DISCOVERING THE FUTURE BY REVEALING THE PAST
ARMED TO THE TEETH
By MARK ST. JOHN ERICKSON
Jul 16, 2000
JAMES CITY — Historians have never doubted that the first English settlers to step ashore at Jamestown were heavily armed and armored.
What the colonists' accounts don't tell us, however, was just how pervasive a role these weapons and suits of hammered metal played in the everyday life that followed.
In dig after dig over the past few years, archaeologists exploring early 17th-century sites in southeastern Virginia have turned up unexpectedly large concentrations of rusty, badly fragmented military hardware, suggesting a culture that was far more warlike than previously imagined.
Now, some of those artifacts have been combined in an exhibit with the real thing, providing an eye- opening glimpse at a world so burdened by real and imagined dangers that few of its inhabitants ever strayed far from the means to defend themselves.
"No show like this has been done before because we didn't have the knowledge to do it," says historian Tom Davidson, curator of a new Jamestown Settlement exhibit called "Arms & Armor of 17th-Century Virginia."
"But we've made such enormous progress in recent years in understanding the material culture of this period that we've come to anticipate finding these artifacts. And when you see them here - paired alongside complete pieces borrowed from museums - it personalizes the day-to-day experience of those early Virginia settlers in a way that you just can't get out a book."
Made up of dozens of archaeological specimens unearthed at Jamestown, Kingsmill, the Governor's Land, the Maine and other nearby sites, the collection of artifacts in the exhibit reads like a traveler's guide to the earliest English settlements in Virginia.
And it's that persistent, unexpectedly dense concentration of arms and armor that gives important new meaning to the descriptions of military hardware found in the historical record, Davidson says.
"The Virginia Company talked a lot about defense and - on paper, at least - it provided the colony with a lot of military supplies. But the documents are not detailed," the curator explains.
"Now, the archaeological evidence is telling us that they really did supply the settlers - and it's clear from the specific kinds of arms and armor we're finding that it was a systematic effort. The defense of the colony was a very real and pressing concern."
Each male colonist was issued his own suit of armor, in fact, and though the basic, 6-piece, one- size-fits-all outfit may not have been of top of the line, it still told every settler - gentleman and laborer alike - that he might be called upon to become a soldier.
In the earliest years of James Fort, especially, the settlers were required to gather into a company of war every Saturday for military drills. And the equipment they had was so extensive that Capt. John Smith was able to make the following inventory of arms and armor just before he returned to England in 1609:
"24 peeces of ordnance [artillery], 300 muskets snaphaunces and fire lockes, shot powder and match sufficient; curats [cuirasses or body armor], pikes, swords, and morrions [helmets] more than men."
Some historians have questioned the effectiveness of such Old World armaments in the New World battles the colonists fought with the Powhatan Indians.
Others say that much of it was so outmoded that it would have been virtually useless in Europe, too - and possibly inadequate in repelling any Old World-style attacks launched by Spanish marauders.
The Virginia Company's own records, in fact, seem to support the arguments of critics who have accused its profit-minded London directors of occasional dumping.
"It's most obvious in the area of armor," Davidson says.
"We know that a great deal of chain mail was sent here after the 1622 Anglo-Powhatan War, for example, largely because it had become obsolete in Europe. But most of it was probably never used."
Still, several other types of military equipment - including such staff-mounted weapons as pikes, halberds, poleaxes and bills - remained popular in European warfare long after the Virginia colonists had abandoned them as too unwieldy for frontier fighting.
Though several examples have been uncovered at James Fort, the New Towne section of Jamestown Island and the site of Gov. William Berkeley's home at nearby Greenspring Plantation, these medieval- looking blades had become largely ceremonial here by the 1620s, Davidson says.
Far more effective were the settlers' daggers and swords, which could be deadly in close combat with the lightly armed Powhatans.
Equally important was the snaphaunce musket, which the colonists favored over the cheaper, simpler, yet slower matchlock musket because of its superiority in fending off sudden Indian attacks.
"Both kinds of guns were supplied to the colonists, but it's the snaphaunce mechanism that becomes the weapon of choice," Davidson says.
"It had a quicker firing action than the matchlock did - and you didn't have to keep the match burning all the time in order to be ready to use it."
In addition to displaying archaeological specimens of both kinds of guns, the exhibit includes what Davidson describes as "the best surviving example" of an English snaphaunce musket.
Originally given by King James I to Spanish monarch Felipe III as a peace offering in 1604, the smoothbore fowling piece is on loan from the Patrimonio Nacional in Madrid.
Several other objects, such as a striking suit of tournament armor worn by King Charles I -and an even more elaborate suit owned by Virginia Company treasurer Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton - offer still more examples of high-style military equipment from the period. On loan from the British Royal Armouries, they represent "the top end of armor as art," Davidson says. "But it's not what the Virginia colonists wore."
Most of the earliest settlers buckled on the so- called "pikeman's suit" whenever they gathered for Smith's mandatory drills. Made up of a breastplate, a backplate, two tassets - or metal skirts - to protect the thighs, a gorget to protect the neck and a helmet for the head, this basic set of infantryman's armor was standard issue from the Virginia Company, Davidson says. Gauntlets and small, buckler-style shields sometimes joined the war chests of the colonists, too.
Despite its weight and bulkiness, such protective gear remained in use for years, especially after the disastrous slaughter of about one-third of the settlers during the first Anglo-Powhatan war.
Intent on defending his colony, King James I sent a huge new shipment of arms and armor to Virginia, Davidson says, including obsolete chain mail and other outmoded or ineffective weapons as well as supplies the newly reorganized militia could use.
Though open warfare ceased in 1632, frequent skirmishes took place on the advancing frontier, keeping the colonists on their guard. And it wasn't until mid-century - after donning their armor again for the Powhatan war of 1644-46 - that the colonists finally began to abandon their unwieldy pikeman's suits for good.
"The English armor would stop almost any weapon that the Indians were likely to bring against them. But in frontier warfare, it was just impractical," Davidson says.
"It was hot. It was heavy. It restricted your movement. So it really wasn't what you wanted in the lightning-fast, ambush-style kind of conflicts they faced in Virginia."