Chemistry at Jamestown, Virginia

National Historic Chemical Landmark

Dedicated October 10, 2007, at Historic Jamestowne, Virginia.

Commemorative Booklet (PDF)

Recent archaeological evidence reveals early Virginia, which included both the Roanoke and Jamestown colonies, as the birthplace of the American chemical enterprise. Chemical processes first applied experimentally at Roanoke were re-introduced at Jamestown twenty years later. Collectively, the chemical investigations which began in Virginia, which were impelled by the demands of trade, constituted the beginning of industrial production for domestic and foreign consumption. ACS designated the birth of the American chemical enterprise at Jamestown as a National Historic Chemical Landmark on October 10, 2007, part of the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.



The American chemical enterprise was characterized by the search for and application of native resources to European metallurgy, pharmacology, and perfumery. Following the closure of Jamestown as Virginia's capital in 1699, these chemical activities moved to Williamsburg, the new capital, where they continued and proliferated. By then, several other English settlements from the modern Carolinas to Maine had been established. As these English colonies proliferated along the Atlantic seaboard during the 17th century following Jamestown, a similar pattern of application of European technologies to indigenous raw materials appeared. Based on local resources, these settlements established their own chemical works and traded with sister colonies for American-manufactured chemical products. The early Virginia settlement at Jamestown, however, represents the first appearance of European chemical processes (as applied to local resources) at a permanent colony.

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Colonial Virginia: Origins of the American Chemical Enterprise

It is difficult to separate the history of Jamestown from the myths obscuring the first successful English settlement in the Americas. The most enduring story surrounds Pocahontas saving the life of Captain John Smith. Popular history also has it that a few decades before Jamestown, in what is now North Carolina, the fledgling Roanoke colony, an English settlement of over 100 men, women, and children, disappeared, a mystery that remains unsolved.

Scholarship supported many of these myths, the most important of which held the settlers in both Roanoke and Jamestown underestimated the new environment. Further, the conventional view maintained that ill-prepared colonists sailed to America to undertake a reckless and ultimately failed search for gold or other riches. Indeed, accounts from early Jamestown note that most of the colony had gone crazy with its "gilded refiners" and their "golden promises." Historians have often concluded that the London-based management of the Virginia colony, in its pursuit of economic exploitation of the New World, simply miscalculated based on ignorance and greed.

A new narrative has emerged to challenge these assumptions. The evidence comes from archaeological excavations at both Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, location of a fort built by Roanoke colonists, and Jamestown National Historic Site and Historic Jamestowne, the two adjacent modern properties occupying ground along the James River in Virginia. These properties mark the location of the James Fort of 1607, the first permanent settlement of English-speaking people in North America. Combined with historical scholarship, archaeological discoveries reveal the intersection of many interests, including English ambitions to create chemical industries involving glass and metals and a Native American trading empire within which copper was the most valued metal, imported to Virginia from the Great Lakes. Further, the English ambitions ushered in another European presence, Germans and Poles who served as glassblowers, miners, apothecaries, and other chemical practitioners.

What is more, new archaeological evidence, coupled with a re-examination of the historical record, points to early Virginia as the birthplace of the American chemical enterprise. Recent archaeological investigations at Jamestown in particular have revealed the presence of chemical tools and apparatus to detect, identify, and process natural resources for various commercial purposes. In early Virginia—which in 1607 stretched from Spanish Florida to modern Canada—settlers participated in carefully designed schemes to gather and export a host of resources, especially those needed to further industries in England. The English search for and exploitation of native resources for metallurgy, pharmacology, perfumery, and other applications led to the establishment of American chemical practices which eventually transformed into modern industries.

Artifacts from Roanoke and Jamestown have produced several "firsts", including: the earliest known piece of European glass in North America, a piece of chemical glassware (Roanoke); the presence of the earliest Jew in North America, a chemist/metallurgist from Prague named Joachim Gans (Roanoke); the earliest experimental research center in English North America, a place of chemical experimentation and assay (Roanoke); and the first permanent colony of English-speaking peoples in North America at Jamestown. Jamestown built upon the exploratory goals of the Roanoke ventures involving natural resources to assist established commercial centers in England. Experimentation led to the first chemical industry in North America, glass production, and later metal manufacturing.

