- Historic Sites
Digging Up Jamestown
Where the written word leaves off, the spade must often take over. A well-known archaeologist relates what the earth has revealed about the first permanent British colony in America
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
The site of the fort has never been found, but it is generally believed to have been built toward the western end of the island, and so, being close to the river, it has since been washed away. Some authorities have suggested that part of it may lie beneath the Confederate earthworks immediately to the west of Jamestown’s brick church. Careful excavations were conducted there by the National Park Service in 1955, but no traces of it were found. In the same year, attempts were made offshore to haul up artifact clues in a clam bucket lowered from a barge. Sixty-five “drops” were made, as a result of which the Park Service is now the proud possessor of as fine a collection of old beer bottles, brickbats, and nineteenth-and twentieth-century crockery as ever graced a city dump.
Just what they hoped to find is not at all clear, for this was no dramatically submerged site, only a bed of clay that had tumbled slowly from an eroding bank carrying into a scatter of useless debris any structures that it may have supported. In any case, even if the fort had survived, all that the archaeologists could have hoped to find would have been postholes in the ground. Catching a washed-away posthole in a clam bucket would be quite a feat. No doubt it was hoped that informative seventeenth-century artifacts would be found—and a few were. But short of finding an inscribed tablet giving the position of the fort, it is hard to see how any amount of artifacts could have done more than confirm that the surface of a good deal of heavily inhabited land had been washed away in the ensuing years.
When the colonists landed on Jamestown Island on May 14, 1607, they immediately set about building themselves some sort of fortification, which probably amounted to little more than a breastwork of brushwood. On May 21 Captain Newport, John Smith, and twenty others set out to explore the upper reaches of the James. When they returned on the twenty-seventh, the fort had been surprised, and many of the colonists had been wounded before the Indians had been driven off. Immediate efforts were made to improve the defenses and by the fifteenth of June, according to George Percy, one of the colonists, “we had built and finished our Fort, which was triangle wise, having three Bulwarkes, at every corner, like a hälfe Moone, and foure or five pieces of Artillerie mounted in them.” “James Fort” enclosed the entire settlement; it was not merely a keep to which the colonists could withdraw in an emergency. This was just as well, as they spent most of their time in a state of emergency.
The appearance and substance of the colonists’ dwellings within the fort in the summer of 1607 are not clear. There are references to both tents and cabins, and on the basis of the latter it has sometimes been assumed that the settlers had log cabins. But in the seventeenth century the word “cabin” could describe the meanest hut—and that was almost certainly the James Fort connotation.
It had been a month after they landed when the colonists got around to digging a well in the fort. Until then they had drunk the dirty river water. To make matters worse, they were forced to deal with problems of sanitation within the confines of the palisades, as those who had ventured out to attend to these needs had been prime targets for Indian marksmen. What with one thing and another, it was not surprising that the “men were destroyed with cruell diseases” and that as famine, heat, and the Indians crept upon them, they were in no mood or condition to indulge in architectural extravagances.
As George Percy pointed out, “If it had not pleased God to put a terrour in the Savages hearts, we had all perished by those vile and cruell Pagans, being in that weake estate as we were; our men night and day groaning in every corner of the Fort most pittifull to heare.” After supplies arrived and the weather became more temperate, the situation improved somewhat. But in the winter of 1607-08, an accidental fire destroyed the entire fort, a catastrophe that occurred soon after Captain Newport had returned from England.
With the help of Newport and his sailors the palisades were rebuilt, along with the church and storehouses; but when he returned again to England in April, 1608, the repairs were still not complete. Nevertheless, we may assume that it was in the spring and summer of 1608 that the colonists managed for the first time to build themselves a reasonably solid settlement. This was virtually the same assemblage of buildings that William Strachey saw when he arrived as first secretary of the colony in 1610 and whose fortifications he described as having the side next the River extending one hundred and forty yeards; the West and East sides a hundred onely. At every Angle or corner, where the lines meete, a Bulwarke or Watch-tower is raised, and in each Bulwarke a peece of Ordnance or two is well mounted. To every side, a proportioned distance from the Pallisado, is a setled streete of houses, that runs along, so as each line of the Angle hath his streets; in the midst is a market place, a Storehouse, and a Corps du guard, as likewise a pretty chapel …