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U.K. Excavation May Rewrite U.S. History
Scientists Seek to Identify Leader of Jamestown Colony as Milestone Nears

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 9, 2005; B01

JAMESTOWN, Va. -- Bartholomew Gosnold might have been the founding father of what we now know as the United States, though his name and place in history have been buried in the passage of time and the importance that the swaggering adventurer John Smith attached to himself.

That could change soon.

Two years after stumbling across a grave site holding the bones of a middle-aged man of high rank, archaeologists at the Jamestown settlement are about to learn whether the skeletal remains are Gosnold's. Early next month, they will travel to Britain in search of the answer.

The Church of England has agreed, for the first time in its history, to allow excavation under the floor of a hamlet church where Gosnold's sister is buried, to extract a piece of her remains for DNA analysis. The scientists also might go to a second church, where Gosnold's niece is buried, and descend to the burial vaults to obtain another DNA sample, though permission is pending.

If tests prove that the bones are Gosnold's, his story will be the centerpiece of a new exhibit planned for Jamestown, where Virginia is preparing to mark in 2007 the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America.

"He is the person without which Jamestown would not have happened," said William Kelso, director of archaeology for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. "People talk about American history as if it started with Washington and Jefferson. But Gosnold was our founding grandfather. He's a lost part of American history."

If Gosnold is unknown both in the United States and in England, it is because history belongs to those who shape it.

Proud and boastful, John Smith returned to England and spent the rest of his life talking about his role in helping the small band of settlers survive the rigors of the Virginia colony.

Today, a statue of Smith stands in the center of the old Jamestown fort looking over the James River. There is nothing there to commemorate Gosnold.

Kelso never had heard of Gosnold in 2002, when archaeologists digging a trench in search of the fort's western wall came upon a grave site. The bones were of a 5-foot-5 European man in his mid-thirties who had a robust chest and the beginning stages of arthritis.

Although a coffin had deteriorated, its presence was detected because of numerous iron nails found in the grave. There also was a "leading staff," a spear-tipped ceremonial stick that captains and other luminaries held while reviewing their crews. Clearly, a man of prominence had been buried in the middle of what later was identified as the parade grounds just outside the fort.

Researching the skeleton's identity, Kelso was reading Smith's diaries when a passage leapt out at him. Almost as a parenthetical aside while crowing about his own exploits, Smith wrote that truth be told, "The prime mover of this plantation was Bartholomew Gosnold."

Gosnold was a well-connected Englishman. A descendant of Francis Bacon's, he first crossed the Atlantic in 1602 and landed off the coast of what is now Maine. On that trip, he discovered Cape Cod, named Martha's Vineyard after his daughter and gave his sister's name to Elizabeth Island, where the town of Gosnold now is.

He returned to England, only to sail again in December 1606 as vice admiral aboard the ship Godspeed. It was Gosnold who made plans, secured financing and ordered provisions. But over his objections, the crew disembarked and settled in a secluded swamp along the James River.

Three months later, after overseeing the building of a fort in just 19 days, Gosnold was dead at age 37. It was recorded that he suffered a three-week illness and that when he was buried, all the ordnance in the fort was fired in his honor.

Kelso and his staff narrowed the possible identity of the buried man to Gosnold and two others: Capt. Gabriel Archer, the colony's first secretary, and Sir Fernando Wehnman, master of the fort's ordnance. Archer and Wehnman died in 1610, three years after Gosnold did.

The colonists had to defy orders from England not to bury anyone outside the fort in a false show of strength to the Indians. That is why Kelso has intuited that it must be Gosnold.

"Gosnold was buried with great ceremony, with all the guns going off," he said. "They were saying: 'Maybe we lost our leader, but we're fine.' "

Proving the grave is Gosnold's is another matter. Researchers were unable to trace a direct matriarchal line of Gosnold's descendants to conduct mitochondrial DNA tests. But they did find the presumed burial site of his sister, Elizabeth Tilney. According to her will, she lies next to her husband at the medieval Shelley All Saints church near her home in Suffolk.

When Kelso met a neighbor who is one of six members of the church, he broached the subject of doing DNA tests on her remains.

The request had to go through not only the church members, but also the governing Diocese of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich, which held a public meeting on the matter and consulted a lawyer. There was no opposition, said Nick Clarke, a spokesman for the diocese. The permission to excavate was a first.

"There have been a couple of attempts before to extract DNA from graves in British churches," Clarke said. "Both have been refused at the first stage because the answer to the questions of how they were going to do it and why were not sufficiently thought through. What makes this unique is the argument put forward by Jamestown that there is a good, strong, solid educational reason, and it is being done with a sensible, thoughtful methodology."

British archaeologists will conduct the excavation, scheduled for June 13. Jamestown archaeologists, diocesan officials and members of the parish will observe. The plan is to dislodge the stone atop the grave, remove the dirt and see whether a woman who died in her 70s is buried alongside a man.

The remains will not be removed. Instead, the scientists will take a one-inch wedge from the bones or a tooth from which the DNA can be extracted.

If permission is granted, they will then go on to St. Peter and St. Mary Church in the town of Stowmarket to collect DNA from the burial vault where Katherine Blackerby, Gosnold's niece, is interred.

Clarke, the diocesan spokesman, said the church believes the project could attract more tourists to the town where Gosnold lived in England and to the swampy shore where he died.

"We anticipate an economic spinoff, particularly in and around Suffolk where Gosnold operated and lived," Clarke said. "We hope raising his profile will underline his importance both in America and on this side of the Atlantic."

Until then, the bones of the man presumed to be Bartholomew Gosnold lie in a glass case in a Jamestown laboratory. An English-born lab technician brought a British flag from home and has draped it over the coffin-shaped case in a show of respect.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company