Capt. Gabriel Archer of Jamestown

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Gabriel Archer

Birthplace: Mountnessing, Essex, England, United Kingdom
Death: Died in Jamestown, James City County, Virginia, United States
Cause of death: Complications dur to Injury-Illness and starvation
Place of Burial: Jamestown, James City County, Virginia, present United States
Immediate Family:

Son of John Archer, Sr. and Eleanor Archer (Frewin)
Husband of Mary Archer
Father of George Archer
Brother of John Archer, II; Richard Archer, Immigrant; Samuel Archer; Henry Archer; Simon Archer and 6 others

Managed by: Thomas Edward Meek, Jr
Last Updated:

About Capt. Gabriel Archer of Jamestown

Gabriel Archer was a gentleman and attorney of Warwick, England, sailed from Falmouth, England, 26 March 1602 with the expedition under the command of Bartholomew Gosnold and explored the coast of New England, but returned to England 26 April 1607.

Captain Gabriel was fiercely attacked and wounded by Indians at a point of land on the Virginia coast where he had landed with Captain John Smith and others. There were three ships in this expedition. On 29 April 1607, they set up a cross and sailed away. On 12 May 1607, they discovered a point of land on the river James which they named "Archer's Hope" in his honor but did not settle there. Gabriel Archer was one of the "first planters" of Virginia and died there in 1609/10. In the News July 2015 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.

Captain Gabriel Archer was born in 1575 and grew up in Mountnessing, Essex, about 25 miles from London. His parents were devout Catholics and were fined in the early 1580s for non-attendance of their local Anglican church. Archer attended Cambridge University and then Grays Inn, where he studied law. He was a contemporary of Bartholomew Gosnold, with whom he traveled to New England in 1602. Five years later they were among the first settlers to set foot on land near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in late April 1607, where Archer suffered wounds to his hands in a fierce skirmish with local Indians. The location for James Fort was chosen on May 13, 1607, and soon after one of the most important leaders of the colony, Captain Christopher Newport, led an expedition along the James River into the interior. Archer is likely the author of the detailed account of their expedition, which described the Indian peoples they encountered and the promise of the land. Subsequently, Archer was named as the first secretary of the colony but initially was not appointed to the governing council. He was a fierce critic of Captain John Smith and other leaders, even at one point calling for Smith’s execution, and was one of the principals involved in deposing the first president of the colony, Edward Maria Wingfield.

When Newport left in April 1608 to go back to England, Archer went with him. However Archer returned to Virginia a year later with the fleet that was damaged and scattered by a major hurricane in the Atlantic. He was on one of the ships that survived the crossing and arrived at Jamestown in August 1609. In the absence of the colony’s new leadership, which had been shipwrecked on Bermuda, divisions among the remaining leaders rapidly festered. After Smith was sent home a few months later, Archer was one of the most important of the remaining leaders. He did not survive long, however, and died during the "starving time" winter of 1609-1610, at the age of 35. “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.” Researchers believe the box was buried with Archer after his death between 1608 and 1616—which would mean the person who buried him would have known the significance of the artifact. Archaeologists and historians announced their discovery at the Smithsonian on Tuesday, along with the identities of three other key Jamestown leaders whose remains were buried nearby. All four men were “involved in all of the major decisions that took place during the first four years of the colony's history,” Horn said in a video about the discovery. Researchers sussed out their identities from a list of several dozen high-status men who could have died in the early 1600s—a particularly chaotic period at Jamestown that included what’s known as “the starving time,” a grueling winter when three-quarters of the colonists died, and some resorted to cannibalism. Along with Archer, researchers found the remains of Reverend Robert Hunt, the first Anglican minister at Jamestown; Sir Ferdinando Wainman, a high-ranking officer who was in charge of horses and artillery for the colony; and Captain William West, a nephew of the governor of the Virginia Company that funded the establishment of Jamestown and other colonies in the New World.

