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Unearthing Secret America

What Happened at Jamestown?  
Photo of  Jamestown settlement

The remains of the original Jamestown Fort, illustrated here, were lost until uncovered by Bill Kelso in 1994.

In the middle of Virginia's James River lies Jamestown Island, the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America. The colonists aimed to farm and to trade copper jewelry for corn from the local Indians, yet they suffered crippling death rates. Were they hapless farmers? Beset by disease? Attacked by Indians? At war with themslves? In "What Happened at Jamestown?", Alda meets two scientists on the case

Archeologist Bill Kelso uncovered the outlines of the original fort the colonists built soon after they arrived in 1607. Butchered horse bones and weapon fragments indicate the colonists were starving and at war with the local Indians. But the remains of a man dubbed "JR" by Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Doug Owsley show the settler clearly died from a gunshot wound -- at the hands of an Englishman, too. They were the only people with guns at that time. Owsley uses his expertise to read the bones and figure out "Who shot JR?"

Photo of  tree rings from  1587

Tree-ring width reveals annual rainfall. These cypress date back to the Jamestown settlement, which happened to coincide with the worst drought in 700 years.


Meanwhile, climatologist David Stahle turns to thousand-year-old cypress trees to figure out why the settlers starved in a region that would later flourish agriculturally. Core samples from the venerable trees provide an accurate record of annual rainfall spanning centuries into the past. Stahle finds that the region's worst drought in 700 years occurred between 1607 and 1612. Little wonder the Indians wouldn't trade for corn.

For more on this topic, see the web feature:
Lessons from the Past
Digging for Clues

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