Home -- Historic Jamestowne Historic Jamestowne Painting
Visit Calendar News The Dig Biographies History Education Donate Shop About Us Links Site Map
HomeNewsGosnold DNA Search
APVA Preservation Virginia Archaeologists Seek Matching DNA

Shelley All Saints Church in Suffolk, England, burial place of Gosnold's sister, Elizabeth Tilney. She is a possible candidate for a DNA match.
In 2003, Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA Preservation Virginia) archaeologists announced the discovery of the remains of a high-ranking male colonist who was buried ceremoniously just outside the 1607 James Fort site at Historic Jamestowne in Jamestown, Virginia. They are currently seeking matching DNA evidence to confirm his identity.

Based on a chain of physical and historical evidence, Dr. William Kelso, APVA director of archaeology, said the remains appear to be those of Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, principal promoter and vice admiral leader of the Jamestown Colony. A native of Suffolk, England, Gosnold also briefly explored and colonized one of the Elizabeth Isles, and discovered and named Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard.

"If this is Gosnold, then we've found the 'lost-to-history' burial of one of the most influential and moving spirits behind English-American colonization, hence a founding father of modern America, and one of that elite group of daring English mariners of the Age of Exploration," Kelso said.

Inspired by his friend, Richard Hakluyt, the Queen's geographer and colonization promoter, in 1602, Gosnold led an expedition of 20 men to New England, where he established a short-lived English settlement. In 1605, he began planning the Jamestown Colony with Captain John Smith and obtained an exclusive charter from King James for the Virginia Company to settle Virginia.

Smith credits Gosnold as the prime mover of the colonization of Virginia. As vice-admiral of the Jamestown expedition, Gosnold was captain of the Godspeed, one of three ships in the fleet. He also was one of the six members of the original governing council and helped design James Fort.

Edward Maria Wingfield, the first president of the colony, lamented Gosnold's death, describing him as: "the worthy and religious gentleman, Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, upon whose life stood a great part of the good success and fortune of our government and colony."

The most compelling piece of evidence that this was a high-ranking person was the discovery of a decorative captain's leading staff that was ceremoniously placed along one edge of the 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.

APVA Preservation Virginia archaeologists were able to recover and conserve enough of the ceremonial object to identify that the wooden shaft was about 5 ft. long and 1/2 inch in diameter. It was topped by an iron cruciform blade finial decorated with a molded socket and attached to the shaft with iron languets (straps) held in place with decorative copper-headed tacks.

Archaeologists found the burial 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 may be from the early years of the settlement. It was also aligned with the west wall of the fort.

Dr. Douglas Owsley, forensic osteologist at the Smithsonian Institution, examined the burial and determined that he was a European male who died in his mid-to late-30s. Based on the age at the time of death, evidence of high social status and the probable date of interment, Kelso and his staff have narrowed the possible identity of the burial to three colonists:

  • Gosnold, who died August 22, 1607, at age 36 after a 3-week illness and was "honorably buried, having all the ordinance in the fort shot off with many volleys of small shot," according to George Percy;
  • Captain Gabriel Archer, who chronicled Gosnold's trip to New England, served as the first secretary of the Jamestown colony and died at age 35 during the "Starving Time" of 1610; or
  • Sir Fernando Wehnman, Master of the Ordnance in the fort and a knight who died at the age of 34 in 1610.
Based on the historical documentation about Gosnold's ceremonial burial, combined with his status as a captain and his importance to the colony, and the other archaeological and forensic evidence, Kelso is confident that they have found Gosnold's grave. He noted that it would also be unlikely that anyone would have been buried in a coffin or ceremoniously during the "Starving Time" of 1610 because the fort was under siege and the colonists were struggling to survive.

If it is Gosnold, then Kelso is puzzled about why such an important colonist was buried outside of the fort with so much ceremony during the first few months, at a time when the colonists were instructed by the Virginia Company not to "advertise the killing of any of your men" and not to let the Indians "see or know of your sick men." By the time Gosnold died, probably only about three-fourths of the original colonists were still alive. According to Percy, "Our men were destroyed with cruel diseases...and by wars...but for the most part they died of mere famine."

It may be, Kelso speculated, that the men were so bound by tradition to pay respect to a fallen leader, such as Gosnold, and felt so obligated to give him a proper burial, that they disobeyed the instructions and buried him in full view beside the fort in the parade ground that they called Smithfield. Or, he said, maybe the colonists thought a ceremonial burial would provide a feigned show of force.

Kelso said the APVA Preservation Virginia will try to identify the remains through DNA testing with advice from the Smithsonian Institution and funding from the National Geographic Society. "DNA from the burial compared with mitochondrial DNA from a descendent from the maternal line of the family could prove or disprove his identity as Gosnold or one of the other gentlemen," he said.

Catherine Correll-Walls, a Virginia-based researcher working on the project in cooperation with British researchers, identified several generations of maternal descendants before the search ended when they could not find concrete evidence of the identity of Gosnold's sister's great granddaughters.

Only two candidates for a DNA match have been identified, including Gosnold's sister, Elizabeth Tilney, who, according to her will, is buried at Shelley All Saints church near her home in Suffolk, England, next to her husband in the chancel. The other possibility is Katherine Blackerby, Gosnold's niece, who is believed to be buried at St. Peter and St. Mary church in Stowmarket, England.

If permission is granted by the Church of England, their DNA will be tested for a possible match. Kelso hopes that the tests will provide the exacting comparative scientific data necessary to conclusively prove that the remains found at Historic Jamestowne are those of Captain Gosnold.

"DNA testing is not something we can do for every burial," he noted, "but in this situation where we have clues about the person's identity, it makes sense to pursue it if we can find a maternal descendant." Stable isotope tests will also be conducted in an attempt to determine the country and region where he was born and spent his early childhood.

The remains will be included in a larger study of other Jamestown and Chesapeake area 17th -century burials conducted by Owsley at the Smithsonian Institution to learn more about how the early settlers lived and died, and characteristics of the early population When analysis is complete, the burial will be reinterred.

What is Mitochondrial DNA?
Cells contain two kinds of DNA - nuclear and mitochondrial. Nuclear DNA is found in the nucleus of the cell and is composed of two DNA sources: the egg from the mother and the sperm from the father. This type of DNA is most often used in forensic or paternity cases.

Mitochondrial DNA is contained in the mitochondria of the cell. The mitochondria are organelles located outside the nucleus in the cytoplasm of the cell. This type of DNA preserves well in bones. It is relatively stable and can be compared across several generations.

Mitochondrial DNA is only passed along the maternal line, so to compare a sample from the bones of a deceased individual, we have to obtain a sample (preferably a blood sample) from the mother or any of the siblings who share the same sequence of mitochondrial DNA as the mother of the deceased. In terms of nieces or nephews, we could only obtain the mitochondrial DNA from a sister's children and the descendants from her female children and so on. A brother's children and descendants from other male relatives would obtain their mitochondrial DNA from a mother who would not be related.

Media Contact:
Paula Neely

What Have We Found?
Featured Find

Featured Tours
In the Trenches
In the Trenches Curator's Artifact Tour
Curator's Artifact Tour

Jane, The Book and Video

Jamestown: The Buried Truth

America in 1607: Jamestown and the Powhatan

Jamestown Rediscovery Preservation Virginia Colonial Williamsburg National Park Service 757-229-4997
Historic Jamestowne's Facebook Page
Historic Jamestowne's YouTube Channel