Digging Up Jamestown


The use of small bricks about an inch in thickness and laid on edge goes back into Roman times. They were used for floors that were going to take a good deal of heavy wear, and were set in herring-bone patterns. The Dutch made great use of such brickettes in the seventeenth century; rather surprisingly, there is no doubt that they were shipped to America and not made here in the Dutch style. Examples have been found on sites as far apart as Van Cortlandt Manor on the Hudson and in the Dutch colony of Surinam. I say that it is surprising that they should be exported only because bricks were not shipped to America nearly as frequently as is popularly believed.

Scores of old houses up and down the country are claimed by their owners to be made from English brick. However, while the measurements of these bricks may conform to English statutes regulating sizes, most of them were made in the colonies. This is particularly true of Tidewater Virginia, where much of the clay is excellently suited for brick-making. The basis for the belief is that bricks were used as ballast, and there is no doubt this was done from time to time. However, quite apart from the fact that few ships could have carried enough to be really useful, bricks made somewhat treacherous ballast. Unlike the Dutch brickettes, English bricks were not very tightly grained and so tended to be porous. If a vessel shipped water, much of it would disappear into the bricks and so dangerously increase the weight of the ballast. An example of this was provided on the James River some years ago when a barge towing bricks down river from Richmond sank from the increased weight of its water-logged cargo.

Brick houses were naturally much less prone to fires than were those of wood, and it was with that in mind that the Assembly passed the Town Act of 1662. This stated that the town should consist “of thirty-two houses, each house to be built with brick, forty foot long, twenty foot wide, within the walls, to be eighteen foote high above the ground, the walls to be two brick thick to the water table, and a brick and a hälfe thick above the water table to the roofe, the roofe to be fifteen foot pitch and to be covered with slate or tile.” In a later passage the Act admits that “it might seem hard to demolish any wooden houses already built in the towne, yett it is hereby provided and enacted that noe wooden houses shall hereafter be built within the limitts of the towne, nor those now standing be hereafter repaired, but brick ones be erected in theire steads.”

With the Indian menace long since gone, Jamestown had remained the administrative center and a port for all merchandise reaching and leaving the colony, but it had not blossomed as the thriving residential community that the Assembly naively envisaged. Embraced to the north and east by swamp and on the south and west by the muddy waters of the James River, the town was both damp and unhealthy. Nothing but a mosquito could really want to call it home. Consequently most of the colonists had moved away and went to Jamestown only to conduct their business. Some indication of this is provided by a wellknown description of 1676 which tells us that the town then consisted of some “16 or 18 houses, most as is the church built of brick, faire and large; and in them about a dozen families (for all the howses are not inhabited) getting their liveings by keeping ordinaries, at extreordinary rates.” The tourist industry would seem already to have emerged in Virginia.

Regardless of whether the houses of Jamestown were of brick or wood, they were not immune to fire—at least not when they were deliberately put to the torch. In 1676, the planter Nathaniel Bacon led an insurrection against the governorship of Sir William Berkeley, and having forced the Governor to flee he proceeded to set fire to Jamestown. It is noteworthy that the wealthy plantation owner William Drummond was one of Bacon’s supporters and that he deliberately fired his own house. But Drummond was not roofless as a result of this dramatic act, for he possessed another large house on the mainland—on land that he rented from the Governor. Such persons having two houses would help to account for the previously quoted statement that some of the houses of Jamestown were not occupied. One cannot help thinking that Drummond must have been very sure that he was on the winning side when he burnt the Jamestown house and left himself and his family with only the property rented from the same governor that he had just chased out of town. Unhappily, he was in error. Bacon took sick and died, and the rebellion promptly fell apart. Drummond was caught, and hanged within half an hour of being brought before the irate Berkeley. The latter duly evicted Drummond’s widow and family—which, though unkind, was hardly surprising.


A contemporary account of the uprising stated that “The towne consisted of 12 new brick Houses besides a considerable number of Frame houses with brick chimneys, all which will not be rebuilt (as is computed) for Fifteen hundred pounds of Tobacco.” Here, then, we have evidence that regardless of the Town Act of 1662, all Jamestown’s houses were not of brick. The same authority listed both church and State House as being among the buildings destroyed. The latter was the third—the second having been a rented property used but a short time—and had been built about 1666.