Digging Up Jamestown

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A much more complicated and expensive weapon was the wheel lock, of which there were a few in Virginia in the early days of the colony. Its priming powder was ignited by means of a serrated steel wheel beside the pan, which was wound up on a spring by a key. When the spring was freed, the wheel ground against a lump of iron pyrites that sent a spark into the powder. Fragments of at least one of these have been found at Jamestown. A third mechanism much simpler than the wheel lock was used by the first colonists; this was the snaphaunce, the ancestor of the well-known flintlock of the eighteenth century. The snaphaunce comprised a hammer holding a piece of flint which, when the trigger was pulled, sprang forward and scraped against a vertical block of steel called a battery, sending a spark downward into the priming powder. An obvious refinement was soon developed in which a reversed L-shaped cover for the pan also served as a striking surface for the flint. When the trigger was pulled, the flint slammed forward, striking the vertical face of the cover, or frizzen, and pushing it up and away from the pan. Thus, in one movement the priming powder was uncovered and a spark struck down into it. Although there are many contemporary references to the use of snaphaunces in Virginia, very few fragments of them have been found.

Other weapons represented among the fragments from Jamestown are the three basic pole-arms—the halberd, the bill, and the pike. The first of these had become little more than a badge of rank carried by sergeants while inspecting the guard or being inspected themselves. Only one example has been found. On the other hand, six bills have been recovered, coming, perhaps, from the 950 shipped into the colony after the 1622 massacre. This weapon was a simple development of the common agricultural implement, having a broad chopperlike cutting edge slightly hooked at the end, a long spike extending from behind the hook, and generally another smaller spike protruding from the back of the blade. On a short handle it was an excellent tool for slashing underbrush, but on its long military pole its principal use was against cavalry. This was also true of the pike, which was generally a stout double-edged blade on the end of a pole some fourteen to sixteen feet in length. The pikemen would kneel with their pole-arms at a forty-five-degree angle to prevent enemy horsemen from charging the musketeers while they were going through the lengthy process of reloading their weapons. However, as the Indians did not possess horses, and there was only one at Jamestown as late as 1624–25, the usefulness of pole-arms was somewhat limited. They would, of course, have been invaluable if the Indians had dashed into the field with clubs and hatchets swinging. But the redmen had more sense than to engage in such excesses, and preferred to remain discreetly in the woods.

Undoubtedly the most unusual weapon or military device surviving from seventeenth-century Virginia is known as a caltrop, a single example of which has been found at Jamestown. It amounts to a widely spread iron tripod about three inches long with another leg sticking vertically upward, so that however you throw it down, one spike always sticks up. This unpleasant little device has an extremely long history going back into Roman times and was generally used to deter the horse of advancing cavalry. There is no doubt that the most inscrutable Indian treading on a caltrop would be shocked into noisy comment. The difficulty with these things was that you needed so many of them. A thick concentration neatly arrayed outside the fort gates might have been effective, providing the colonists themselves did not plan to venture out. In the same way, discreet little clusters on woodland trails might have had nuisance value. But in the sort of guerrilla warfare favored by the Indians, it seems improbable that caltrops would have been of much use. The fact that only one has been found would seem to suggest that they were used little, if at all. As with all military equipment designed for European wars, the caltrop’s presence in Virginia must be considered in the light of possible attacks by the Spaniards as well as assaults from the Indians.

By the middle of the seventeenth century fear of both enemies had dwindled, and Jamestown was settling down to a reasonably comfortable and predictable existence. In a letter to the authorities in London, Governor Sir John Harvey wrote proudly of the blossoming of Jamestown in 1639: … there are twelve houses and stores built in the Towne, one of brick by the Secretayre, the fairest that ever was knowen in this countrye for substance and uniformitye, by whose example others have undertaken to build framed houses to beautifye the place, consonant to his majesties Instruction that wee should not suffer men to build slight cottages as heretofore … A Levye likewyse by his majesties commands is raised for the building of a State howse at James Cittie, and shall with all diligence be performed.

In the early days of the colony the council had met either in the church or in the house of the governor. The building of a specific structure for these deliberations was an important step forward in the history of American government. The property acquired for this purpose was the former home of Governor Harvey, which the colony purchased in 1641. A deed of 1671 described the structure as then comprising three houses, at least one of them built of brick and measuring forty feet by twenty feet. The same document adds that the center unit of the three attached “tenements” had been the old State House.