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HomeNewsTooth Test Suggests Other Identities for Jamestown Mystery Captain
Tooth Test Suggests Other Identities for Jamestown Mystery Captain

Jamestown, VA -- Results from a tooth analysis to determine the birthplace of an unidentified captain buried in Jamestown, Virginia about 400 years ago, suggest other candidates, but do not rule out the possibility that the remains are those of Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold, the principal organizer of the 1607 expedition that established Jamestown as the first permanent English settlement in America.

The light green outline designates the chalky clay soil area that includes Otley. It is generally thought that Bartholomew Gosnold grew up in Otley, however the strontium isotopes found in the captain's tooth indicate an origin on Cretaceous (or similar) soil (white areas) found slightly south of Otley, but the results do not rule out Gosnold. Red dots indicate homeplaces of the other potential candidates in question. Gabriel Archer grew up in Mountnessing. Ferdinando Wenman's family had houses in Twyford and Thame. The tooth test results match those areas. Thomas West, Lord De La Warr, was born and probably grew up in Wherwell, which is clearly a clay dominated area. He has been ruled out as a candidate. Map courtesy Suffolk County Council.
The light green outline designates the chalky clay soil area that includes Otley. It is generally thought that Bartholomew Gosnold grew up in Otley, however the strontium isotopes found in the captain's tooth indicate an origin on Cretaceous (or similar) soil (white areas) found slightly south of Otley, but the results do not rule out Gosnold. Red dots indicate homeplaces of the other potential candidates in question. Gabriel Archer grew up in Mountnessing. Ferdinando Wenman's family had houses in Twyford and Thame. The tooth test results match those areas. Thomas West, Lord De La Warr, was born and probably grew up in Wherwell, which is clearly a clay dominated area. He has been ruled out as a candidate. Map courtesy Suffolk County Council.
A closer view of Suffolk shows the Gosnold family parishes of Otley, Swilland and Grundisburg on the edge of the chalky clay geological area. The Cretaceous soil type is found slightly to the south of Otley. Map courtesy Suffolk County Council.
A closer view of Suffolk shows the Gosnold family parishes of Otley, Swilland and Grundisburg on the edge of the chalky clay geological area. The Cretaceous soil type is found slightly to the south of Otley. Map courtesy Suffolk County Council.
The tooth test, conducted by the National Environment Research Council Isotope Geosciences Laboratory of the British Geological Survey at Nottingham (http://www.bgs.ac.uk/nigl/) involved a comparison of the strontium and oxygen isotopes found in tooth enamel. The ratio of these isotopes, which are found in everyone's teeth, compared with the ratio of isotopes found in drinking water in different regions can help determine where an individual lived when their teeth were forming during childhood.

"Based on historical, archaeological and forensic evidence, Gosnold remains the leading candidate, but the tooth test results increase the possibility that we may have discovered the grave of Captain Gabriel Archer or perhaps Sir Ferdinando Wenman. Both were born in areas that would produce similar test results," said Dr. William Kelso, APVA director of archaeology at Historic Jamestowne.

Skeleton of the unidentified captain found at Historic Jamestowne. Five foot pole placed next to remains to give scale.
Skeleton of the unidentified captain found at Historic Jamestowne. Five foot pole placed next to remains to give scale.
Captain Gabriel Archer
Archer grew up in Mountnessing in Essex and attended Cambridge. He wrote a report on Gosnold's trip to New England in 1602, and served as the first secretary of the Jamestown colony in 1607. He went back to England in 1608 and returned to Jamestown in 1609 as the council's recorder. He died at age 35 during the "Starving Time" winter of 1609/1610 when the fort was under siege and food supplies were scarce.

Although Archer was a captain, Kelso thinks it is doubtful that he would have been buried ceremoniously in a coffin during this traumatic time outside the fort when it was under siege.

Sir Ferdinando Wenman
Wenman, Master of the Ordnance at James Fort, was a knight who served in a high military position responsible for Jamestown's arms and armor. He is also referred to by John Smith as the "Generall of the Horse." A nephew of Lord De la Warr, he died at the age of 34 in 1610 after the "Starving Time." His family had houses at Twyford, Berkshire and Thame, Oxfordshire.

Kelso considers Wenman the least likely candidate because he was not a captain, and the burial is marked with a captain's leading staff. He said if a knight is buried with anything, it would likely be his sword.

