City, another recently identified African burial is probably also from the 1600s.

Identifiable Differences

scientist looking at a burial of an african male
Burial of an African male, Jamestown Island, 17th century. Image courtesy: National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park

On Jamestown Island after the 1630s, the settlement’s cemetery was associated with the church—but three burials lay in drainage ditches. Though the graves were clearly unlike those of English colonists, they were not at first positively identified as African. The bones have confirmed that two African men and one African woman were buried here.

This skeleton (pictured at right) found in a shallow grave was originally identified as American Indian, but recent analysis has proved its African descent. The body’s placement—on its side, slightly bent—differs from traditional Christian burial.

a man and a woman buried head to head
Burials of an African male and female, Jamestown Island, 3rd quarter of the 17th century.  Image courtesy: National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park

The other two bodies were extended on their backs, their graves head to head. They were first thought to be slaves, or perhaps American Indians. Their African identity was confirmed within the past decade, after reassessment of the skeletons with modern methods of analysis.

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