Published: May 2007
What would you take to the New World?
Artifacts unearthed at Jamestown reveal the lives of the colonists who arrived there in 1607 on the riskiest of ventures.
By Karen E. Lange
National Geographic Staff

They must have known the odds were against them. Before the English sailed to Virginia in the early 1600s, every previous European attempt to colonize the coast between Nova Scotia and Florida met with disaster. And yet the Virginia Company's London investors found thousands willing to take the chance. As they packed their bags, the colonists imagined long lives ahead of them in a comfortable and prosperous colony: Gentlemen tucked pewter flagons into their sea chests, along with irons for pressing ruffles into their collars. Maids filled trunks with petticoats and sheets. One colonist brought a set of porcelain cups, another a miniature windmill for diversion. Their ships were filled with crates of hoes and axes, boxes of muskets and armor, and equipment for turning a profit: jars to collect medicinal plants, crucibles for manufacturing glass, and stills to refine that most sought after discovery—gold.

It didn't take long for the settlers' early dreams to evaporate. One after another, business schemes failed, and those who had envisioned riches turned to praying for survival. Many colonists perished within months of stepping ashore. Three out of four who came to Jamestown between 1607 and 1624 died from disease, hunger, and conflict with the Indians.

Until recently, their tales were told only through written accounts of a literate few. Since 1994, Historic Jamestowne archaeologists led by William Kelso have dug up a fuller story: a million artifacts that reveal in minute detail the lives and deaths of settlers, both elite and ordinary, as they struggled to establish a colony that would become the first permanent English settlement in North America—and the birthplace of the United States.

"It's like finding a lost letter from the past," says curator Bly Straube. Little by little, the things the colonists brought with them across the Atlantic joined their bodies in Virginia's strange soil, buried testaments to the hope with which they embarked on an all too perilous journey.