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  • Articles of Exchange or Ingredients of New World Metallurgy?An Examination of the Industrial Origins and Metallurgical Functions of Scrap Copper at Early Jamestown (c. 1607–17)
  • Carter C. Hudgins

Soon after their arrival on the coasts of Virginia in the spring of 1607, the settlers of Jamestown began to trade copper with the local Powhatan Indians in exchange for foodstuffs. Captain John Smith noted during his first days in Virginia that the natives were "covetous of coppeer, beads & such like trash"1 and "with careless kindness off'red us pieces of bread and small handfuls of beans or wheat for a hatchet or a piece of copper."2 Such bartering was made possible by the recently established English knowledge of the Indians and the value they placed on copper. Attempts to form a settlement in modern-day North Carolina during the 1580s brought English colonists into contact with the indigenous peoples of eastern North America, and through these encounters the English were exposed to the natives' desire to trade for copper. As Ralph Lane wrote Richard Hakluyt the elder in 1585 from Roanoke Island, [End Page 32] the Indians are "naturaly most curteous & very desirous to have clothes, but especially of course cloth rather than silke, course canuas they also like wel of, but copper carieth ye priece of all."3 Having read or heard of such experiences, John Smith and the other settlers of early Jamestown came to Virginia equipped with copper and were prepared to trade with the locals for items such as corn, venison, fish, and fowl.4

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Figure 1.

A collection of the scrap sheet copper uncovered from Jamestown c. 1607–15. Photograph by Michael Lavin.

Present-day archaeological excavations of the site of Jamestown have yielded more than eight thousand pieces of copper5 and much of this material [End Page 33] appears to be scrap sheet metal associated with the recurrent cutting of circular and square geometric shapes. The physical characteristics of these finds, in conjunction with the firsthand accounts from Jamestown concerning the trading of copper, have led scholars to theorize that the pieces of copper uncovered at Jamestown are either trade objects produced by the English settlers for exchange with the Powhatan Indians or off-cuts left over from the fabrication of such items.6 Many of these artifacts—especially those examples that appear to be rolled copper beads and instances of flat sheet metal with holes pierced for probable use as pendants—were undoubtedly associated with the English and Powhatan trade. Through an investigation of contemporary manuscripts and scientific analysis, however, this study will show that the majority of Jamestown's copper is more likely manufacturing waste from England, which was supplied to the Virginia Company to assist in its colony's search for and extraction of profitable New World commodities.

The Virginia Company of London, the organization responsible for the initial settlement of Jamestown, was established in 1606 as a joint stock company whose primary goal was financial gain.7 Along with a desire to find a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean, the sponsors of the company hoped to profit by exploiting the natural resources of Virginia. Not surprisingly, they hoped to find precious metals such as gold and silver from which the Spanish had profited so handsomely in the New World, but they also sought to discover sources of more mundane materials that England had to import from foreign countries.8 The Virginia Company records demonstrate that its investors anticipated finding a wide range of commodities in Virginia that were [End Page 34] scarce in England, everything from minerals and medicinal herbs to valuable plant and naval stores,9 and the eyewitness accounts from Jamestown suggest that a gamut of artisans were accordingly sent to Virginia in 1606 to capitalize on the treasures of the New World.10

What follows is an examination of the scrap copper recently excavated from the site of early Jamestown (c. 1607–17), which exposes the role that this metal played in the colony's efforts to profit from the resources of the New World. By identifying the industrial origins and metallurgical functions of Jamestown...


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