Until recently, archaeologically-recovered artifacts of chemical processes have received relatively little attention from historians. The archaeological remains of Elizabethan chemistry, particularly, are not common; those that have been found are frequently nondescript. These artifacts include dull glass or ceramic fragments of vessels that wore out and were discarded, making it difficult for archaeologists to date by type or function. Jamestown and Roanoke have yielded chemical artifacts, along with mining sites in the Canadian Arctic established by Martin Frobisher, who made three voyages to the New World in the late 16th century in search of the fabled Northwest Passage.

At most of these European archaeological sites, tools of distillation and fire assay (testing of metals for commercial viability) have been found. Evidence of distillation is not surprising, as alcohol-rich substances were produced for a variety of purposes, such as medicines and perfumes. Recent archaeological analysis at European sites in North America in recent years has focused on the material remains of fire assay, specifically the humble crucible and other ceramic vessels. We now know that most European crucibles and other ceramics were German-made to a very precise tolerance in order to withstand high heat, remain chemically inert, and serve dependably for repetitive processes under like conditions. Colonists brought with them the best available apparatus. At Jamestown, the evidence of crucibles and residues of assay have highlighted the evidence for non-ferrous metallurgy c. 1607-1624. Taken as a whole, the archaeological evidence at Jamestown and Roanoke speaks to a colonial leadership adept at mathematical learning, including astronomy and surveying, with practical skills in mining, metallurgy, and medicinal arts to serve the needs of commercial centers in England, from glass production to metal manufacturing.

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Precursor to Virginia: The Frobisher Voyages

The planning for chemical investigation and exploitation of natural resources at Roanoke and Jamestown had an precursor in the Martin Frobisher voyages to the Canadian Arctic known as Meta Incognita to explore the Northwest Passage. Frobisher, one of Queen Elizabeth's "sea dogs" who participated in the fight against the Armada, had a career in state-sponsored piracy and led three expeditions between 1576-78 to the vicinity of Baffin Island, all of which attracted the interest and involvement of state leaders, the final voyage holding the record of the largest-scale Arctic expedition to date. The largest voyage dispersed 100 miners to Kodlunarn Island, or Countess of Warwick Island in Frobisher's day. Potentially lucrative ores, spotted on the first voyage, were believed to contain gold or silver. Probably marcasite or iron pyrite, the ores were mined during Frobisher's second and third voyages, and taken to Bristol.

Frobisher's voyages were characterized by astute early scientific planning, but ended in mining fraud with false assays. The ores proved worthless, despite early claims to the contrary. Nevertheless, on Kodlunarn Island, although the ceramics have not been well analyzed, identified structures include smithies with attendant charcoal-stained deposits and remains of crucibles, slag, coal, and clay. An assay office has been identified, and contains, in addition to the aforementioned substances, firebrick and rooftiles, plus a variety of crucibles. The room's lack of smithing remains points to assay work.

The Frobisher voyages must be viewed within the context of the harnessing of early chemical and metallurgical expertise in strategic planning for commercial exploitation. In a pattern that would dominate English New World exploration, and had characterized Spanish New World colonization since 1542, German mining experts managed or supervised assay work, and in the English cases, German miners performed the labor. Frobisher used the Germans Jonas Schutz and Burchard Kranach as experts, for example.

Frobisher's chemical preparations included medicine. Medical practices on Frobisher's voyages, with their emphasis on chemical drugs, introduced Paracelsian practices into the New World. Given the increasing acceptance of chemical compounds as remedies for illness, it is not surprising that apothecary supplies carried on Frobisher's ships included resins such as turpentine, myrrh, and mastic, alum (a styptic), and copperas or green vitriol, an antiseptic.

