Sunday, July 3, 2022

Governor’s Land Hosts Reburial Ceremony for Body of Early Settler

The main dining room at Two Rivers Country Club was packed for Saturday's luncheon and education program about the archaeological finds at Governor's Land. (Courtesy Governor's Land Foundation)
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More than 20 years after it was first disinterred during an archaeological survey of the land that now makes up Governor’s Land at Two Rivers, the body of an early female settler was returned to its final resting place over the weekend.

The Virginia Society of the Order of Founders and Patriots of America and the Governor’s Land Foundation joined forces Saturday to host a reburial ceremony and educational program on the archaeological findings on the property now occupied by Two Rivers Country Club and golf course.

The day began with a luncheon for the invited guests, many of whom belong to local historical societies or the Governor’s Land Heritage Committee.

After the luncheon, a number of speakers took to the podium to share the history behind the reburial, beginning with how settlers first came to the site.

The body that was reburied Saturday was one of four found during a 1990 survey of the area that is now the first fairway on the golf course at Two Rivers Country Club.

Nicholas Luccketti, a principal archaeologist at the James River Institute for Archaeology and one of the speakers at Saturday’s program, was among those leading the survey, which covered parts of the land now occupied by the country club and golf course.

Luccketti and his team were interested in identifying areas of historical interest to explore before the land was disturbed during the construction of the club and golf course. Historical records indicate the place where the Chickahominy and James rivers meet – the feature from which “Two Rivers” draws its name – was the site of both American Indian villages and English settlements, making it of great interest for archaeological study.

Archaeologists identified the site of a Pasbehay Indian village near the river’s edge and an English settlement just up the hill from that, Governor’s Land Heritage Committee member Jessica Sapalio said.

The area where the bodies were found was once part of the Whittaker Settlement, which Captain Jabez Whittaker founded on behalf of the Virginia Company, Sapalio said.

The historical record indicates Whittaker was deployed from Jamestown in late 1619 in order to find a suitable site for a settlement of indentured servants whose wages would be paid back to the company.

Whittaker settled on a site “some fower miles from James City westward towarde the mouthe of the Chickahominie river,” according to his writings to the Virginia Company.

A number of structures were built and the land was settled and seemingly prosperous, but that prosperity was apparently short-lived. In 1622, the Powhatan Indians launched a broad attack on outlaying settlements; after that, the site appears to have been abandoned.

It was not until Bridges Freeman, a former resident of the Whittaker settlement turned into a prosperous member of the House of Burgesses and colonial leader, patented the land and established his home there in 1630 that life returned to the site.

The settler who was reinterred Saturday is thought to have been an early resident on the Freeman Plantation.

Though virtually nothing is known of her identity, extensive study at the Smithsonian over the past 25 years has allowed experts to cobble together some basic knowledge of this anonymous individual.

Forensic information suggests the settler was in her early 20s when she died, and she was likely used to performing heavy labor. Her cause of death is undetermined.

Luccketti and two of his colleagues – Dr. Garrett Fesler, an archaeologist and managing partner with the James River Institute, and Dr. Beverly Straube, a curator with the Jamestown Rediscovery Project – delivered brief presentations about the history of the site and other artifacts that were found during digs on Governor’s Land.

“This is one of the most historically rich areas in the U.S.,” Luccketti said.

Fesler said there is much left to be discovered, as only a fraction of the 3,000-acre community has been explored by archaeologists.

“I think it’s high time we consider going back to what we didn’t get to [during the digs in the 1990s],” Fesler said. “Because Governor’s Land has been such a good steward, we have the opportunity [to continue excavation].”

Luccketti echoed this sentiment, suggesting it would be possible to use updated technology to search the site for artifacts without disrupting the community.

Of particular interest is revisiting the site of the earliest slave quarters in English America, which were only partially excavated by Fesler and his team during the 1990 dig.

“This is the earliest site in African American history. It is African America’s Jamestown,” Fesler said. “We know there are some more buildings that we mapped out but have not excavated. It’s like a unopened gift.”

Fesler and Luccketti are hopeful that some fundraising can be done soon to get another round of exploration started, and they believe events like Saturday’s ceremony are a great way to reach out to a captive audience of history enthusiasts who might be able to help them reach this goal.

At the conclusion of the luncheon portion, event attendees made the short walk from the clubhouse over to the first fairway where the reburial ceremony took place.

Though the body was not returned to exactly the same spot it was found, Rev. Dr. James Henry performed a reading from the 1607 Book of Common Prayer in order to keep the ceremony authentic to the one the settler probably would have had four centuries ago.

The program concluded with remarks from members of local historical societies who can trace their ancestry to colonists whose lives may have intersected with that of the female settler being honored, followed by a laying of wreaths ceremony.

Though the other three bodies found at the same burial site are still being studied at the Smithsonian, Sapalio is hopeful they too will eventually return home to be laid to rest.

“It’s wonderful we can learn so much about our history and contribute to science but also be respectful,” she said of the need to honor the deceased settlers.

The Smithsonian has also made provisions for a future in which new technology or information arises that moves researchers to revisit these burials. Forensic experts there have returned the settler’s remains in a coffin that will help preserve them for possible study by future generations wishing to learn more about the people who walked Governor’s Land hundreds of years ago.

“These four early settler are some of the earliest forbearers we have,” Fesler said. “They planted the seeds from which we grew.”

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