Digging Up Jamestown

PrintPrintEmailEmail

This first State House complex served as the residence of three royal governors, the most famous of whom was Sir William Berkeley. The State House was the political and judicial center of the colony, a meeting place for the Assembly, a place where taxes were levied, complaints heard, punishment administered, and where, one dramatic day in 1652, the colony surrendered to the enemies of the King. Parliamentary commissioners sent over by Oliver Cromwell received there the reluctant allegiance of the royalist Governor Berkeley and through him that of the whole colony.

By 1656, four years before Charles II was restored to the long-vacant throne of his father, the first State House of Virginia had ceased to serve that purpose, though it remained as a residence. We know from documentary sources that by 1696 only one of the three joining buildings was still standing, the rest being in a state of ruin. The nature of the disaster that befell the building will probably never be known—unless its site still remains to be excavated.

The general consensus today is that the site has already been found, and that it lies toward the east end of what was known as “New Towne.” Visitors to Jamestown can see part of the open brick-lined cellars of a substantial building complex comprising three basement sections, each entered by means of its own bulkhead steps leading down into it from the outside, suggesting that the whole consisted of three individual units. This complex was discovered as long ago as 1901 by Colonel Edward Barney, who then owned a large part of the island. He and his wife dug down through the debris-filled east basement and found a brick fireplace in which, resting on the ashes of a fire, was a three-legged cooking pot still containing bones that had been stewing there when the building was destroyed. Along with a large quantity of not-too-impressive domestic debris, Colonel Barney also found a fine pewter basin more than a foot in diameter.

The Colonel did not go on to explore the whole building complex, and the site was virtually forgotten until 1932, when a Richmond antiquary, George C. Gregory, was looking for the site of the first State House and came upon these foundations. He duly uncovered the outline of the triple structure and concluded that this was the State House. Two years later the site, along with all that part of the town not owned by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, was acquired by the National Park Service.

Almost immediately work began on the total clearance of the foundations laid bare by Gregory. Large quantities of artifacts were recovered, including fragments of wine bottles, clay tobacco pipes, and ceramics. In the latter category was a large proportion of a massive Rhenish stoneware bottle known as a “Bellarmine,” bearing on its sides molded medallions carrying the date 1661. The bottle had been badly burnt and one might be tempted to argue that it was in the building when it was destroyed. However, the fact that the whole of the base and part of the neck are missing might be explained by careless excavating or, more probably, by the vessel’s being broken elsewhere and thrown into the already ruined building. In any case, the bottle’s presence there shows that it could not have found its way into the cellar before 1661, five years after the structure had ceased to serve as the State House. The large quantity of other relics, particularly the pipes and bottles, suggests that even in the early eighteenth century the cellars were still open to receive refuse.

There is little doubt that the building complex found first by Colonel Barney and later by Mr. Gregory fits most of the requirements for the first State House as culled from the scrappy documentary information. The measurements are right, so are the three divisions, and so is the style of building. On the other hand, no evidence was found to suggest that any of it dated prior to 1640—which it should have done if part of it had been the home of Governor Harvey before it became the State House. But such negative evidence must always be treated with extreme caution. Less easy to overlook is the fact that the two houses shown on original surveys to be in certain locations in relationship to the State House could not be found when their supposed positions were plotted in relation to the triple foundation. Attempts were made to find them: by a National Park Service archaeologist, H. Summerfield Day, in 1935, and by Dr. John L. Cotter in 1956. Both drew a blank. But as Cotter has pointed out in his report on the site, had these missing buildings been of light construction, it is possible that all traces of them might have been obliterated by subsequent plowing.

 

Even if this structure was not the first State House, there is no doubt that it existed in the second half of the seventeenth century and that it possessed most of the construction details that one would expect of such a building, or, for that matter, of any well-built residence or commercial building of that period. The walls were made of red brick laid in English bond and anchored with mortar using lime from burnt oyster shells. The floors of two of the cellar units were of ordinary red brick, but the one at the east end had originally been laid with small yellow Dutch bricks set on edge, only a few of which remained in position at the time of the excavations carried out in 1934.