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Living and Dying in America

Difficult Births
Was This Baby Swaddled to Death?
Colonial Medicine
Pewter, & Poison

Lives Cut Short
Chapel Burials
Settling In

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.

Skull of a male with extensive destruction from late-stage syphillis.
Skull of a male with extensive destruction from late-stage syphilis.  Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution

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 American 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.

Partial spinal column of a white male, 12 to 14 years old, with probable tuberculosis.
Partial spinal column of a white male, 12 to 14 years old, with probable tuberculosis.  Image courtesy of: Darnall's Chance House Museum

Deadly Infections

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.
Humerus and femur of an adult male with five bones having unhealed perimortem fractures. 
Tibia shattered by lead shot, including a 70-caliber round ball, and at least 17 pieces of buckshot, of a male, 17 to 20 years old, buried at James Fort. Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution.

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 American Indians continued until the late 1600s. Conflicts also flared up among the colonists.

Gunshot Wounds

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 American Indian Uprising

In 1622, an American 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.

Tooth Troubles

Closeup view of damaged teeth in a skull
Teeth damaged by whitening.  Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution

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.

Learn more about the methods colonists used to clean their teeth.

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