Finding The Real Jamestown
The archaeologist who discovered the real Jamestown debunks myths and answers long-puzzling mysteries about North America's first successful English colony
Winter 2008 | Volume 58, Issue 3
James Fort was never far from my thoughts in the ensuing years as I became an archaeologist specializing in the British Colonial America period. Most of my work focused on rescuing historically rich farm sites along the banks of the James River, which were being rediscovered by real estate developers and resettled by retirees. The more I dug, the more I became convinced that the “colonial level” under that glass exhibit at the Civil War fort might indicate the presence of the 1607 James Fort.
When the APVA decided to investigate its property on Jamestown Island archaeologically in preparation for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007, I enthusiastically volunteered for the job. There was not much of a line. Most archaeologists discounted any chance of finding something significant, certainly not the fort, which the National Park Service had concluded in the 1950s had “been washed into the James River.”
Before digging, we had to narrow the boundaries of the site. At 22.5 acres, the APVA property on Jamestown Island is no small shroud, amounting to 9,900 ten-foot squares if broken up into grids. Clearly we needed to make an educated guess as to where the fort might lie.
We did know the location of the seventeenth-century Jamestown church. A part of the tower still existed, the sole above-ground remnant of the original town. If the fort site was submerged off shore to the west, then the church, located according to contemporary sources as in “the midst” of the fort, would also have been gone. In that case, the present foundations and tower would be evidence of a relocation in the seventeenth-century campaign, which seemed unlikely because churches and the human burials around them are rarely ever moved.
So thirty years to the day after I had first set foot on Jamestown Island, I found myself putting shovel to ground one hundred feet from the glassed-in cross-section that had been the original object of my curiosity. Few words exist that describe the elation of turning up fragments of early seventeenth-century ceramics, which happened almost immediately. That initial season we uncovered the dark soil trace of a wall line, the first sign of James Fort. Thirteen years of work since have turned up more evidence than anyone had expectedmost important, the site of James Fort itself, so long thought unrecoverable.
In May of 1607, Virginia looked like an Eden to the English “gentlemen, artisans and laborers” seeking a place to settle in the name of King James I. Little wonder that these pioneers saw a paradise: they had left the gray, chilly English winter and spent most of the next four and one-half months crossing the Atlantic, cramped aboard three ships that were mere lifeboats by today’s standards. The gentle, seductive breezes and lush first growth of Spring gave no hint of the coming deadly heat of the summer. The wildest dreams of a Utopian New World seemed to be reality: the ideal place to plant a permanent colony of English people, to find gold and a route to the rich Orient, to convert the natives to Christianity, and a place to reap profit for their investors, the Virginia Company of London.
On May 13, the group decided to settle a point of land that was actually an island at very high tide. Although it was a mere thirty-five miles from the open ocean, from which the Spanish could launch an attack, the island still qualified as a naturally defensible place, with a narrow neck of land to guard against assault from the mainland Indians and its naturally hidden location in a sharp bend in the river. The Virginia Company had instructed them not to upset the Virginia Indians, especially by settling on land they already occupied. Jamestown Island was vacant, although they had occupied it in the not-too-distant past. By 1607 their cleared land must have evolved into a fair-sized grove of straight, tall, second-growth hardwood trees, ideal for building timber palisades and blockhouses. These advantages apparently far outweighed the acres of low-lying marshland the colonists were warned to avoid and the lack of fresh water on the island. John Smith deemed Jamestown Island “a very fit place for the erecting of a great cittie.”
So on May 14, 1607, after a voyage of more than five months, the colonists who had survived—104 of them, all men—filed ashore. The men fell immediately to work, clearing the land, building shelters, preparing gardens, fishing, and fortifying themselves despite Company instructions not to upset the Indians by doing so. Like Smith, Percy tells of throwing up a brush fort and establishing a military guard “to watch and ward.”
At first two Paspahegh Indian messengers arrived at the emerging settlement with news that their werowance, or chief, would be coming with a gift deer. Four days later, Percy reports, the werowance “came…to our quarter” as advertised, but instead of the deer he brought along “one hundred salvages armed,” a message that the English soldiers were essentially outnumbered and surrounded. The leader also “made signs that he would give us as much land as we would desire,” meaning the 1,600-acre Jamestown Island. But the deal seemed to go sour when one of the Indians grabbed a soldier’s hatchet, prompting a scuffle in which a native was struck on the arm. The chief and his warriors left angry.
On May 27, some 200 warriors launched “a very furious assault to our fort…They came up allmost into the fort, shott through the tentes.” The battle “endured hott about an hower,” hurting “11 men (whereof one dyed) and killed a Boy. …We killed divers of them…how many hurt we know not.” Four of the councilors were wounded including Bartholomew Gosnold. Cannon shots from the ship finally “caused the Indians to retire.”