Finding The Real Jamestown

PrintPrintEmailEmailForget much of what you know about the Jamestown colony. For the past 200 years, many archaeologists and historians believed that the James River had largely eroded any traces of the original settlement over the intervening four centuries. Our excavations, ongoing since 1994, have proved otherwise: we have uncovered more than 250 feet of two palisade wall lines, the east bulwark line, three cellars, a building—all part of the original triangular fort. In addition, we have unearthed more than a million artifacts, most dating to the first years of the English settlement in 1607-1610. The soil has yielded a new understanding of the early years of Jamestown: a fresh picture not only of its settlers, their abilities, lives, and accomplishments, but of the interdependence between the English settlers and the Virginia Indians. 

No one disputes the simple facts: on May 14, 1607, after a difficult voyage of more than five months, a band of adventurers lured by the promise of a better life landed on the banks of the James River and established the first enduring English settlement in the New World. By the time the Pilgrims reached Plymouth in 1620, much of the James River basin from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to within twenty miles of the site of modern Richmond had been settled by the English under the sponsorship of the Virginia Company. A group of men elected from the scattered settlements of Virginia met on Jamestown Island, the first expression of English representative government in North America. 

But this dramatic and important story until recently has had few reliable details. The written records pertaining to Jamestown are scarce, ambiguous, and sometimes conflicting: maps of questionable accuracy; a few letters and official reports; published records written by interested parties (most famous among them John Smith, whose writings included the dubious tale of his own dramatic rescue by the Indian maiden Pocahontas.)  From the accounts, we can tell the colony’s early history was troubled, beginning with an alleged mutiny during the crossing from England (blamed on John Smith) and continuing through many struggles for power and incidents of civil unrest. The colony faced other trials and hardships as well, including a major battle with the local Indians within weeks of arrival, an unfamiliar semitropical climate, lack of fresh water, meager and spoiled food, drought, and accidents. 

The documentary evidence of the precariousness of life in early Jamestown and of the gap between the founders’ intentions and the colony’s achievements has led to a story of Jamestown over the generations that emphasized its shortcomings. Historian Edmund S. Morgan summarized conventional wisdom when he wrote in 1975 that “The adventurers who ventured capital lost it. Most of the settlers who ventured their lives lost them. And so did most of the Indians who came near them. Measured by any of the objectives announced for it, the colony failed.” This story, which continues to be told, has been held responsible for the diminished importance of Jamestown itself in American popular consciousness.

In this interpretation, the colony failed because of poor planning by the sponsoring Virginia Company, the incompetence or laziness of the colonists—qualities supposedly explained by the upper-class origin of half of the original settlers—and mistaken cultural assumptions about the Indians.  

To call Jamestown a complete failure, let alone a disaster, is to oversimplify. Even the scanty documents, with their record of the colony’s important firsts, its periods of thriving, and the energy and intelligence unceasingly invested in it, hint at a more complex story.

Jamestown first caught my attention four decades ago when I came across an aerial photo of Jamestown Island in a magazine as an undergraduate student in Ohio. The mesmerizing color image showed a network of open archaeological trenches laying bare the foundations of the buried town. This gridwork was part of an effort by the National Park Service to uncover the remains of Jamestown for a 1957 exhibition celebrating the 350th anniversary of its founding. Looking at the strict order of archaeological trenches crisscrossing the expanse of hallowed ground, I imagined digging one day with my own hands in Jamestown soil. 

After I arrived at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, as a graduate student in early American history, I sought out the ruins at nearby Jamestown. I was especially curious about the 1607 fort that must surely have been uncovered in the extensive excavations of the 1950s. James Fort first defined the limits of colonial Jamestown. At the excavation site, owned by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), I saw the moss-covered brick church reconstructed in the 1930s, statues of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, and a curious windowed exhibit in the side of the nearby earthen Civil War fort. The glass protected some exposed layers of dirt in the bank of the fort, revealing the actual soil layers that made up the bank: the Civil War zone, complete with lead bullets; beneath it the dark band of colonial trash; and the deepest deposit, a lighter soil containing arrow points and prehistoric Indian pottery. 

When I asked a park ranger about the old fort site, he pointed to a lone cypress tree growing way off shore and said, “Unfortunately, you’re too late. It’s out there—and lost for good.” My disappointment was mixed with confusion. 

“But what about here?” I asked, looking again at the layer of dirt under glass labeled “colonial.”

He replied with a shrug of his shoulders that I took as a “could be.”