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The Ralegh Voyages: Chemical Traces at Roanoke

Excitement about the possibilities of establishing permanent English colonies in North America impelled Sir Walter Ralegh (as he spelled his surname) to acquire a patent for colonization and attempt, from 1585, to establish a permanent colony in the section of Virginia now known as North Carolina. Multiple attempts to establish a permanent colony failed, the last chapter occupied by the "Lost Colony," a village whose inhabitants disappeared. On the first voyage, Ralegh employed a foremost natural philosopher to reconnoiter, Thomas Hariot, whose report influenced further investment and planning for Jamestown. We can infer from Hariot's work that certain instruments were used to sample or assay local materials, but of all substances and potential raw materials Hariot describes, copper takes on particular importance: he records the whereabouts of copper (and silver) from Native Americans. He records that he saw pieces of copper "hanging in the ears of a werowance or chief lord." In fact, to the Algonquian Indians, copper was worn as a high-status ornament; it was offered to deities; it bought warriors; it aided a journey to the afterlife. Within the Indian system of exchange, the werowance imported copper through a trade network extending to Lake Superior, but with English copper, the head chief controlled the trade, distributing it to minor chiefs.

The Ralegh voyages landed colonists in multiple locations, most of which have not been located archaeologically. Importantly, however, archaeologist Ivor Nöel Hume has located near the preserved fort at modern Fort Raleigh the first experimental research center in the modern United States, the workshop apparently shared by Hariot and a well-known, influential German metallurgist, Joachim Gans, who was the first Jew in English America. Recovered artifacts include fire-blackened bricks with a concavity, probably part of a furnace used by Gans, and crucibles and pharmaceutical pots. Gans, born in Prague, came to England in 1581 and advised government leaders about developing a British-based mineral industry. Astoundingly, part of the original laboratory floor survives. Excavated in 1991, the floor produced about 60 diagnostic artifacts representative of chemical processes. Finds include glass sherds from chemical glassware, the remains of Indian pottery used in distilling, and other fragments from stoneware jugs and crucibles. A recovered chunk of antimony suggests assaying, as well as the high interest among Paracelsians for its putative pharmaceutical properties. Some sherds contain copper residue, including copper oxide which may have resulted from smelting local native copper. The archaeological evidence is conclusive about the presence of chemical investigation, and the interest in copper attests to English notice of the metal's commercial potential.

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Origins of Chemistry at Jamestown

The Roanoke voyages to Virginia, although they failed to establish a permanent English presence, furnished sufficient information about the tidewater region of modern North Carolina and Virginia to inform planning for the next round of attempted colonization beginning at Jamestown in 1607. The archaeological record at Jamestown—similarly to the evidence from the Frobisher voyages and Roanoke—speaks to many chemical practitioners of the era, including the apothecary, barber surgeon, physician, alchemist or metallurgist, and other metal-related trades such as refiners, goldsmiths, and blacksmiths. Also present, based on artifacts, were artisans skilled in glass manufacture.

Artifacts of the apothecary attest to vigorous experimentation with Virginia flora, and Jamestown medical practices stemmed from Paracelsians who advocated chemical drugs. One such physician, Johannes Fleischer, a German, earned a medical degree at the University of Basel the year the Jamestown colonists departed England. Numerous drug jars, of Dutch or English origin, relate to the work of the apothecaries. These men, who were trained through apprenticeship, belonged to the elite both in Europe and in Virginia. Further, a medical tool for relieving constipation due to impacted fecal matter, a spatula mundani, has been recovered. This instrument is known to have been provided in a surgeon's chest prepared by John Woodall, a Paracelsian physician who later became surgeon-general to the East India Company. Woodall's medicines and treatments make extensive reference to the tria prima of Paracelsus: salt, mercury, and sulfur. Woodall's medical treatments and medicines may also be reflected in other early Jamestown finds, a cranium bearing the mark of a trepanning tool (the cranial piece having been removed during a postmortem examination), and a piece of sulfur.

The evidence of perfumery at Jamestown links with medical and apothecary pursuits. Perfumer Robert Alberton produced scented preparations. An earthenware fuming pot has been discovered which might have used a burning substance—obtained from a perfumer—to fumigate for medical purpose. In fact, the advancement of perfumery using New World resources was a priority in an exploratory voyage to the Chesapeake Bay before the founding of Jamestown. Samuel Mace's 1602 voyage to Virginia aimed to search for the Lost Colonists of Roanoke and search for plants, seeds, and bark of flora identified during a previous voyage as useful for perfumery and apothecary.

