Digging Up Jamestown


After careful deliberation Gates took the colonists on board and set off down the James toward the sea and England. Had he started two days earlier the story of Jamestown would have been a duplicate of Ralph Lane’s first Roanoke colony, the settlers giving up just before relief arrived. As it was, Gates was already under sail when news arrived that Lord Delaware, well supplied and with 150 fresh colonists, had reached Port Comfort at the mouth of the river. This was the turning point. The fort was rebuilt, and peace was made with the Indians: Jamestown would survive. But people do not change their character as readily as fate may change their fortunes, and when Lord Delaware returned to England in March, 1611, the colonists immediately relaxed. John Smith, in a moment of exasperation, dubbed them as unfit to found a colony as to sustain it, and if proof were needed, it was to be found in the spring of that year, when, knowing that the grain store could not last three months, the settlers still could not be bothered to plant the corn on which their existence would depend. When Sir Thomas Dale, the new deputy governor, arrived at Jamestown in May, he found “most of the companie were at their daily and usuall works, bowling in the streets …”


It took a firm hand, martial law, and a variety of necessary though unpopular measures before the young colony was ready to present a bold face to Spaniards, Indians, or even the weather. But a year later Jamestown could boast “two rowes of houses of framed timber, and some of them two stories, and a garret higher, three large Store-houses Joined together [a hundred and twenty feet in length], and hee [Sir Thomas Dale] hath newly strongly impaled the towne.” Before long the settlement began to burst out of its wooden womb and to grow up into a community of streets, stores, taverns, and frame residences not unlike an English village in, say, Kent or Essex.

Once the fear of Indian attack was removed, the settlers began to move further afield, building themselves farms away from the island. In addition, three other comparable settlements were established: the first was set up at Kecoughtan, originally an Indian village below Old Point Comfort on Hampton Roads, while the others were upriver from Jamestown a distance of some fifty miles and were named Charles City and Henricus (also known as Henrico).

If all had gone according to plan, Henricus would ultimately have become more important than Jamestown. It was founded in 1611 by Sir Thomas Dale on land now known as Farrar’s Island in a bend of the James River called Dutch Gap. “This towne,” wrote John Smith, “is situated upon a necke of a plaine rising land, three parts environed with the maine River; the necke of land well impaled, makes it like an He; it hath three streets of well framed houses, a handsome Church, and the foundations of a better laid (to be built of Bricke), besides Store-houses, Watch-houses, and such like. Upon the verge of the River there are five houses, wherein live the honester sort of people, as Farmers in England, and they keepe continuall centinell for the townes securitie.” Here, incidentally, was the first reference to a building being constructed of brick. Robert Johnson, writing of Henricus in 1612, refers to the houses (as well as the new church) having “the first story of all bricks.”

As Henricus gained in stature, plans were developed to build a hospital there, and the Virginia Company granted ten thousand acres for a university and one thousand for an Indian school. During this same era of increasing optimism both in England and Virginia, an ironworks was constructed further upstream at Falling Creek; Charles City was well established, as also were seven “Hundreds,” or plantations—tracts deeded to groups of Virginia Company stockholders for the founding of individual settlements. But on Good Friday, 1622, the Indians made it clear that they had no wish to go to school or to be wooed away from their native gods. Working to a carefully prearranged plan, they fell upon the isolated farms and settlements, burning the houses and slaughtering every man, woman, and child they could lay their hands on. Fortunately for Jamestown, a friendly Indian servant chose to tell his master of the plan just in time for the town to be warned. But the outlying areas received no warning-the ironworks at Falling Creek was destroyed; so were the towns of Henricus and Charles City, as well as most of the isolated farms. At Martin’s Hundred, only seven miles from Jamestown, seventy-three people were killed, and the total for the entire massacre has been set at between 300 and 347 persons.

Although the Virginia Company ordered that Henricus be rebuilt and that brickmakers, already there to build the university and school, should get on with the job, the project was never revived. Today the site on Farrar’s Island is extremely difficult to reach. The palisaded neck referred to by John Smith has been cut through by a canal ironing out a bend in the river, while most of the island has disappeared into a vast gravel-mining project engineered by a local cement company. Overlooking the canal at Dutch Gap is a marker recalling that here was the site of Henricus and of the first intended university in America. But it is my personal belief that the marker is too close to the end of the island and that Henricus, one of the “four ancient boroughs” of Virginia, has been sacrificed on the gravel-tempered concrete altar of progress.