Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Skeletal remains let us "map" European settlement in the Chesapeake. During the 17th century, tobacco plantations spread along natural waterways - which were the only practical way to move huge, heavy barrels of dried tobacco, called hogsheads, to port. Until the 1690s, Jamestown and St. Mary's City were the only towns.


Burials and cemeteries can also "chart" social change. Immigrants found upward mobility here, despite the dangers of disease, hunger, and hostilities. Many arrived as indentured servants bound by a contract to work a number of years, afterwards working as tenant farmers who paid rent or a share of the crop. Most who survived eventually owned small or "middling" plantations. Later, as fewer whites were willing to sign indentures, race-based slavery grew. Bones (and the evidence that surrounds them) can often reveal who was a landowner, an indentured servant, or a slave.

About 30,000 to 40,000 American Indians lived along the Chesapeake Bay when English settlers arrived. The largest group, about 14,000, were the Powhatan of Virginia. American Indian populations declined rapidly. By 1669, only about 1,800 Powhatan were still living in Virginia.

In 1613, John Rolfe discovered "gold" in the money to be made from shipping dried tobacco leaves to England. Settlement began to spread beyond the James River to outposts in Tidewater Virginia.

Virginia's colonial population had grown to about 4,000 by 1634, when the colony of Maryland was established. Ten years later, there were 600 colonists in Maryland. By 1670, there were 41,000 Europeans and Africans in the Chesapeake.