Lord De La Warr
Thomas West, Lord De La Warr has also been suggested as a candidate, but Kelso said De La Warr would also not be buried with a mere captain's staff because he had the status of a lord and was the first governor of Virginia. The tooth test also rules him out because he was born and apparently grew up in Wherwell in Hampshire, a place that would not produce an isotopic signature matching that of the Jamestown burial.

De La Warr established law and order at Jamestown after the "Starving Time" winter of 1609-1610 ensuring that it would become a permanent settlement. He returned to England in 1611 because he was ill. He never regained his health and died at sea in 1618 on a trip back to Jamestown. He was buried in Virginia at age 41, likely in Jamestown, but his gravesite has not been discovered.

Tooth Analysis
Available documentary evidence indicates that Bartholomew Gosnold was born and grew up in the Otley area of southeast Suffolk, England. The oxygen isotope results for the teeth of the Jamestown skeleton show that the Jamestown captain probably came from southern England, but the strontium results are consistent with an origin on Cretaceous (or similar) deposits, not a chalk dominated terrain such as Otley. (See map.)

However, according to researchers, appropriate geological conditions are found a few miles south of Otley that would satisfy the signature found in his tooth, so Gosnold can't be ruled out. The mineral signature in the teeth is created by the food and water that a person consumes, and he could have been eating and drinking food and water from geological areas nearby.

An analysis was also conducted on a tooth of an unidentified woman believed to be Gosnold's sister Elizabeth Gosnold Tilney, who was buried at All Saints Church in Shelley, England. Her strontium results are different from his and showed that she could have spent her childhood in Otley or a similar location. It appears that they did not grow up in the same household, so they are probably not siblings.

DNA Results Inconclusive
With unprecedented permission from the Church of England, the Shelley woman's grave, which was not labelled, was uncovered in 2005 in an attempt to confirm the Jamestown captain's identity through DNA testing. The DNA indicated that the two were not related, but scientific tests showed that she was too young to have been Elizabeth. If she was Elizabeth, then the Jamestown captain probably would not be Gosnold.

Dr. Douglas Owsley, forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History, oversaw the testing. Microscopic analysis, including a calcium osteon analysis of the Shelley woman's bone sample and dental analysis, indicated that she was about age 50 when she died. Owsley said, "There is absolutely no way she could be Elizabeth, who was about age 74 at the time of her death."

Evidence Points to Gosnold
Without confirmation from DNA, the most compelling piece of evidence that archaeologists found Gosnold's grave is a captain's leading staff that was ceremoniously placed along one edge of his coffin lid. "We have never found any other ceremonial objects in Jamestown burials, so we know this was someone very special," Kelso said. He also said coffin burials were traditionally used for people of higher status.

During a major on-going archaeological excavation at the James Fort site, archaeologists found the burial in 2002 just outside the west wall of the 1607 fort. It was under a pit filled with artifacts that date to the 1630s and an earlier post hole which suggests that the interment was long forgotten and was probably from the early years of the settlement.

Owsley determined that he was a European male who died in his mid-to late-30s. He showed no sign of death from a traumatic injury. Gosnold was 36 when he died from a 3-week illness just three months after the first permanent English colony in America was founded. He was "honorably buried, having all the ordinance in the fort shot off with many volleys of small shot," according to George Percy, an eye witness.

Capt. John Smith credits Gosnold as the prime mover of the colonization of Virginia. Gosnold was the principal promoter and vice-admiral leader of the Jamestown expedition and captain of the Godspeed, one of three ships in the fleet. He obtained an exclusive charter from King James for the Virginia Company to settle Virginia, and he served as a member of the original governing council.

A native of Suffolk, England, Gosnold is considered one of the most influential and moving spirits behind English-American colonization. He also explored New England, named Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard, and colonized one of the Elizabeth Isles.

The captain's discovery and forensic research is on exhibit in the Archaearium, a new interpretive experience at Historic Jamestowne developed along with other new visitor facilities in time for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007. The results of the burial study will also be included in a larger study of other Jamestown and Chesapeake area 17th -century burials conducted by Owsley at the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History to learn more about how the early settlers lived and died, and characteristics of the early population. The Smithsonian Institution plans to open "Written in Bone," an exhibit on that research in 2008.

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