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Jamestown's First Lady Volume 52 Number 2, March/April 1999
by Elizabeth J. Himelfarb

[image] Mistress Forrest (Courtesy APVA) [LARGER IMAGE]

Excavation at Jamestown has unearthed the burial of one of the New World's first English female colonists and, as such, one of the earliest women settlers in the New World. The remains are thought to be those of Mistress Forrest, who came to Jamestown in 1608 with her husband and her maid, Anne Burras, who later bore Jamestown's first child. The woman was buried within the walls of James Fort, where the immigrants lived. She was a diminutive 4'8" tall and about 35 years old when she died with only five teeth in her mouth; the cause of her death is unknown. A single shroud pin was the only artifact in her grave.

The skeleton was poorly preserved and the skull fragile, so the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) commissioned a CAT scan of the skull that was used to create a three-dimensional model, enabling sculptor-anthropologist Sharon Long to re-create the face. Using an index factoring age, ethnicity, and other characteristics to estimate tissue thickness at different points on the skull, Long crafted a clay model, then a plaster cast. She studied contemporary European portraits to re-create skin coloring. "This is where science and history get personal," says APVA's William Kelso.

Corroborating archaeologists' belief that the skeleton is that of a new arrival, stable isotope analysis, which can help determine a person's diet from the ratios of two carbon isotopes in bone collagen, has revealed that Old World wheat rather than New World corn was her primary source of sustenance.

Documentary sources including the diaries of John Smith, president of the colony in 1608 and 1609, indicate that Forrest and Burras may have been the only two women at Jamestown until 1609. Artifacts (including English pottery and glass) in strata related to the burial date the remains to around 1608. Two factors point to Forrest. First, Burras is known to have been alive as late as 1625. Second, the body was buried in a gabled coffin, a status symbol common in England at the time.

According to Tim Kolly of APVA, no one was astonished to find burials within the walls of the fort; within a few months of the earliest arrival at Jamestown, all but 33 of the 104 members of the first wave were dead. Some, no doubt, died of starvation, some as a result of hostilities with Native Americans, and some, perhaps, of drought, if theories that there was salt in the wells are correct. (See "Colonial Dry Spell," September/October1998.) Some, Kelso suggests, may even have been victims of civil unrest: only feet away from the burial identified as Mistress Forrest's are the remains of the seventeenth-century victim of a bullet wound. That skeleton has been tentatively identified as that of Stephen Calthrop, who was involved in a mutiny attempt en route to the New World.

While the details of Forrest's death may never be known, Archaeologists are searching English baptismal records for Mistress Forrest's ancestry and place of birth.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America