This is the graveyard at Jamestown Colony.
Jamestown was a complete disaster in its early years. See, all the European colonial incursions faced a problem: there wasn’t very many of them and they violently demanded that Native people work for them for free. When those Native people got sick of being killed, it put the colony in jeopardy. This is really the story over and over again. When Columbus came back to Hispanola in 1493, all the people he left behind were dead. The initial English attempt to colonize the Americans as Roanoke Island faced the same problem. Almost certainly, the issue at both was the murders of Native peoples. These colonial forces were military men coming out of the religious wars of Europe. They were used to killing at will.
The idea of starving to death at Jamestown seems an absurdity. This is an incredibly abundant area. Even today, with four centuries of degradation, the area is teeming with wildlife. The turtles alone would have kept people alive for awhile, not to mention the fertility of an area where a river is about to meet the ocean, the surrounding swamplands, the forests, etc. How does one starve to death here, to the point of eating each other? Yet, this is what happened in 1609-10, when the colony was about to collapse entirely. Granted, there were some challenges due to a drought that increased salt content in the water and that definitely killed people, but that’s not why people in Jamestown were eating each other. That happened because they had become so afraid to leave their tiny fort that they chose to starve rather than incur the wrath of the Native peoples around them. And this was entirely on the English.
The colony began with 104 people. By the fall of 1607, only 38 were left. We don’t know where all the graves are. A decent chunk of the site has probably been eaten by the James River over the centuries, although now it is heavily controlled. But we do know that one of the dead here is a young man who died of an arrow wound, believed to be the first casualty by a Native attack. They landed on May 14. He died on May 25. It took all of 11 days. And it is quite likely that this was precipitated by English violence toward Powhatan’s people.
In any case, however these specific individuals about which we never know too much died, this is probably the oldest American grave I can find.
These dead English colonists are buried at the site of the Jamestown Colony, outside of Williamsburg, Virginia.
This grave visit was covered by the donations of LGM readers. I very much appreciate it. If you would like this series to visit more Americans who committed violence against Native peoples, well, I will be in Nashville soon and a visit to Andrew Jackson seems near-required and so you can donate here to cover those required expenses. Previous posts in this series are archived here.