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The First Colonists


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

Many early graves have been found inside the fort's walls. The English were reluctant to leave the protection of their palisade, even to bury the dead. They were also trying to hide their dwindling numbers from the Powhatan.


The colonists' bones record trauma, while their burials point to rapid loss of life. Of the original 104 colonists, only 38 were alive nine months after landing. Diseases proved as deadly as arrows or lead shot. For the English to hold the settlement, ships had to bring in supplies and more immigrants. Graves reveal that many of the next newcomers also did not survive.

Dr. Douglas Owsley examines a double burial
Dr. Douglas Owsley examines a double burial. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

Double Burial

So many men were dying that at least three times the living buried them two to a grave. Archaeologists have already excavated two of these wider double burials, and they have located a third one, all inside the fort.

The men buried side by side in one of these graves probably fell ill and died quickly. There is no direct evidence of the cause of their deaths. Rapid-onset infections or starvation would not have left markers in their bones. Their skeletons reflect active lives but not strenuous labor. They were probably gentlemen. The clues in their bones and their unusual burial, paired with historical descriptions, let us name them.

Amid Plenty, Warning of Want

Zooarchaeologist Joanne Bowen in her lab at Colonial Williamsburg examines non-human bone frm the early James Fort trash pits
Zooarchaeologist Joanne Bowen in her lab at Colonial Williamsburg examines non-human bone from the early James Fort trash pits. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

Did starvation play a role in killing the early colonists? Human remains can't answer the questions, but bone evidence of another kind might. Broken and butchered animal bones found in trash pits show that at first the colonists ate well. They had provisions and livestock brought from England. They also began to hunt and fish near the fort and trade with American Indians for corn and venison.

But there were some signs of trouble to come. The early settlers arrived during one of the worst regional droughts in centuries. The American Indians were short of corn to trade. Growing hostility made it dangerous to hunt far beyond the safety of the fort.

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