English recruitment of foreign specialists and artisans was evident at Jamestown, as it had been at Roanoke. The first glass factory—which employed Germans and Poles—had been established in the New World at Jamestown in 1608. Archaeological investigations have found the locations of glass furnaces which attest to the technology utilized. Colonists used silica, lime, and soda, or potash substituted for soda, materials known at the time as "salts." Jamestown's sand was rich in metallic oxides with high lime content. Old glass, or cullet, fragments of which are abundant at Jamestown, were also an ingredient.

Jamestown's metallurgy, however, reveals the most tantalizing evidence of early chemical practice. In the summer of 1607, Sir Walter Cope wrote to Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, explaining the promises of the New World and the treasures of Virginia. "Instead of milk we find pearl and gold instead of honey." Cope's writings were influenced by a metallurgist named Beale, "an excellent trier (sic) of minerals," who had identified a precious supply of "dirt" that was sure to yield a large percentage of gold. A sample of the dirt was sent to England with Captain Christopher Newport in June of 1607 to be analyzed by London's assayers, but disappointingly Beale's precious dirt lacked any sign of gold. During testing "all turned to vapor."

Exploring for and testing possible gold ores in Virginia had an all too familiar outcome that rings throughout the records of Jamestown's first two years. Accounts by men such as Cope frequently speak of gold mines, but none of the alleged sources are known to have yielded their treasures. As a result of such records modern historians have tended to form biased views of Jamestown and the relative historiography of the colonizing effort commonly refers to lazy and unproductive settlers who carried out little more in Virginia than a "reckless search for gold."

Financial gain was, of course, the primary goal of the Virginia Company of London, the corporate organization responsible for the settlement of Jamestown. It was established in 1606 as a joint-stock company. Along with a desire to find a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean for trading purposes, the company sponsors hoped to profit by exploiting the natural resources of Virginia. Although they expected to find precious metals such as gold and silver, recent historical and archaeological scholarship are revealing how the Virginia Company equally sought to discover sources of more utilitarian materials, such as ores required at home for the production of brass. The search for metals, in fact, was a priority at Jamestown. Colonists intended to establish a trading center, and they were "not permitted to manure or till any ground" but instead were required to invest labor in profitable activities. In fact, letters patent to the colony leaders specified "to dig mine and search for all manner of mines of gold silver and copper."

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Metallurgical Artifacts at Jamestown

The archaeological excavations of James Fort, carried out by the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, have recovered a wealth of artifacts related to the colony's metallurgical endeavors. Crucibles, cupels, scorifiers, alembics, slag, and melted metal indicate that a host of metals and minerals were processed, refined or tested at Jamestown during the colony's earliest years. Of Jamestown's metalworking remains, evidence for copper-based metallurgy is particularly strong. Numerous triangular and beaker shaped crucibles have been excavated, and several examples contain copper residue. Further indications of copper-related activities at Jamestown come in the form of melted copper masses, including one uniquely shaped piece that fits perfectly into the bottom of a triangular Hessian crucible. The connection between these artifacts, along with the crucibles containing interior copper residue, exemplifies how working or testing copper took place at Jamestown, and consequently, how metallurgical activities other than those strictly associated with the search for gold occurred within the settlement. Because clear documentation of such endeavors is not evident within the accounts of the early Virginia settlement, the discovery and investigation of these finds provides new insight into the pursuits of the colony and the motives of the Virginia Company investors.

Additional artifacts recovered from James Fort that offer details of Jamestown's non-ferrous metallurgy include over 8,000 pieces of sheet copper. Taking the form of small scraps and trimmings, these finds have been interpreted as off-cuts related to the production of goods used for trade with the local Powhatan Indians. Copper was the pre-eminent commodity held and desired by the Native American populations of eastern North America during the early 17th century, and the settlers of Jamestown recorded how they frequently exchanged copper for foodstuffs. On one occasion John Smith noted that the Virginia Indians were "covetous of copper" and "offered pieces of bread and small handfuls of beans or wheat for a hatchet or a piece of copper." No doubt some of Jamestown's scrap copper was traded with Native Americans. However, when examined scientifically alongside Jamestown's non-ferrous metallurgical debris, it becomes apparent that much of Jamestown's scrap copper can more accurately be explained as manufacturing waste that was supplied by English copper industries as an ingredient to assess New World mineral ores for their use in the formulation of brass.

