A Highly Unusual Case
In 2002, archaeologists uncovered an isolated grave just outside the log wall of a fort built on an island in the James River almost four centuries earlier. Who was buried there?
The discovery mystified investigators. Unlike nearly all the other early fort burials they had found, this one once held a coffin. The grave shaft was carefully dug. It lay outside of and parallel to the west palisade, near a gate that opened to what was probably the parade ground. This was not a typical church cemetery burial!
Smithsonian forensic anthropologists joined archaeologists from APVA Preservation Virginia who were excavating the site where the fort once stood — the first permanent English settlement in North America. They recorded data on the skeleton in the field and then removed the bones to the archaeological lab at Jamestown. The clues in this burial and in the bones of its occupant created an astounding forensic file that led to a probable identification. This was one of the very first English colonists!
Evidence at the Scene
A gabled coffin and captain’s staff placed next to it indicate that the colonists who buried this man held him in high regard. Archaeological analysis of artifacts found in a later pit that cut into the upper half of the grave shaft revealed that this burial took place before 1630 and was forgotten by that time.
Skeletal examination identified the remains as those of a European male, about 5 feet 3 inches tall, and 30 to 36 years old. Though his remains were well preserved, the cause of death was not apparent in the skeleton. The bones show some staining after death, from contact with copper shroud pins and iron coffin nails.
A Probable ID
The weight of all the evidence pointed to one man—Captain Bartholomew Gosnold! Investigators compiled the clues from the bones and burial and then looked at supporting evidence. Historical sources note that four prominent men died during the first years of the Jamestown colony. All were in their early thirties. Each might have been the man in this grave. But firsthand accounts of a captain’s death in 1607 seemed to best fit the grave’s location immediately outside the fort in the “parade ground,” the gabled coffin, and the captain’s staff buried with the coffin.
Captain Bartholomew Gosnold died after a three-week illness, only three months after the colonists landed. Such a quick illness would not have shown up in the skeleton. If it is Gosnold’s body in the grave, that would explain why no cause of death was apparent in the well-preserved remains.
A Captain, No Longer Nameless
Bartholomew Gosnold (1572–1607) was an enthusiastic promoter of colonization. An English lawyer and explorer, he first led an expedition to New England in 1602. He named Cape Cod for the teeming fish he encountered there, and Martha’s Vineyard for his daughter. Gosnold captained the Godspeed, one of three ships that sailed for Virginia in 1606. He was vice admiral of the expedition and helped design the fort at Jamestown.
Another Line of Inquiry
DNA can confirm identity in modern investigations. But could it solve a 400-year-old mystery?
DNA testing has become an option in historical cases only recently. It works only if bones are preserved well enough to still contain DNA - and only if there is a known relative to provide DNA for matching.
Investigators hoped to make a positive ID of the skeleton in the James Fort "captain's" burial by comparing its DNA to DNA of Captain Bartholomew Gosnold's sister. In 2005, scientists sampled bones in an unmarked grave thought to be that of Elizabeth Gosnold. The DNA results did not match, but further analysis revealed the bones were not his sister's remains.
Even without a DNA match, investigators believe that the bone and burial data, supported by the colonists' writings, identify the man buried outside James Fort. All the evidence — archaeological, forensic, and historical — points to Captain Bartholomew Gosnold.