Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Special Features

Dead Men's Tales

  What Happened to Jamestown?
Photo of skull from Jamestown
  Scientists can often determine race from the skull's facial characteristics.

In the middle of the James River in Virginia lies Jamestown Island, the site of the first permanent English colony in North America. The English suffered sky-high death rates in the New World. Were they hapless farmers? Beset by disease? Attacked by Indians?

In "What Happened at Jamestown?" Alan joins scientists using natural and man-made evidence to learn all they can about the terrible early days of the colony. Over the course of a three-year dig, archaeologist Bill Kelso uncovered what remained of the fort the colonists built for protection. Butchered horse bones and fragments of weapons within the fort indicate the colonists were starving AND at war with the local Indians. But a man found at the site, dubbed "JR" by forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley, clearly died from a gunshot wound. Whether he accidentally shot himself or was shot by a fellow colonist, JR clearly died at the hands of an English settler because the Indians had no guns at the time. FRONTIERS works with Owsley, Kelso, and an expert in historic firearms to clear up the mystery of "who shot JR?"

photo of Alan at Jamestown
Alan learns about the grim conditions at Jamestown from curator Bly Straube.  

Meanwhile, climatologist David Stahle turns to the thousand-year-old cypress trees near Jamestown to find out why the settlers starved in a region that would later flourish agriculturally. Core samples from the venerable trees reveal that the area experienced the worst drought in 700 years between 1607 and 1612, just when the settlers were making their start. Little wonder the English suffered from bad water and the Indians had no corn to trade.


For more on this topic, see the web features:
Pocahontas and Jamestown
Lessons from the Past

return to show page




What Happened at Jamestown?Time TravelersA Texan Tall TaleThe Real Pyramid BuildersCity of Gold Contact Search Homepage Teaching guide Science hotline video trailer Resources