Introductory Overview

1899 Savage Map

Welcome to Michael Jarvis's Smiths Island Archaeology Project Website. Most people today know Bermuda for its pink sand beaches, honeymoon suites, offshore companies, and global business centers, but the island has an even richer history: It is the oldest colony in the British Empire and celebrated its 400th anniversary in July 2012. At only 22 square miles, the island is packed with four centuries of dynamic history – a wonderful laboratory for studying the blending of European, African, and American cultures that characterize the Atlantic World. St. George’s (where we are based) was founded in 1612 and boasts dozens of houses built in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the sites we are finding on Smiths Island are even older, dating to 1610. Historical archaeology on land in Bermuda is a mere three decades old; most previous excavations have focused on fortifications, churches, and eighteenth-century domestic sites, but our investigations seek to shed light on the lives of Bermuda’s earliest English, African, and Native American settlers. We are fortunate that prudent preservation efforts by the Bermuda National Trust and National Parks have saved Smiths Island from the rapid pace of development that has recently occurred in much of Bermuda.

This historical and archaeological research project in Bermuda has been ongoing since 2010 and is focused on exploring four centuries of Bermudian history through targeted excavations. This research has been made possible with the generous support of the University of Rochester, the Bermuda National Trust, the St. George's Foundation, the Spurling family, Norman and Anne Brown, Geoffrey Redmond, and members of the BNT's Archaeological Research Committee.

This project began in June 2010 with focused documentary research in the Bermuda Archives to reveal Smiths Island's succession of residents and an intensive survey of the Parks portion of Smiths Island. The small volunteer team included Rick Spurling, U of R graduate student Alexandra Mairs, and my then 11-year-old daughter Charlotte. We discovered 14 sites in eight areas in the western half of the Park:

The most promising site discovered was a very primitive house foundation that appears to be related to a timber-frame building situated in the approximate location of a house marked on Richard Norwood's 1663 survey:

After mapping the site, a small test unit revealed 17th and 18th-century artifacts related to the period after the house had been abandoned.

Since the summer of 2012, I have run annual University of Rochester archaeological field schools that have focused on excavating sites on Smiths Island's eastern third, conducting additional documentary research, and finding and mapping sites across the rest of the island. To date (summer 2015), more than 35 U of R students and Bermudian volunteers have participated in excavations and more than 400 students and visitors have toured the four sites we have investigated thus far.Work will likely continue through 2020, shifting over time to 18th and 19th century sites in the middle and western parts of the island.

Smiths Island has been inhabited since 1610, when three sailors left behind after the Sea Venture's shipwrecked castaways left Bermuda for Virginia occupied it. They built a one-acre farm, a shallop and other boats, and grew the first commercially viable tobacco in English America. When Bermuda's first deliberately sent settlers arrived in July 1612, they began building Bermuda's first town on Smiths Island but soon shifted its location across the harbour to St. George's. A map of Bermuda circa 1616 shows two houses on Smiths Island. The Asser, Sharp, and Pitcher families and their slaves farmed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. From the 1660s until the 1920s, a whalehouse and processing station operated on Smiths Island's north shore. A fine Georgian mansion was built by Dr. George Forbes as a country house and family retreat in 1786 to the west of the whalehouse. A smallpox quarantine cabin was apparently built around the same time to house infected passengers arriving by ship in Bermuda. The island was farmed throughout the 19th century and into the early 1980s.Today, the eastern third of Smiths Island is a national park and the western third is a reserve belonging to the Bermuda National Trust. Smiths Island offers an exceptionally well preserved assemblage of sites with which to research Bermuda's early agricultural and maritime past, and especially can help us understand how Bermuda's first settlers adapted to life in a new colony, the nature of the island's now entirely lost early timber-frame architecture, and aspects of enslaved Bermudians' undocumented and deliberately hidden activities.


Unknown said…
My family lived on Smith's Island in the late 1950's. There were several USAF families there then. We had good friends who lived in the whale house and we still keep in touch with them. I have wonderful memories of playing wondering all over the island as a youngster!
Anonymous said…
I own lot 32 on smiths island did you discover anything there?

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