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Colonial Tough Guys

By Jocelyn Selim
Feb 1, 2003 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:30 AM


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A cache of armor from the earliest days of the Jamestown colony suggests the first British settlers in North America put up a better fight than most historians give them credit for. Textbooks emphasize the rapid initial failure of the settlement, established in 1607 on an island in Virginia's James River. "By the second winter, only 60 of the original 215 settlers had survived the Indian attacks, famine, and disease," says Bill Kelso, director of archaeology for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. "But we're finding these guys weren't quite gentleman dandies who sat around waiting to get killed." After the initial losses, the remaining settlers quickly learned to jettison their European manners and armor, judging from Kelso's recent excavation. His team found an assortment of body armor, swords, and a helmet that had evidently been discarded. "The natives wouldn't have fought in nice orderly marching lines, so the settlers would have adapted similar guerrilla tactics that made the heavy traditional European armor more hindrance than help," says Kelso. Archaeologists have also recovered lightweight, arrow-proof vests constructed by chopping armor into pieces and threading it back together. Such innovations helped the colonists survive repeated attacks until supply ships arrived. "The Jamestown colonists arrived in stiff armor and then adapted it to suit their needs, much as they did with government and with the language. It's a little insight into how and when Englishmen became Americans," says Kelso.

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