Image: Tobacco seed
College Of William &Amp; Mary Applie
Looking like a jigsaw puzzle, this tiny 400-year-old uncharred tobacco seed, shown magnified 350 times, is the oldest tobacco seed discovered at an English Colonial site and may possibly represent the earliest attempts to cultivate tobacco at Jamestown, Va.
updated 1/9/2007 3:47:11 PM ET 2007-01-09T20:47:11

Seeds and plant remains preserved in a well at America's first permanent English settlement suggest the Jamestown colonists were not just gentlemen with few wilderness survival skills, as they are often portrayed, but tried to live off the land by gathering berries and nuts.

At least one tobacco seed — possibly representing the earliest known evidence of the cultivation at Jamestown of the cash crop that helped the settlement survive financially — was also discovered among samples from the 17th-century well.

Archaeobotanist Steve Archer will include results of his microscopic analysis of the plant matter in presentations at the Society of Historical Archaeology conference that begins Wednesday in Williamsburg.

"This little, tiny sample indicates there was some experimenting going on with New World plants," Archer, of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the College of William and Mary, said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

While more research needs to be done elsewhere at Jamestown, the lack of plant material from Europe in this well suggests the settlers adapted to the environment by using local food resources as they learned what was edible from their contact with Indians, Archer said.

"It's not a mega-breakthrough into the history" of Jamestown, William Kelso, director of archaeology at the Historic Jamestowne site, said Tuesday. "But I think it does show the old story that they were gentlemen here who didn't have a clue how to survive in the wilderness ... that's not the whole story. It was a mix."

Jamestown was founded as a business venture in May 1607, with settlers encountering harsh conditions including severe drought, famine and disease. An 18-month series of events commemorating the settlement's 400th anniversary is under way.

Colonists built the 6-foot-square (0.56 sq. meters), 15-foot-deep (4.5-meter) well after 1610 in a corner of Jamestown's triangular fort. When it no longer was used for water, settlers filled the well with trash and then built an addition to the governor's house over it in 1617, sealing everything inside until archaeologists began excavating it in 2005.

The seed study, funded by National Geographic Magazine, identified remains of more than 30 different plant species.

Seeds from blueberries were the most commonly found. Other evidence of wild food colonists gathered included blackberries, huckleberries, persimmons, passion fruit, cherries, grapes, hickory nuts, beech nuts and walnuts.

Tobacco seeds rarely are found at archaeological sites because of their size — smaller than a coarse grain of pepper — and dry burial conditions, Archer said, but the well's watery, oxygen-deprived environment preserved one tobacco seed in excellent condition.

Two other seeds also could be tobacco but are charred, possibly from being smoked in a pipe, he said.

Archer said DNA testing to try to identify the species of tobacco might answer questions about the timing of Jamestown's transition from the native tobacco species, Nicotiana rustica, which produced a harsh smoke, to the more desirable South American species, Nicotiana tabacum.

Colonist John Rolfe, who arrived at Jamestown in 1610, successfully experimented with cultivating tobacco and somehow obtained seeds for the South American species although Spain had declared anyone selling the seeds to a non-Spaniard would be put to death. Rolfe's efforts made tobacco a thriving cash crop.

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