US scientists have used high-tech research tools to identify the remains of four leaders of Jamestown, the New World's first successful English colony, more than 400 years after they died, the Smithsonian Institution revealed.

"We have discovered four of the first founders of English America. This is the earliest English church in America – 1608 – and without any question the four men buried in the chancel between 1608 and 1610 are four of the first leaders of the whole English enterprise in America," said Dr James Horn, president of the Jamestown Recovery Foundation, during a news conference on 28 July.

The men were identified as Reverend Robert Hunt, Captain Gabriel Archer, Sir Ferdinando Wainman and Captain William West, all of whom helped guide the colony during its difficult years after being founded in 1607.

The four were found buried within the church, which fell into disrepair in 1617. The burials were investigated in November 2013, according to the Smithsonian.

Researchers used archaeology, skeletal analyses, chemical testing, 3D technology and genealogical research to identify the men who lived and died when the settlement was on the brink of failure due to famine, disease and war.

Researchers also conducted chemical analyses to examine diet, the presence of heavy metals and the men's origins. The style of coffins and artefacts also led scientists to identify the remains.

Hunt, who died at about age 39 in 1608, was the first Anglican minister at Jamestown, the Smithsonian said.

Archer died in late 1609 or 1610, at 34, during the "starving time", a period when about 250 settlers died from disease, starvation and Indian attacks, the Smithsonian said.

Wainman died, aged about 34, and was the cousin of the Virginia governor, Sir Thomas West, the Smithsonian said. Wainman was the first English knight to be buried in America.

William West died, aged about 24, in 1610 during a skirmish with Powhatan Native Americans, the Smithsonian said. Scientists found scraps of a military leader's sash near his body.