As Thanksgiving nears and we think about those early Pilgrims who landed on a rocky shoreline in America during the year 1620, it’s easy to think of them as the first group of settlers coming to the new world. In actuality, the first permanent English settlement in America dates to 1607, many years before the Pilgrims arrived.
Established by the Virginia Company of London, the Jamestown colony in Virginia saw 6,000 English settlers arrive between the years 1607 and 1625 with more than half perishing after their arrival. Conditions were harsh and the colony struggled to establish itself.
I recently returned from a visit to Jamestown and was awed by the archeological work that continues to this day.
I was also interested to find that jewelers and goldsmiths were among the first to arrive. The Virginia Company had investors back in England for their project and they recruited many trade specialists to travel to Jamestown to help establish viable commodities using Virginia’s natural resources, hopefully for a quick profit.
Archaeological excavations are showing that Jamestown was a busy place full of tradesmen working at what they had been sent to do – make money for the investors of the Virginia Company. Jamestown struggled at first to find that magic product that would help establish the colony. At first, it was thought that precious metals such as gold would be found and that discovery would become the big payoff for the investors in Jamestown. This was not meant to be and it was not until years later that the planting of tobacco took off to become the cash cow for saving the settlement.
It is believed that jewelers and goldsmiths were recruited for the Jamestown colony to test the quality and viability of Virginia’s silver, gold and copper ores for use in jewelry and to also perhaps create small objects for the gentlemen within the settlement and also for export back to England. The jewelers and goldsmiths arrived with the equipment they needed to set up their workshops and could function as they did back in England.
This is known due to excavations that have recovered an early 17th-century jewelers casting flask which was used as a mold for sand casting small objects. This rare item even retained some melted silver in the bottom well.
A jeweler draw plate was also discovered that was used to form decorative wire and is believed to have been owned by Daniel Stallings, a jeweler who arrived in Jamestown in 1608. He would have used this tool to create wires of different shapes to fashion into necklaces and other types of jewelry.
Finding gold artifacts in Jamestown excavations is a very rare occurrence but in 2008 a gold ring was discovered. The ring features the likeness of a skull with engraved letters “CL” just below. Around the skull is the Latin phrase “Memento Mori” which translates to “remember death”. This ring is believed to have belonged to Captain Christopher Lawne who arrived in Jamestown in April 1619 from England. He was a member of the first Virginia General Assembly and established one of the first settlements on the Isle of Wight, located very near Jamestown. Only a man of wealth and means would have worn a gold ring such as this one. It is not known how the ring became separated from Captain Lawne, who died only 7 months after he arrived in Virginia.
Although rings of gold were rare in Jamestown, rings, pins and buckles of copper and other small copper objects could be found and many have been excavated.
One of the more interesting finds is this copper signet ring, which was commonly used for impressing wax seals on documents. This copper signet ring is believed to have belonged to William Strachey, who survived a hurricane and a shipwreck on his way to Virginia in 1609. As William was a playwright and poet, he recounted his story in letters back home to England and it is believed that his story was the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” which was first performed in London in 1611.
Finally arriving in Virginia in 1610 after his ordeal, he stayed for less than a year. During his short visit he became the Secretary of the Colony and recorded many of the things we know today about the early years of Virginia. Archaeologists found his ring in 1996 buried in a trash pit within the fort. The ring features a large bird with a cross across its chest, which is the official crest of the Strachey family. Questions remain about why this ring was left behind when Strachey returned to England. Did he lose it? Or perhaps it was traded with another colonist for goods after he lost his possessions in the shipwreck on his way to Virginia?
What is known is that Strachey returned to London and usually had money troubles. He lived an unheralded life in England and died in poverty in 1621, but a little piece of William Strachey remains in Virginia and is on display at Jamestown.
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