Finding The Real Jamestown

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The 1609-10 winter that followed became known as the “starving time.” A flotilla of supply ships under the newly appointed lieutenant governor Sir Thomas Gates failed to arrive, most shipwrecked in Bermuda. The colonists’ livestock was quickly eaten, including the horses; and some of their weapons were traded away for Indian corn. We discovered a pair of stirrups, probably discarded once the horses were eaten. 

During that brutal winter, Indians besieged the fort. The siege proved so effective that “it is true that the Indians killed as fast without, if our men stirred but beyond their bounds of their blockhouse, as famine and pestilence did within.” The Indians withheld even their occasional food deliveries. One explanation for the trouble may be the arrival in Jamestown of twenty women and children on the Blessing in the fall of 1609; perhaps the siege was the result of these newcomers’ presence. It certainly must have sent a strong signal that what might have been perceived as a small, perhaps temporary all-male trading post was growing into something quite different: a permanent settlement of families. Extermination of the invaders may have appeared to be the only course of action. Only sixty of the 215 left at Jamestown survived.

By spring, the Deliverance and the Patience, replacements for the governor’s wrecked flagship, the Sea Venture, arrived from Bermuda to find “the palisades torn down, the ports open, the gates from off the[i]r hinges...and empty houses [some] rent up and burnt [for firewood].…[T]he Indians killed . . . our men [if they] stirred beyond the bounds of their blockhouse.” The supplies brought in from Bermuda soon disappeared, and the expectation of resupply from the Indians proved to be wishful thinking. The situation declined so badly that Gates ordered an evacuation of the town. With thirty days’ supply, the survivors sailed downriver.

According to one account, Gates planned to “stay some ten days at Cape Comfort…to wait the arrival of a supply ship.” More official accounts say that the party was in a headlong nonstop retreat back to England. In any event, not far downriver the evacuees met an advance party from the incoming supply fleet of the new governor, Lord De La Warre. The group returned to Jamestown and prepared for the arrival of the new governor. 

The Virginia Company’s goals—to find a route to the Orient, convert the New World natives to Christianity, find gold, and export raw and manufactured goods—were at best only slightly fulfilled. The hoped-for precious minerals and short, all-water route to the riches of the Orient were never found; the native population was far from willing to embrace the Church of England; and initial manufacturing projects did not prove lucrative. 

But the introduction of Caribbean tobacco by John Rolfe in 1613 did at last establish a cash crop that helped ensure the survival of the Virginia colony, although the success of hinterland plantations depleted the Jamestown population. 

A census around 1624 showed a total of 1,232 colonists living in Virginia (at least 120 families) in twenty-nine settlements scattered along the James River from Hampton Roads to the Falls near present-day Richmond. Of these, a total of 121 men, women, and children lived at Jamestown. Most of these 1,232 were the lucky survivors of a massive surprise attack by the Powhatan Indians that had killed 347 colonists two years earlier. Jamestown itself had been spared by an early warning, but the massacre was the final death blow to the Virginia Company. The Company was dissolved and the colony taken over directly by the Crown. 

Although it cannot be disputed that the Virginia Company failed in Virginia politically as well as financially, the 1,232 colonists of 1624 did not call it quits. They did not go home, nor were they “lost” like their English predecessors of the ill-fated Fort Raleigh Colony. For these survivors,Virginia lived on. Strangely, in defeat the Virginia Company had suceeded. Jamestown endured.  

An archaeologist must often practice more than one kind of patience. One September day in 1994 my digging was interrupted by a pair of British tourists. 

“Have you found anything?”

He spoke so earnestly that I felt compelled to give a serious answer. “Absolutely. See this black stain in the clay? Well, that’s what’s left of a 1607 fort wall…maybe from James Fort.”

After a moment, the man’s companion said, “You mean that’s it? America, the last of the world’s superpowers, began as…just dirt?” I thought about it for a moment. 

“Yes, I guess it was just dirt.”

“Shouldn’t there have been a ruined castle or some marble columns or…something real?” she contined.

“No, I just dirt and plenty of hope,” I answered. 

“Oh, brilliant!” they said in unison. “Brilliant indeed.”

The archaeologist exploring the beginnings of the United States discovers no medieval castles, classical templates, or Egyptian pyramids. “Just dirt” held out hopes for the landless immigrant, offering a way to break into an otherwise closed society based on the inheritance of family estates.

“Just dirt” holds out hope to the archaeologist as well. Marks in the soil of Jamestown Island are the traces of a native people and English immigrants, evidence that has survived the ground-disturbing activities of succeeding generations and the eroding efforts of the adjacent river. So we dig, in the faith that these traces bear America’s richest heritage.