Unearthing Jamestown's mysteries





In the basement of the largest of the mud buildings built by the Jamestown colonists starting in 1607, archaeologists stumbled on a mystery. Postholes suggested that there had been a small room under the wooden stairs, while charcoal on the floor plus clay walls that had turned red from heat indicated a fire had once burned there. But there was no evidence of a flue. Stumped by why anyone would be so foolhardy as to have roaring flames in an unventilated space, the researchers then remembered something from the writings of John Smith, who for a time led the Jamestown colony.

Smith described putting an Indian in a “dungeon” to make his brother return a stolen pistol by dawn the next day—or face execution. By the time the brother returned with the pistol, however, the captive was unconscious. The brother furiously accused Smith of double-crossing him, but Smith offered him a deal: if he would promise to never again steal firearms, he would restore the brother to life. A stiff drink did the trick—and the archeology suggests how Smith brought the Indian back from the dead: the captive had been knocked unconscious by carbon monoxide poisoning from the unventilated fire, a state that can sometimes be reversed with a liquid stimulant.


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