Crucial to understanding the metallurgical function of Jamestown's scrap copper is knowledge of the metal's geographical and commercial origins. To assist in revealing these details, 300 pieces of Jamestown's scrap copper were subjected to chemical analysis with the technique of inductively coupled-plasma atomic emission spectrometry (ICP-AES). ICP-AES is an effective spectroscopic tool that allows investigators to detect the percentages of major, minor, and trace elements in a given artifact. The presence of minor and trace element concentrations is important because copper retains small but distinctive percentages of natural elements from its ore source throughout its production. By comparing the elemental compositions or "signatures" of Jamestown's copper against the compositions of contemporary sheet copper artifacts with known origins the regional provenance of Jamestown's metal can be identified.

Based on ICP-AES study, Jamestown's copper proved to be European smelted copper due to concentrations of the minor and trace elements lead, silver, zinc, tin, iron, and arsenic. When examined alongside of European smelted copper, the Jamestown copper was found to have derived primarily from the arsenic-rich copper ores of England. This conclusion is surprising considering that the demand for copper in 16th and 17th century Europe was principally satisfied by metal from the Falun mine in Sweden, the Harz Mountains in Saxony, Mansfeld in Thuringia, the Schwaz region of Austria's Tyrol, as well as more easterly sources such as Neusohl and the Zips Mountains in present-day Slovakia. Nevertheless, identifying the predominantly English origins of Jamestown's copper helps to recognize the industrial sources of the copper as all English copper mined and processed during the late 16th and early 17th centuries can be presumed to have originated from English copper monopolies, the Society of Mines Royal and the Society of Mineral and Battery Works.

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Involvement of British Mining Companies in Colonial Virginia

From the 1560's until the mid-17th century, the Society of Mines Royal and the Society of Mineral and Battery Works operated mutually in the hopes of promoting English metallurgical self-sufficiency. The Society of Mines Royal was granted the patented right to the mining, processing, and production of raw copper, among other metals. With equal interests in copper alloys, the Society of Mineral and Battery Works held the rights to the creation of brass, the drawing of wire, and the use of a novel type of water-driven battery hammer to manufacture sheet copper and brass domestic wares. Because most of Jamestown's copper originated from English ore sources, Jamestown's copper was likely produced and processed by the Society of Mines Royal or the Society of Mineral and Battery Works.

Further evidence for the industrial origins of Jamestown's copper comes from its recognition as industrial waste created through technologies and manufacturing techniques patented to England's copper monopolies. The Society of Mineral and Battery works held patents for the use of water-powered battery hammers and contemporary descriptions from 1580 indicate that the Society of Mines Royal had also engaged the same machinery. A significant percentage of the scrap copper excavated from Jamestown was created with this technology and many of the metal artifacts were discarded as by-products from the fabrication of domestic items in England. Radiographs of Jamestown's scrap copper, for instance, show how much of this metal was battered in a regular pattern, consistent with the use of large hammers like those used by England's copper monopolies and similar to the devices depicted in Agricola's work De Re Metallica. More indicative of industrial waste is the fact that much of the sheet copper can be recognized as off-cuts discarded during the fabrication of finished English domestic goods. Many artifacts are trimmings related to the cutting of large circular discs measuring between 20 and 40 centimeters in diameter. Discs of this size would have been much too large for trade with Native Americans, yet appropriate for the fabrication of kettles, strainers, bowls, and pans.

That Jamestown's copper originated as waste may seem of little historical significance other than sourcing the metal: English artisans may have received supplies from the metals companies. However, the analysis of copper artifacts retrieved from sites across England shows that most of the metal consumed in 16th and 17th century England originated from Swedish and central European copper ores. By viewing the industrial pursuits of England's copper monopolies alongside the economic and occupational interests of those men responsible for the settlement at Jamestown it becomes evident that English copper may have been intentionally sent to Virginia along with a specialized workforce in the hopes of experimenting with and profiting from the metallurgical resources of the New World.