“The discovery brings us back, in a very powerful way, to looking at individuals and personalities that were at Jamestown,” said William Kelso, the director of archaeology for the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “The story gets personal, and therefore you can have more empathy toward what people were up against, what they succeeded in doing, and what they failed in doing.” The presence of the relic in Archer’s grave also calls into question some of what researchers previously believed—their understanding of Archer as an individual, and of Jamestown and the trajectory of Catholicism in America more broadly.

Silver Reliquary and fragments of coffin wood found in the grave of Gabriel Archer. (Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation / Preservation Virginia) Archer, an influential secretary and magistrate “was one of the most prominent of the first leaders at Jamestown,” Horn told me. Historians knew Archer as a rival of Captain John Smith, the explorer who, according to legend, was saved from execution by Pocahontas, the daughter of a Powhatan chief. Smith and Archer were rivals. “And Archer spent a good chunk of time trying to remove Smith from the government council of Jamestown,” Horn told me. Researchers now wonder whether there was more to the antagonistic relationship between Smith and Archer. Could Archer’s motives—as a colonial leader, as a searing critic of Smith's—have been linked to a secret religious identity?

“Gabriel Archer was a prime character, an eminent leader in this early period,” Horn told me. “He was taking on Smith, he’s involved in bringing down the first president [of the colony], he’s really at the heart of intrigue. I think historians have always considered that his motives were primarily personal, trying to elevate his own position. But was there something more going on? Was he trying to destabilize the colony's leadership from within?”

This idea is stunning for a couple of reasons, the most important of which is that Jamestown was fundamentally anti-Catholic. “This was a big ambition here on the part of the English,” Horn said. “Jamestown is not meant to be a fairly minor enterprise. It’s meant to be the beachhead for an English empire in America that will serve as a bulwark against Catholicism. That’s a lot of freight for this little object to carry.”

Catholicism was feared by the English, too. Settlers at Jamestown believed there was a very real threat that Spanish warships would one day arrive with Catholic conquistadors prepared to fight for the New World. Incidentally, this anti-Spanish, anti-Catholic attitude—which continued long after Archer and his townsmen died—is what, in 1632, situated the Province of Maryland where it is today, rather than further south where its Roman Catholic founder originally wanted it to be.

“When George Calvert was campaigning to get the charter to Maryland, he was actually looking to get territory—and he was approved to get territory—in what is now North Carolina,” said Farrelly, the Brandeis professor. “The people in Virginia were campaigning for him not to get a charter. The tactic they used is that [they said], ‘He’s going to use this charter as an excuse to bring Spanish priests and nuns over into Virginia, and they’re going to invade Virginia and take over the colony.’ That argument did prove to be contentious enough that at the last minute, it looked like Calvert was going to lose the territory.”

So there was certainly incentive for Archer, decades before Calvert’s time, to have hidden his Catholicism at Jamestown. “This person could have been from a family that was outwardly Anglican but privately Catholic,” Farrelly said. “That would explain why they would be bringing a relic over with them. It does make you wonder: What was it like for him? How secretive did he feel he needed to be, given that he’s living in a colony that is rabidly anti-Catholic. And who buried him with this relic?”

When archaeologists found the box in Archer’s grave in 2013, they could tell right away that there was something inside. It was light enough to feel hollow, and its contents rattled when researchers turned the box over in their hands. But they knew as soon as they gently scrubbed off the oxidation from its copper-alloy exterior—a conservation project that took more than 100 hours and revealed a minimalist engraving of the letter ‘M,’—that they wouldn't be able to open the box without causing irreparable damage. It was through subsequent CT-scan imaging that forensic historians were able to identify shards of bone and the lead ampulla inside, clear evidence of a Catholic relic.

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Capt. Gabriel Archer of Jamestown's Timeline

Mountnessing, Essex, England, United Kingdom
April 1607
Age 32
Billericay, Essex, UK
Age 34
Jamestown, James City County, Virginia, United States
Age 34
Jamestown, James City County, Virginia, present United States