Reconstructing early 17th century estuarine drought conditions from Jamestown oysters

Edited by James P. Kennett, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA, and approved April 28, 2010 (received for review February 1, 2010)
June 1, 2010
107 (23) 10549-10554

Abstract

Oysters (Crassostrea virginica) were a central component of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem in 1607 when European settlers established Jamestown, VA, the first permanent English settlement in North America. These estuarine bivalves were an important food resource during the early years of the James Fort (Jamestown) settlement while the colonists were struggling to survive in the face of inadequate supplies and a severe regional drought. Although oyster shells were discarded as trash after the oysters were eaten, the environmental and ecological data recorded in the bivalve geochemistry during shell deposition remain intact over centuries, thereby providing a unique window into conditions during the earliest Jamestown years. We compare oxygen isotope data from these 17th century oyster shells with modern shells to quantify and contrast estuarine salinity, season of oyster collection, and shell provenance during Jamestown colonization (1609–1616) and the 21st century. Data show that oysters were collected during an extended drought between fall 1611 and summer 1612. The drought shifted the 14 psu isohaline above Jamestown Island, facilitating individual oyster growth and extension of oyster habitat upriver toward the colony, thereby enhancing local oyster food resources. Data from distinct well layers suggest that the colonists also obtained oysters from reefs near Chesapeake Bay to augment oyster resources near Jamestown Island. The oyster shell season of harvest reconstructions suggest that these data come from either a 1611 well with a very short useful period or an undocumented older well abandoned by late 1611.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities staff including W. Kelso, B. Straube, D. Schmidt, D. Givens, M. Gavin, D. Gamble, J. May, and C. Taylor for providing access to the oysters as well as discussions on archaeology and Jamestown with J.M.H. We appreciate the insight and historical perspective offered by M. Nichols (Virginia Institute of Marine Science) on the James River estuary as well as access to some of his original foraminifera core figures. We thank D. Winter and J. Oster (University of California–Davis) for assistance with stable isotope analyses and shell sampling, and M. Southworth and M. Harris (Virginia Institute of Marine Science) for collecting modern oyster and water samples. During a part of this project, H.J.S. was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) while he worked at the Foundation. We thank three anonymous reviewers and W. Kelso and B. Straube for comments that significantly improved the final version of this manuscript. This is Contribution 3093 from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

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Information & Authors

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Published in

Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Vol. 107 | No. 23
June 8, 2010
PubMed: 20534581

Classifications

Submission history

Published online: June 1, 2010
Published in issue: June 8, 2010

Keywords

  1. Chesapeake Bay
  2. Crassostrea virginica
  3. environmental reconstruction
  4. oxygen isotope
  5. scleroarchaeology

Acknowledgments

We are grateful to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities staff including W. Kelso, B. Straube, D. Schmidt, D. Givens, M. Gavin, D. Gamble, J. May, and C. Taylor for providing access to the oysters as well as discussions on archaeology and Jamestown with J.M.H. We appreciate the insight and historical perspective offered by M. Nichols (Virginia Institute of Marine Science) on the James River estuary as well as access to some of his original foraminifera core figures. We thank D. Winter and J. Oster (University of California–Davis) for assistance with stable isotope analyses and shell sampling, and M. Southworth and M. Harris (Virginia Institute of Marine Science) for collecting modern oyster and water samples. During a part of this project, H.J.S. was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) while he worked at the Foundation. We thank three anonymous reviewers and W. Kelso and B. Straube for comments that significantly improved the final version of this manuscript. This is Contribution 3093 from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Notes

*This Direct Submission article had a prearranged editor.

Authors

Affiliations

Juliana M. Harding2,1 [email protected]
Department of Fisheries Science, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William & Mary, Gloucester Point, VA 23062;
Howard J. Spero1
Department of Geology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616; and
Roger Mann
Department of Fisheries Science, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William & Mary, Gloucester Point, VA 23062;
Gregory S. Herbert
Department of Geology, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL 33620
Jennifer L. Sliko
Department of Geology, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL 33620

Notes

2
To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: [email protected].
Author contributions: J.M.H., H.J.S., R.M., and G.S.H. designed research; J.M.H., H.J.S., R.M., G.S.H., and J.L.S. performed research; H.J.S. and G.S.H. contributed new reagents/analytic tools; J.M.H., H.J.S., R.M., G.S.H., and J.L.S. analyzed data; and J.M.H. and H.J.S. wrote the paper.
1
J.M.H. and H.J.S. contributed equally to this work.

Competing Interests

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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    Reconstructing early 17th century estuarine drought conditions from Jamestown oysters
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
    • Vol. 107
    • No. 23
    • pp. 10331-10765

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