Since their inception, the English copper monopolies operated under the assumption that the Society of Mines Royal would mine and process raw copper and that the Society of Mineral and Battery Works would then combine the copper with zinc ores in the cementation process to produce brass. In cementation, copper is heated in a closed crucible along with crushed charcoal and zinc ore, such as the zinc carbonate calamine stone (ZnCO3). Upon reaching temperatures between 900 and 1000ºC, the zinc held by the calamine stone vaporizes and is absorbed by the surrounding copper to form brass. The production of brass in this manner required immense skill and exceptional ingredients. English calamine stone, however, proved to have a high lead content which resulted in the creation of weak brass. This fault led not only to production of inadequate brass by the Society of Mineral and Battery Works, but also to a lack of demand for the copper processed by the Society of Mines Royal. Consequently, as of 1605, both copper companies had yet to reach their primary objective and were thus operating at a dawdling pace.

Key investors in the Virginia Company were also directors and shareholders in England's copper monopolies. Sir John Popham, Lord Chief Justice of England, and Sir Robert Cecil, the newly created Earl of Salisbury, for instance, were central to the establishment the Virginia Company and also were major shareholders in the Society of Mines Royal and the Society of Mineral and Battery Works. Thomas Smythe, the Master of Customs in London, was responsible for much of the financial backing of the Virginia Company, and his efforts led to the recruitment of some of the earliest settlers. Smythe's father was one of the original shareholders in England's copper monopolies and upon his death the elder Smythe's shares were transferred to his sons Thomas and John. In addition to these leaders of the Virginia Company, many of the lesser investors in the venture were also shareholders in the Society of Mines Royal and the Society of Mineral and Battery Works. Among these individuals were Sir Francis Popham, Richard Martin, and Thomas Middleton, with the latter holding further rights over the Society of Mines Royal's smelting works in Wales.

Many of Jamestown's early settlers also had involvements in England's copper monopolies. A man named Beale, for instance, is identified at Jamestown as a practicing metallurgist and the Beale family is known to have played a major role in the Society of Mines Royal. Robert Beale was the Deputy Governor of the Society of Mines Royal and his son Francis is known to have been a shareholder in 1605. Furthermore, John, George, and Captain John Martin were gentlemen settlers at Jamestown, and the grandsons and sons of Sir Richard Martin. Other than his financial involvement in the Society of Mineral and Battery works, the elder Martin was also Lord Mayor of London, Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths Company, Master of the Mint, and leaseholder for the production of brass in England. Captain John Martin was described by a Virginia chronicler as the "master of battery works." This title was previously thought to have been linked to the settlement's armament and defenses, but in light of Jamestown's associations with the Society of Mineral and Battery Works, Martin's title most likely links to metallurgical endeavors. John Martin was also described as "the authority consisting in refining" at James Fort, and other accounts from the first year of the settlement mention that Martin was involved in metal "trials." Walter Cope also reported Martin's desire for some supplies from his father, Sir Richard Martin, which he needed for furthering his "trials." As Sir Richard Martin held a lease over the production of brass in England from 1587, he may have anticipated his son's discovery of resources in Virginia, such as calamine stone, to aid the home industries.

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Assessment of Jamestown Chemistry

While the documentary accounts of early Jamestown indirectly indicate metallurgical activities, the crucibles and melted copper waste excavated from James Fort clearly illustrate that metallurgical experiments involving copper were performed. To understand these endeavors, several crucibles were subjected to scientific examination using a scanning electron microscope with an attached energy-dispersive X-ray spectrometer. The resulting data suggest that cementation may have been attempted at Jamestown using Virginia mineral ores. Artifact JR 124F/CC1, for instance, is a round beaker crucible with an interior black slag and a relatively large corroded copper-alloy prill. Analysis of the slag present on the interior of the crucible shows high amounts of zinc oxide (ZnO) and iron oxide (FeO) at around 20% weight each, as well as a significant content of lime (CaO). These constituents indicate a probable cementation attempt using a low-quality ore with minor zinc content. Additional analysis involving Jamestown's melted copper masses suggests that imported English scrap copper was employed within the colony's metallurgical endeavors. Using ICP-AES, numerous examples of melted copper were found to have concentrations of arsenic, silver lead, and iron similar to the English scrap copper from Jamestown discussed above. While future research is admittedly necessary to understand the full nature of the copper-related endeavors carried out at Jamestown, this preliminary analysis of Jamestown's crucibles and melted waste shows that Jamestown's metalworkers probably experimented with the metallurgical properties of local ores and did so in some degree with imported English scrap copper pieces.

