The Atlantic reports on this mystery. It’s definitely worth a read:
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
The finding is a historical bombshell, unearthed in a grave on the site of what was once the first church built at Jamestown. Which means researchers may have just discovered proof of an underground community of Catholics—including Archer and perhaps the person who buried him with the relic—who pretended to be Protestants.
“The first settlers there were mostly members of the Church of England,” said James O’Toole, a history professor at Boston College who focuses on the roots of American Catholicism. “While they didn’t have the same active hostility to Catholics that the slightly later Puritan colonists in New England did, they were not particularly welcoming to Catholics. If there were Catholics in Tidewater Virginia … that would be news.”
It’s the kind of discovery that makes historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and other academics giddy with curiosity. But it raises even bigger questions, too—ideas that could rewrite our understanding of the intersection of religious and cultural identities in colonial America.
The English settlement of the New World is most often remembered as a Protestant endeavor. But if indeed there were Catholics at Jamestown, then, from the very beginning, it was a project pursued by those of multiple faiths, seeking new opportunities.
“There is this sense that American Catholic history begins in the 19th century with a wave of immigrants from Germany and Ireland in the 1820s and 1830s, but there is a history of earlier Catholicism,” said Maura Jane Farrelly, an associate professor of American studies at Brandeis University. “What’s captivating about it is the notion of the secretive nature. If he’s secretly Catholic, what does that faith mean to him that he’s willing to hold onto it even though it’s dangerous?”
“We have been finding bits and pieces of rosaries and crucifixes and other things that obviously were Catholic.”
The Atlantic does a nice job. I did, however, read one take from another publication that said that what was stunning about this is that it’s been believed that Jamestown settlers were here just to get rich and didn’t care all that much about religion. Who thought that?
Some of the more interesting angles from articles I’ve read is that if Archer was a closet Catholic, then that might explain why he so often opposed John Smith. Maybe it doesn’t. Or does the discovery show that at the time much of Catholicism was still very accepted among Church of England adherents. I don’t know. But this kind of discovery could make historians look more closely at the beliefs and actions of early settlers.