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August 17, 2015 | Volume 90 Number 21


photo: A replica of the Susan Constant, the largest of the three ships that brought Captain Gabriel Archer, Captain John Smith and Christopher Newport to the New World in 1607. It is currently moored off Jamestown Island where a recent discovery in a grave is asking new questions about the role of Catholics at the first permanent English settlement in America.

A replica of the Susan Constant, the largest of the three ships that brought Captain Gabriel Archer, Captain John Smith and Christopher Newport to the New World in 1607. It is currently moored off Jamestown Island where a recent discovery in a grave is asking new questions about the role of Catholics at the first permanent English settlement in America.

Jamestown discovery invites new look at first Catholics in Virginia

J amestown, 1607. Long known as the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, this venture by the Virginia Company of London also landed and firmly ensconced the first of the Protestant religions (Church of England) in America. This effort by the English, along with an unsuccessful attempt to settle Roanoke Island in North Carolina in 1585, did not go unnoticed by Europe’s other major powers at the time, most notable among them being Spain, which had settled St. Augustine, Florida in 1565.

Fast forward to 2013.

While excavating around the footprint of the first Jamestown church — discovered in 2011 — researchers from the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation came upon four skeletons, the remains being significant in relation to the old foundation as they were located in the former church’s chancel, a place near the altar typically reserved for prominent leaders and noblemen.

Last month, with the help of forensic archaeologists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the remains were identified, with an “80 percent” degree of certainty, as four leaders of the earliest period of Jamestown.

Two sets of remains have been identified as Captain William West and Sir Ferdinando Wainman, both men having arrived with Lord De La Warr on his voyage to Virginia in 1610. The King of England had appointed De La Warr governor of Virginia (at the time a much larger land mass than the current state). He was tasked with sorting out and exploiting by all possible means the New World’s treasures, ensuring Jamestown’s sustainability and permanence.

De La Warr’s expedition came upon the scene in June, 1610 just as the settlement’s remnant population, having endured the terrible winter of 1609-10 known as the “starving time,” were abandoning Jamestown Island and sailing for fishing grounds near Nova Scotia in the hopes of catching a ship back to England. The departing settlers had even debated whether to torch Jamestown in their wake. The fort was spared.

Meeting four pitifully small boats packed with Jamestown survivors at the mouth of the James River, De La Warr promptly identified himself and his authority and ordered the reluctant colonists to reverse direction and return to the fort.

Already in the ground by this time were the two skeletons later discovered alongside Captain West and Sir Wainman. Researchers have identified one as The Reverend Robert Hunt, a member of the 1607 voyage to Jamestown and the settlement’s first minister, buried in 1608.

And then there are the mortal remains declared as those belonging to Captain Gabriel Archer, a fellow member with Reverend Hunt of the first expedition and considered by history to have been a rival of the renowned Captain John Smith. Archer died during the “starving time,” and was interred next to Reverend Hunt’s body as the second grave in the chancel. The controversy begins 400 years later, not with Archer’s identification, but with what was discovered in the grave alongside his body. More on that in a moment.

While the trials between the Jamestown settlers and the Native Algonquian peoples of Virginia led by Wahunsenacawh (Chief Powhatan) are well-documented in Virginia’s illustrious history, the rivalry between Protestant England and Catholic Spain over the New World is less written about today.

For the first voyage in 1607 led by Christopher Newport, the Virginia Company stipulated the fort be sited far enough upriver from the mouth of the Chesapeake to allow for “fifty tuns” of ship to anchor, and the river to be narrow enough for arms to be brought to bear on any enemy from both banks of the waterway. The fact that the eventual site, Jamestown Island, was mosquito infested bottom land saturated and surrounded by brackish water played less of a role than its strategic position on the river to defend against enemy ships coming from the sea. Nearly all consideration was given to defending the settlement against the Spanish. That nation, however, already knew the region, having poked and prodded along the shores of the mid-Atlantic states since 1526.

The Spanish referred to the Chesapeake as “Saint Mary’s Bay, or the “Bay of the Mother of God” and it was here in September, 1570 they landed a Jesuit mission of ten souls led by the first vice-provincial of the Society of Jesus in Florida, Father Baptista de Segura, S.J.

Father Segura and his fellow missionaries included one additional priest, Father Luís de Quirós, S.J., three brothers, three lay catechists and a teenage altar boy, Alonso de Olmos.

With the nine Spaniards was their “converted” Algonquian Indian interpretor and guide, Don Luís de Velasco (Paquiquineo being his Indian name) who was returning home after spending ten years with the Europeans.

photo: A woodcut showing the killing of the Jesuit missionaries in February, 1571 by Paquiquineo (Don Luís). Father Baptista de Segura and eight members of his mission built the first Christian place of worship in Virginia. With their passing it was thought the early Catholic footprint in Virginia had been erased.

Hewing a small chapel and additional sleeping quarters from logs, the mission erected the first Christian place of worship in Virginia. Relations with the Native Americans were warm at first, with Don Luís acting as an intermediary. But after only five days Luís decided to return to his tribal traditions and journeyed a “day and a half” back to his home village. Obligation to two very different worlds of discipline and expectation was likely more than Don Luís was able to handle.

In February, 1571 after two attempts by Father Segura to contact Don Luís went unanswered, the Jesuit sent Father Quirós with two brothers to find the Indian and encourage his return to the mission. The effort ended when the three ambassadors and later the mission itself were attacked by Don Luís and his fellow warriors. Only Alonso the boy was spared. Alonso was later delivered safely back to his countrymen after the Spanish mounted a military expedition to find him and Don Luís. The Indian, it appears, escaped from both the Spanish and the history books.

Thus ended the Catholic footprint in Virginia for the next 100 years. Or did it? A clue may be a small casket-shaped silver box, buried along with Jamestown’s Captain Gabriel Archer.

As the archeologists dug deeper they discovered the silver reliquary next to the lower portion of Archer’s left leg. 400 years of corrosion had welded it shut, but the box’s silver skin had preserved a remnant of Archer’s wooden coffin beneath it and now ignites a mystery as to whether Archer himself, a prominent leader of the Jamestown settlement, was a “crypto-Catholic” secretly loyal to the Catholic faith.

A micro CT scan of the box revealed it to contain seven fragments of bone, assumed to be human, and two lead ampulla, small flasks used to hold liquids such as holy water, oil or even blood. Such containers would be more associated with the Catholic faith as the origins of this 4th Century tradition pre-date Protestantism.

Getting to the truth may come to mean rewriting the narrative on America’s earliest intermingling of faiths. Researchers are in the middle of trying to sort out the history from the facts on the ground. What is known is Gabriel Archer was the son of recusants, Roman Catholics who refused to recognize the Church of England.

There is also the mystery as to who buried the silver box with Archer. It must be assumed that person understood the significance of the container. Were there other secret Catholics among the Jamestown settlers? Rosary beads and other distinctly Catholic relics have been found, although their origins remain in question.

Archer died during the Starving Time, prompting the last desperate act — the attempt to abandon Jamestown just before Lord De La Warr’s arrival. If all was thought lost, maybe the revelation of one’s faith was an urgent call for the greater salvation of all.

More on the mystery as it develops.

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