Finding The Real Jamestown

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The assault turned out to be a wake-up call and Wingfield ordered that the settlement be immediately enclosed with palisades, logs set side by side vertically in the ground. Building the fort was no easy task for such a small number of men, certainly not the work of lazy men ill-used to physical labor. Using only hand tools, they cut trees into logs probably weighing 800 pounds apiece and dug at least 900 feet of trenches to seat them. Almost daily the workmen had to dodge Indian arrows shot from the surrounding woods and marsh grasses. One worker, Eustace Clovill, paid a dear price for “straggling without the fort.” The snipers shot six arrows into him, causing his death in less than a week. 

Recently in our excavations in the north corner of the fort, we came across an artifact-rich area, perhaps a well or cellar, containing broad swords, tasset lames (armor protecting the thigh), a breast plate, and other armor. This cache may well indicate that the colonists soon realized that the heavy metal protection of their home country proved too hot and ill-effective against Indian arrows. We have also found evidence that the colonists began developing lighter, more flexible jacks of plate, with overlapping plates of armor, much better protection against arrows, and quite similar to the “Dragon Skin” developed by the military today.

In the days that followed, colony leader George Percy chronicled the deaths of twenty-five colonists, including councilor Bartholomew Gosnold: “Our men were destroyed with cruel diseases as swellings, fluxs, burning fevers, and by wars, and some departed suddenly, but for the most part they died of mere famine.” We found a cluster of 22 graves inside the fort, probably these very same men. 

Outside the west wall, we found a single grave, contemporaneous with the building of the fort. Atop the coffin lay a spearlike Captain’s leading staff, signifying a ceremonial burial. I believe this is the resting spot of 36-year-old Gosnold, the founding energy behind the colony and designer of the fort. 

Later, Captain John Smith claimed that sixty-seven were dead by September. When the popular Smith took over as the colony’s leader in September—President Wingfield having been impeached for allegedly hoarding food—he oversaw the building of some thatched houses. In the fall of 1607, a number of emissaries from James River Indian tribes expressed intentions of peace, and every four or five days Pocahontas (the great chief Powhatan’s daughter, who had befriended Smith) and her attendants brought the men provisions. Despite these friendly actions, concern for security probably caused the new houses to be built inside the fort.

In January 1608, after two supply ships and 100 fresh men arrived from England, fire seriously damaged or destroyed the fort. On top of that disaster, the winter of 1608 was one of “extreme frost.” That winter saw a rash of deaths in which, Smith reports, “more than half of us died.” Despite these hardships, Smith reports a “rebuilding [of] James Towne,” which included repairing the partially burned palisades, completely rebuilding the church, and reroofing the storehouse. By summer Smith carried on with his voyages of discovery on Virginia’s waterways away from Jamestown, with the presumption that the fort had been brought back in order.

Yet whenever Smith returned to Jamestown from his Company-ordered explorations, once in July and again in September 1608, he wrote that he found the town in decay and the people “all sick, the rest some lame, some bruised—all unable to do anything but complain…many dead, the harvest rotting and nothing done.” Smith restored discipline in the disorganized and disheartened militia: “the whole company every Saturday exercised in the plain by the west bulwark prepared for that purpose…where sometimes more than an hundred savages would stand in amazement to behold how a file would batter a tree.”

Likely among the audience watching the troops perform were the first two immigrant women, Mistress Forest and her maid Anne Burras, who would soon marry John Laydon, one of the few hearty survivors of the original 105 settlers. Eight Germans had arrived with the supply ships, brought to make pitch, tar, glass, mills, and soap ashes, and when the ships sailed back to England in late 1608, they carried a cargo of clapboard, pitch and even glass made in Jamestown.

In 1608-9 the “five-square, James towne” seemed to prosper under Captain John Smith’s strict leadership. That spring, he instituted a “must work or no food” policy to ensure there would be a harvest. The men “made a well in the fort of excellent sweet water which was wanting, built twenty houses, recovered the church… and built a blockhouse in the neck of our isle.” The settlers caught giant sturgeon fish and harvested various wild roots and fruits. According to Smith, “[w]e lived very well.” 

But not for long. The same summer, seven of a nine-ship supply flotilla made it in from England intending to revitalize the colony. Those ships apparently also brought individuals who set out to murder Smith and “to supplant us rather than supply us.” Over two hundred men took the new supplies away from Jamestown, going to live elsewhere. When Smith sailed to the Falls settlement in search of supplies in the late autumn, he returned with a life-threatening wound to his thigh caused when, as he put it, someone “accidentally” fired his powder bag. He soon decided to return to England, “seeing there was neither chirurgian nor chirurgery in the fort to cure his hurt.” George Percy was named president.