Smithsonian and Jamestown Rediscovery Partner To Reveal Identities of Four Lost Leaders of Jamestown

July 28, 2015
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Biographies of the Four Men

Rev. Robert Hunt

Rev. Robert Hunt was born in Hampshire, England, in 1569 and died in 1608 around the age of 39. He was the first Anglican minister at Jamestown and served the colony until his death. Capt. John Smith described him as a godly man who by his own example served as a peacemaker among the colony’s fractious leaders. The research team identified him by his age and style of burial: he was buried facing west toward the people he served, his congregation. Hunt was also buried in a shroud, not a coffin. Most men who died during the first, tenuous year at Jamestown were buried in a similar fashion. A simple shroud burial without a coffin reflects Hunt’s status within the settlement and his humble nature and profession.

Capt. Gabriel Archer

Capt. Gabriel Archer was born in Essex, England, in 1575 and died in late 1609 or early 1610 at the age of 34 during the “starving time,” a six-month period during which approximately 250 settlers perished at Jamestown from disease, starvation and Indian attacks. His journal entries indicate that he led some of the earliest expeditions in the Jamestown colony and was a nemesis of Capt. John Smith. Archer’s remains were suspected when archaeologists discovered remnants of a coffin and a captain’s leading staff with the bones.

The team also found a small, well-preserved silver box resting on a small piece of preserved wood from Archer’s coffin. Extensive high-resolution CT scans of the sealed box revealed that it is likely a Catholic reliquary encapsulating seven fragments of bone and two pieces of a lead ampulla, a container used to hold holy water. Religion played a prominent role at Jamestown, and many efforts were made to convert the neighboring Powhatan tribes to the Anglican Church, culminating in the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe in 1614.

The presence of the reliquary, however, suggests that at least one of the colonists retained his Catholic faith, perhaps in secret. The reliquary could have belonged to Archer, whose parents were Catholic, or to the individual who placed it on top of his hexagonal coffin. Provocative etchings on the box offer additional clues. For example, the team identified intentional markings on one side as arrow fletchings—an apt design for a man named Archer.

Sir Ferdinando Wainman (Weyman)

Sir Ferdinando Wainman (sometimes spelled “Weyman” in historic documents) was born in 1576 and also died in 1610 at about age 34 after arriving at Jamestown with his first cousin and governor of Virginia, Sir Thomas West, also known as Lord De La Warr. Genealogical records indicate that Wainman was the first English knight buried in America. Chemical testing of Wainman’s bones showed he was exposed to more lead in his life than the other three men, suggesting affluence. Lead was present in pewter and glazed wares, items more accessible to the wealthy. The research team also studied the unusual pattern of coffin nails from the grave and determined that Wainman was buried in a uniquely styled anthropomorphic, or human-shaped, wooden coffin. This coffin style was similar to a separate burial in the church that identified as another relative of Lord De La Warr, Capt. William West.

Capt. William West

Capt. William West was born in 1585 and killed in 1610 around the age of 24 during a skirmish with the Powhatan. He was the young uncle of Lord De La Warr and like his relative, Wainman, had high lead levels in his bones. Coffin nails in his grave indicate he, too, was buried in an anthropomorphic coffin. 

West’s position at Jamestown was affirmed when the research team discovered highly decayed remnants of a military leader’s sash over the chest area of the skeleton. To protect this delicate artifact, it was removed from the ground within a block of surrounding soil and remains encased in dirt. A micro-CT scan determined it is likely made of silk cloth and adorned with silver bullion fringe and silver spangles.

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Ryan Lavery


Kathryn Sabella


National Museum of Natural History
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