The archaeological evidence for copper-related metallurgical operations at Jamestown substantiates the hypothesis that the English carried out a search for zinc resources in the New World, and that this may in large part have been influenced by the Society of Mines Royal and the Society of Mineral and Battery Works. The scrap copper supplied by the English copper monopolies was used in a metallurgical capacity, probably in attempts to identify zinc ores for the production of brass. While Jamestown's metallurgists were unsuccessful in discovering and extracting the minerals necessary for the production of brass, and while copper-based industrial pursuits earned little for the Virginia Company, these labors provide evidence of English colonial and early American chemical enterprise. Taken as a whole with other chemical endeavors, the English were vigorous in establishing several pursuits with varying degrees of success.

The artifacts at the three sites under discussion require us to scrutinize the make-up of the colonists, particularly the specialists and their sponsors. About a quarter of the people who entered Jamestown during its first year had an association with the working of metal. German involvement with English merchant voyages dates to a half century before Jamestown, when German investors agreed to finance English mining. At all three sites, Germans were present, German technology and expertise employed. In particular, Jamestown's artifacts tell a story of industrial research and development aimed at fusing English and Virginia natural resources into products for European consumption. We see a pattern of intense chemical experimentation for the metallurgist especially; with chemical apparatus both imported and manufactured on site, under direction of both English and German experts.

English metallurgical work bears examination in comparison to Spanish mining in the New World. Spain seemed to gain its entree into German metallurgy through contracts with the Augsburg house of Fugger; England apparently relied on the firm of Haug and Langnauer of Augsburg for expertise. The presence of German knowledge and skills is a signal feature of the English establishment of metallurgy in Virginia under London guidance, the translation of learning into "matters of action for present practice," to quote English colonizer Humphrey Gilbert. Officials in the copper monopolies in England evidently assembled expert "knowledge brokers" to direct and conduct chemical activities in the New World. The archaeological discoveries are forcing the histories of English colonization to de-emphasize failure and instead examine the early modern scientific component of colonial planning. The record attests that people may not have come to North America solely for lack of economic opportunity in England; rather, America might have furnished opportunities in early chemical professions, backed by patrons who drew from the best philosophical and practical learning available.

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Further Reading

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Origins of the American Chemical Enterprise Jamestown commemorative booklet
“Origins of the American Chemical Enterprise Jamestown” commemorative booklet produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2007 (PDF).

Landmark Designation and Acknowledgments

Landmark Designation

The American Chemical Society designated Chemistry at Jamestown as a National Historic Chemical Landmark on October 10, 2007. The plaque commemorating the event reads:

English colonists of the Virginia Company of London began chemical technologies soon after establishing Jamestown in May 1607. Working in collaboration with German, Polish, and Swiss specialists, they sought local resources for metals and for the production of substances such as glass, pitch, tar, potash, perfume, and medicine. Following earlier investigations at Roanoke Colony conducted by Thomas Hariot, the Jamestown colonists tested American plants, minerals, and metallic ores to locate, extract, and process substances of commercial value. These efforts founded the American chemical enterprise.


Adapted for the internet from “Origins of the American Chemical Enterprise Jamestown,” produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2007.

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Cite this Page

ACS Style

American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks. Chemistry at Jamestown, Virginia. (accessed Month Day, Year).

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ACS President-elect Bruce E. Bursten and Janan Hayes of the National Historic Chemical Landmarks Subcommittee.
Magali De Vulpillieres
Close up of the "Refining the Land of Promisse" sign at Historic Jamestowne.
Courtesy Historic Jamestowne (Preservation Virginia)