Archaeologists Uncover 400-Year-Old Skeleton in Sister Colony to Jamestown

The remains belong to a teenage boy buried at the historic city of St. Mary’s, Maryland’s first capital

Kari Bruwelheide and Douglas Owsley
Kari Bruwelheide (background) and Douglas Owsley (foreground) of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History take measurements of the remains of the 17th-century skeleton.  Craig Hudson / Washington Post via Getty Images

Researchers at Historic St. Mary’s City announced last week that they had unearthed the 400-year-old skeleton of a teenage boy. A statement from the museum and archaeological site suggests that the discovery may constitute one of the oldest burials of a colonist ever found in Maryland.

Travis Parno, acting executive director of Historic St. Mary's City, tells Michael E. Ruane of the Washington Post that this boy was part of the “vanguard of the Colonial invasion,” possibly arriving on one of the first boats to land along the St. Marys River from England in the 1630s.

“It’s a period that we have such little documentation on,” he says. It is crucial “to have the physical remains of a person who was part of that venture, who lived here, briefly, and died here early.”

The fort at St. Mary’s was only unearthed two years ago after nearly a century of searching. According to a 2021 Washington Post story by Ruane, archaeologists had been looking for the fort since the 1930s. The St. Mary's site is a “sister colony” to Jamestown, William M. Kelso, the archaeologist who discovered Jamestown’s lost fort in 1994, told the Post at the time

St. Mary's fort illustration
In 2021, archaeologists uncovered the long lost fort of St. Mary's. This drawing shows what the fort may have looked like.  Jeffrey R. Parno / Historic St. Mary’s City

The city served as the first capital of Maryland and hosted Maryland’s first State House before the capital moved to Annapolis in the 1690s. 

The first group of Europeans to arrive in Maryland included the colony’s first governor, Leonard Calvert, as well as a Catholic priest, Father Andrew White. But none of the evidence from the burial indicates that this boy belonged to a wealthy or prominent family.

“We were intrigued to find a burial that looked like the individual was placed there haphazardly, with his hips cocked out to one side and his arm stretched across his body in an extreme fashion,” Parno told Live Science. “It looked like he was unceremoniously placed or dumped in the grave.”

Based on what researchers found, the teenage boy was most likely a cabin boy on a ship's crew or indentured servant who made the crossing on his own. Kari Bruwelheide, a biological anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, tells the Washington Post that young people and indentured servants were often the ones who received such unceremonious burials.

"This is the face of the English colonists, these first ones, and they are kids, by our standards," Douglas Owsley, a Smithsonian curator of biological anthropology, told the Washington Post.

Owsley, Bruwelheide, and Parno and his team of archaeologists were all involved in the excavation of the skeleton.

Historian Christopher Tomlins estimated early European immigration numbers in a 2001 article for the journal Labor History. He writes that from the beginning of the movement through 1780, roughly 470,000 to 515,000 Europeans crossed the Atlantic to North America. About 54,500 were convicts or prisoners. And of the more than 400,000 others, Tomlins estimates that 48 percent were indentured servants.

The remains of the young man will be taken to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History for further study. Once research is complete, he will be reburied somewhere on the grounds of Historic St. Mary’s City.

In the meantime, researchers hope to use his story to uncover more about the experience of indentured servants in North America. 

“Looking at the grave there is a lot of emotion to it, and you get the sense that someone suffered an unspeakable accident and was buried in a far-off place from his home,” Parno tells Live Science. "Seeing the individual almost face to face has been a profound experience. I'm drawn to want to know more about him, celebrate him and honor him by bringing him some notoriety or attention since he's not the type of person that winds up in history books."

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