Hearing testimony of bones; Archaeology: Remains of the 'first lady' of Jamestown, Va., known officially as object JR156C, are studied by scientists at the Smithsonian Institution.


WASHINGTON -- America's "first lady," who lived at England's first permanent settlement in North America nearly four centuries ago, is spending the holidays at the Smithsonian Institution, where scientists are carefully examining her bones for traces of disease.

She was given the title "first lady" by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, which owns the Jamestown., Va., site and recently announced that it had identified her remains as those of a "Mistress Forrest," wife of "Thomas Forrest, Gentleman," one of the first colonists to come to what is now the United States.

"We believe she is the first woman to come to Jamestown," said Nicholas Luccketti, senior archaeologist for the preservation association's Jamestown Rediscovery Project.

The colony was first established in May 1607 by 104 men and boys, more than half of whom died the first year from a variety of diseases, malnutrition, exposure and Indian attacks.

Ships from England resupplied the struggling little colony on Virginia's James River in early 1608, bringing a few more males, but it was not until the "Second Supply" landed in October 1608 that the first women arrived -- Mistress Forrest and her maid, Anne Burras.

It could be argued that Burras might have been the first woman, depending on which of them set foot first in the colony, but servants seldom preceded their mistresses in those times and, under the rigid strictures of the British class system, only Forrest, as a "gentleman's" wife, could be termed a "lady."

The colonists were said to be distressed by the "Second Supply's" new arrivals, more than half of whom were gentlemen, rather than hardy workers who could survive in the wild and knew how to produce food.

The archaeologists are certain the skeletal remains do not belong to the maid.

According to Luccketti, Burras married colonist John Leydon, gave birth to the first child born at Jamestown and moved to a later settlement called Elizabeth City, on the site of what is now Newport News, Va., where she was listed as still living in the Colonial census of 1625.

Forrest did not fare so well. "She died soon after arriving," Luccketti said. "The mortality rate was pretty horrendous."

The Smithsonian team, led by anthropologist Douglas Owsley, is attempting to determine her cause of death, which Luccketti said may well have been salt poisoning.

Jamestown colonists perished from a lot of diseases, including a deadly "Bloody Flux" dysentery caused by drinking sewage-tainted ground water, but there was also widespread poisoning from drinking the brackish river water.

"The symptoms the colonists described in their accounts are very comparable to salt poisoning," Luccketti said.

The identification of Forrest, officially known as archaeological object JR156C, was made by dating artifacts at the gravesite to the year 1608. The woman's social rank was clear from the elaborate pinewood coffin she was buried in, which would not have been used for a servant.

No remnants of clothing were found. The early colonists were buried naked or wrapped in shrouds. "Clothing then was too valuable to bury with the dead," Luccketti said.

Smithsonian isotope analysis also determined her diet was wheat rather than corn, which marked her as a woman high on the food chain and a recent arrival from England, he said.

According to Owsley's analysis, she was Caucasian, 4 feet 8 inches tall and about 35 years old. "That was very old in those days," Luccketti said.

Using a CAT scan and computer generation, sculptor/anthropologist Sharon Long was able to reconstruct Forrest's skull and facial features.

Forrest's remains were discovered some months ago by preservation association staffer Jamie May as part of an ongoing archaeological dig at the historic site led by the association's chief archaeologist, Dr. William Kelso.

Previously, Kelso had refused to accept the National Park Service's long-held belief that the colony's original site had been flooded over by the James River centuries ago. Digging on higher ground where he thought it more likely for the enclosure to have been built, Kelso discovered not only the remains of the original walls and fortifications but hundreds of priceless artifacts.

Nothing more is known about Mistress Forrest, but a more intriguing mystery for the archaeologists is the identity of a male skeleton found buried a few feet away.

There is a large hole through one shoulder blade that appears to have been caused by a weapon, and a musket ball and pieces of buckshot were removed from the skeleton's knee.

It was initially thought the bones were those of a high-ranking Jamestown official in his mid-20s, Capt. George Kendall, whom some colonists accused of being a Spanish spy. But Owsley's analysis determined the relic is that of a younger man of about 19, possibly Stephen Calthrop, who took part in an unsuccessful mutiny against the Jamestown leadership led by Capt. John Smith of Pocahontas fame.

The Indian princess' grave is not at Jamestown. She married colonist John Rolfe and returned to England with him. Swapping places with Forrest, she died from an English disease for which she had no immunity and is buried at Gravesend, England.

Pub Date: 01/10/99

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad